Before our small, homebound, slightly depressing Thanksgiving break began, I devoured Helen Rosner’s latest essay in The New Yorker, “The Joylessness of Cooking”. Rosner writes of her quarantine cooking journey; how it began as enthusiasm and resourcefulness but then waned and morphed into obligation and exhaustion. I read this wonderful piece chuckling a little though, as my pandemic cooking experience has been the polar opposite of Rosner’s. I’m in northern New Jersey, which means we shut down in early March. Online grocery shopping delivery slots filled up faster than your cat running down the hall when you use a can opener, and navigating the actual grocery store proved harrowing. We vowed to only do so once a week, which severely curtailed our usual produce-intensive eating habits. All through the spring, we mostly subsisted on kale salads, local takeout, Manhattans, and nachos. My Basic Bitch Spaghetti – one pound ground sirloin, one jar of marinara, one pound dried spaghetti, one resigned shrug, pre-grated parmesan to finish – was put through its paces.
After enduring an unseasonably cold and miserable spring, we pinned our hopes on summer, where open air farmer’s markets, a slightly opened up society, and our beloved backyard grill were supposed to save us. What sad, dumb shits we were! 2020 has to be, or at least closely rival, the hottest summer on record, at least in the northeastern United States. Our temperature highs topped 90F starting in early June – unprecedented – and didn’t let up until late August. My century-old house lacks central air conditioning – a shortcoming this pandemic prevented us from remedying as we weren’t allowed non-emergency home renovations during the spring – and the decade-old window units simply couldn’t keep up. The house became an oven, and the actual oven became unusable. We couldn’t sleep. My toothpaste melted. I baked almost nothing for three months. We got precious few grilled meals in our bellies before it became too hot, and the mosquitos too relentless, for backyard grilling to stay much of an option. We consumed little other than salads, some ceviche, local takeout, and rosé over ice. Words like “grouchy” and “cranky” don’t begin to do justice to the overall mood. No homicides were committed, and that’s just going to have to be good enough.
It’s only in the past couple of months I’ve regained my cooking mojo, or really any desire to cook anything at all. I know I’m on the opposite trajectory than most. For me though, the onset of a pandemic plus a summer marked by brutal climate change robbed me of my usual routine, and I welcome it back.
Indeed, wiling away the hours in my kitchen is about the only thing I look forward to in what will inevitably be a lonely holiday season followed by a dark and isolated winter. I don’t believe in looking for the good in things or finding joy amidst a shitty situation. Positivity culture is a scam, a toxic precept meant to gaslight us away from looking at how the powerful benefit from our labor and hardships and inequality. (I should dedicate a whole piece to that, probably.) But I must admit I’m actually a tad bit, dare I say it, happy to have recovered my long-dormant desire to be in the kitchen. I can almost coax a smile at the thought of spending an otherwise awful winter kneading bread dough and shredding kale and cabbage and rolling fresh pasta sheets and filling the house with aromas of braised meats.
Since it’s now December, I’m officially allowed to dive headfirst into my yearly seasonal gingerbread habit. I’m a firm believer in the goodness of “gingerbreading” up any baked good: scones, cupcakes, cookies, morning buns, pancakes, doughnuts, they’re all fair game. But this year, perhaps in a grasp at ever-elusive normalcy, I wanted nothing more than a traditional gingerbread cake with nothing extra or frilly or fancy. I turned to the award-winning and oft-praised Jubilee by Toni Tipton-Martin, a newer cookbook on my shelf that is nonetheless becoming a fast favorite. We made her Curry Meat Pies and Planter’s Punch on Juneteenth and eschewed traditional Thanksgiving fare this year with her Baked Macaroni and Cheese – a satisfying, delicious dish that reminded me of my great-grandmother’s version.
Tipton-Martin’s gingerbread was everything I wanted this terrible year: rich, spicy, unapologetic, cakey but not too much, and punctuated with a bright lemon sauce liberally drizzled on top. I hope you love it too.
Gingerbread with Lemon Sauce
- 2 ½ cups all-purpose flour
- 2 tsp baking powder
- 1 tsp baking soda
- ½ tsp kosher salt
- 2 tsp ground ginger
- 1 tsp ground cinnamon
- ½ tsp ground cloves
- 1 cup molasses
- 1 cup very hot coffee
- 8 tbs 1 stick unsalted butter, melted
- ½ cup packed brown sugar
- 2 large eggs
- ½ cup granulated sugar
- 1 tbs cornstarch
- 1 cup very hot water
- 3 tbs unsalted butter, softened to room temperature and cut into pieces
- Grated zest and juice of 1 lemon
- ½ tsp vanilla extract
- Pinch of kosher salt
- Preheat your oven to 350 F. Grease a 9x13” baking pan. Set aside.
- In a medium mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, kosher salt, ginger, cinnamon, and cloves.
- In a bowl or measuring cup, stir together the molasses and coffee.
- In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the melted butter, brown sugar, and eggs on medium speed until light. Beat in the flour mixture in three additions, alternating with the molasses and coffee mixture, beginning and ending with the flour mixture. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and beat 30 seconds longer.
- Pour the batter into the pan and bake for 30 to 35 minutes, until a cake tester inserted into the center comes out clean and the cake is springy when you tap its center. Cool the gingerbread completely in the pan on a wire rack.
- In a small saucepan, whisk together the sugar and cornstarch until well blended. Gradually whisk in the hot water. Bring to a boil over medium heat, then reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer until the sauce is thick and resembles a syrup. This will take about 5 minutes. Shut off the heat, then quickly add the butter, lemon zest and juice, vanilla extract, and salt. Stir until the butter has melted. Cool to room temperature before using.
- To serve, cut the gingerbread into squares. Drizzle liberally with the lemon sauce. I drizzled the entire cake with lemon sauce to make the photographs better, but I would definitely recommend saucing each square of cake as you serve it. The cake gets soggy otherwise.