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Gingerbread, Pleasingly
Plain or Dressed Up

By Kay Rentschler

Gingerbread isn't the prettiest sister home for the holidays. She is plain and pensive, preferring family and close friends to fancy parties.

But throw a shimmering sash around her, a well-chosen jewel or two, and everyone runs to her side. Gingerbread is out on the dance floor while her sisters are still getting dressed.

The best gingerbread has a glazed umber surface, a deep velvet crumb and a synergy of warm spices that rush into a wall of molasses before you can nab them. There they smolder seductively until the trail ends and you have to take another bite.

A good gingerbread recipe is equal parts boldness and reserve. No one wants gingerbread to be light on its feet (a buoyant open crumb is all wrong and suggests overzealous leavening), but it shouldn't be ponderous. The surface sheen and guardedly bitter sweetness can be traced to molasses.

Moisture in the batter is important; the spices create a suggestion of dryness. The molasses, butter and brown sugar counteract this, aided by a couple of eggs.

Balance is central, too: skirmishes among seasonings that result in an alpha hit of powdered clove, say, or a bitter jolt of molasses, can downgrade gingerbread's come-back-for-more appeal.

Ginger, of course, is the lead spice, dogged by cinnamon, and then things get interesting: a wisp of clove for depth, a sneeze of cayenne for heat and a sprinkle of anise for magic are my personal favorites.

Gingerbread's long-felt flavor is sustained in part by a texture of unbroken calm; minced fruits and nuts and hairy bits of fresh ginger interrupt the batter's flow and are simply a distraction.

The urge and it is great to eat gingerbread screaming hot should be resisted: the knife bruises the crumb, and the taste of raw flour is inclined to sneak through the spice.

Wait 45 minutes. Gingerbread's texture is sublime the first day, but suffers a bit of drying the second (when, oddly, its flavor improves). On the third day a broiler comes in handy, and some butter.

The makeover of gingerbread from stay-at-home to "it" girl took little effort. A round pan, for starters, helped: it's hard to beautify a sliced shingle no matter what you do. Frosting, I felt, would be insulting: gingerbread is not frivolous. But flowing sauce, yes, definitely.

Needing to be foiled, gingerbread loves whipped cream. But it also takes to tart winter fruits like a shortcake to strawberries.

Poached or broiled pineapple sings alongside gingerbread, as do a few spoonfuls of pomelo curd, garnished with candied pomelo peel. Pan-seared, sugar-dipped tart apple wedges are lovely as well. The gingerbread softens under the cream and enjoys the fruit's sharpness.

Start to finish, two hours, and the kitchen smells like a Christmas carol.

Recipe: Spicy Gingerbread
Recipe: Sugar-Dipped Pan-Seared Apples With Apple Butter
Recipe: Poached Pineapple, Cranberries and Pecans

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