As soon as I saw that the October assignment for Twelve Loaves was apples, I thought of cinnamon. But then my contrary side took over. Apples and cinnamon is such a natural pairing, it’s practically expected. Why not give someone else a chance? Why not ginger? The searing spiciness of ginger against the cool sweetness of apples sounded like a worthy combination, and I was off and running with not just an answer to the Twelve Loaves assignment, but for my long postponed sauce project as well.
My mom has, on and off since I was little, made a holiday dessert of gingerbread and a warm, well-spiced, rum-spiked sauce. The gingerbread is a homely 9×9 layer, cut into unremarkable uniform squares. The sauce, almost still bubbling, gets spooned over the top, and a swirl of whipped cream inevitably slides right off the square of cake onto the plate beside it, already losing its fluff from the heat of the sauce. I love it.
But like so many desserts, Mom’s gingerbread with nutmeg sauce belongs to the winter. We only ever have it around Christmas and New Year’s. There’s something about its flavors that requires chill in the air. Contrary once again, I decided to see what could be done about that.
We call it a bread, but gingerbread is truly a dark, moist cake. It’s redolent with spices and sticky-sweet from large doses of molasses. Its crumbs cling wetly together and, though not particularly dense, it feels rich and heavy.
I poked around and shifted things a bit, landing on a slight adaptation of Laurie Colwin’s gingerbread recipe in her lovely little book Home Cooking. First of all, if I was going to pass this off as a bread, it needed to be in a loaf pan. This is suitable for dessert, of course, but it should also be acceptable as an afternoon snack. For freshness (and to meet the terms of the challenge, of course), I added the diced chunks of two apples. Two eggs and some buttermilk lighten things up. And finally, because I can’t leave well enough alone, to the already tremendous tablespoon of ground ginger I was prepared to include, I insisted on a palmful of finely chopped crystallized ginger as well.
Now, this bread on its own is a marvelous thing. The apples and the ginger are good playmates, and the spiciness of the bread elicits a harvest feel. With a cup of tea or a mug of apple cider, this bread is perfect.
But sometimes you want more than perfect. Enter Nutmeg Sauce: a silky, buttery, creamy spill dotted with grains of freshly grated nutmeg and discolored in the most wonderful way by a generous dose of dark rum. When I first nabbed this recipe from my mom, I thought this was another classic. Due to its inclusion of alcohol, I’d always thought it was a “hard sauce.” This name, however, comes not from the inebriating potential of the concoction, but the texture: a hard sauce is, well, hard. It’s a solid, buttery spread intended to be served in a cold, spoonable dollop. Nutmeg sauce, on the other hand, is served hot (it’s good cold as well, though it does get a bit clumpy). It is thickened to a pourable velvet with cornstarch, and it is the ideal addition to an already-perfect slice of gingerbread.
Here, though I was determined to serve them together, I must admit: the bread was good. The sauce was good. Together, they were friendly but not in love (still, I wouldn’t say no to yet another generously garnished slice). But I think I know how they could become so. Despite my most contrary, resistant feelings, I think replacing the nutmeg in the sauce with cinnamon, for the sake of the apples, would be the perfect pairing. Sometimes you just shouldn’t fight the classics.
Adapted from Laurie Colwin
Makes one 9×5 inch loaf
1 ½ cups flour
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon baking soda
1 tablespoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
½ cup (8 tablespoons or 1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
½ cup brown sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla
scant ½ cup molasses
½ cup buttermilk
2 sweet (rather than tart) apples, peeled, quartered, cored, and diced
2 tablespoons finely minced crystallized or candied ginger
- Preheat the oven to 325F and lightly grease a 9×5 inch loaf pan.
- In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, the salt, and the ground spices.
- In a large bowl (I used the bowl of my stand mixer), cream together the butter and sugar on medium speed until a light, fluffy mixture forms. Add the eggs, one at a time, mixing to combine after each. Add the vanilla and the molasses and mix well, scraping down the sides and bottom of the bowl to ensure complete integration.
- Add about ⅓ of the flour mixture and beat to combine, then add half the buttermilk. Repeat with another ⅓ of the flour mixture, then the other half of the buttermilk, and finally the last ⅓ of the flour mixture, mixing until the batter is homogenous each time.
- Finally, add the apples and the minced crystallized ginger and mix on low speed until just incorporated. Scrape and pour the mixture into the prepared loaf pan, and bake at 325 until a toothpick or cake tester inserted through the center emerges with only one or two damp crumbs; 70-80 minutes.
- For the sake of structural integrity, let cool in the loaf pan for at least 30 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack and cool completely. Serve with or without nutmeg sauce.
Nutmeg “hard” sauce
Makes about 1 cup
½ cup sugar
1 tablespoon cornstarch
½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg (or try it with cinnamon to marry with the apples, and tell me all about it)
¼ cup butter
2 tablespoons dark rum (or 2 teaspoons vanilla)
1 cup whole milk
- Pour the sugar, cornstarch, and nutmeg into a small pan. Set the pan over medium heat, and with a whisk, stir in the milk and the butter.
- Cook over medium, whisking slowly but consistently, until a sluggish boil is reached. Continue whisking for another 3-4 minutes, or until the sauce thickens slightly to a texture like barely melted ice cream.
- Remove from heat and add rum (or vanilla); serve hot.