Something dark is needed, and I feel it can’t be chocolate. Something dense, oblong and with ginger nubbins. Some sort of nub is required. I have spent the whole week researching chocolate pecan torte. I still know nothing about tortes. And I realize this is not the time for light and airy cakes with a dusting of something smokily ethereal. If ever there was a time for density it is now. And the heart wants what it wants, as Woody Allen once said (as well as “I’ll have the alfalfa sprouts and a plate of mashed yeast” – LA restaurant, Annie Hall).
I don’t know why this has to be toasted, but it does. I first tried it about two years ago in a cafe in Sussex. I asked if I could get the recipe and the cook refused. He didn’t refuse to my face, which was in some ways more embarrassing because he was about a yard away from me in his open kitchen, and the rejection was delivered via a waitress. I don’t know whether I was being a bit pushy, presumptuous in asking. I thought it was the best ginger cake ever, and was sending my compliments along with the question. I didn’t want a print-out or anything. Just the basics. Anyway, two years on and many ginger cake recipes later, and by George I think I’ve got it.
I always think of this time of year as a period in which chocolate is passed over in favour of nuts and spices. We are entering the season of thin, biscuity pastry, lemony innards, honeyed syrup, stewed fruit, toasted nuts. The Elizabethan sweetmeat reigns. I am gearing up for mince pies. I feel I’ve thrown everything into this cake. Because it’s such a straightforward recipe, I felt it could be fattened up a bit. I wanted peel so I threw in some of my thick-cut marmalade. I had maple syrup so in it went. I also tried maple sugar, because I like its darker ‘dried toffee’ taste. But most importantly, I candied some ginger. This took a while, but the results were far more interesting than the stuff you buy. The syrup alone is worth the effort; peppery and pungent and a deep thick amber. It keeps for months.
To return to the source of the wound for a moment, the cake whose recipe I coveted was a ginger parkin, a staple from the northeast of England. ‘Fresh’ parkin is frowned upon; a slightly aged parkin is the acceptable form, so try to withstand the temptation to eat it straight away. It improves if you leave it at least a couple of days. On its own, unadorned, the cake is lovely with a cup of tea. The toffee sauce takes it to an almost obscene level of indulgence; we are now in pudding territory. Eat it on Boxing day watching a crap film.
Toasted Ginger Cake
Adapted from Andrew Pern, Black Pudding and Foie Gras
100g self-raising flour (or use plain flour and add 1 tsp of baking powder)
75g oatmeal (or porridge oats whizzed in a blender)
A pinch of sea salt
½ tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 heaped tsp ground ginger
1 tsp cinnamon
½ tsp freshly ground nutmeg
2 tbs shred from marmalade (optional)
2 heaped tbs preserved/candied ginger, finely diced
175g golden syrup* (utilize some of the ginger syrup if you have it)
50g black treacle*
100g soft brown sugar
1 egg, beaten
2 heaped tbs milk
For the toffee sauce
115g unsalted butter
115g light brown sugar
140ml double/heavy cream
Preheat the oven to 140C/285F/gas mark 1. Sieve the flour, bicarb, salt, ginger, nutmeg and cinnamon into a bowl, then stir in the oatmeal and the candied ginger and peel (if using). Gently melt down the syrup, treacle, butter and sugar, keeping it just below a simmer – do not let it boil. Stir in the dry mix until amalgamated, then add the egg and milk, so it’s a soft, semi-pouring consistency. Pour into a greased, 20cm square cake tin and bake for an hour and a half, or until firm in the centre. Leave to stand for half an hour, then turn out. The parkin’s now ready to be served. Like good wine, it improves with age; store in an airtight container. For the best flavour, keep for three weeks.
Make the sauce by putting all the ingredients into a pan. Heat slowly until the butter has melted, then turn up the heat and bring to the boil. Boil for about 3 minutes, or until the sauce has thickened enough to coat the back of a spoon. If you want a more gutsy flavour (and you don’t want insipid toffee sauce) go until the colour has deepened slightly to a warm nut-brown. Poke some holes in the cake and slather the sauce over the top, letting it drip down the sides. Toast under the grill before serving. This recipe is based on the same principle as the Sticky Toffee Pudding.
* In the US, use corn syrup in place of golden syrup if you can’t find it, and molasses in place of black treacle. I went to India Sweets and Spices here in LA where they have a British section.
Adapted from David Lebovitz, Ready for Dessert
1 pound (500g) fresh ginger, peeled
4 cups (800g) sugar, plus additional sugar for coating the ginger slices, if desired
4 cups (1l) water
Pinch of salt
Slice the ginger as thinly as possible. It can’t be too thin, so use a sharp knife. Get the youngest ginger you can find, as it’ll be less fibrous. Put the ginger slices in a non-reactive saucepan, add enough water to cover the ginger, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and let the ginger simmer for ten minutes. Drain, and repeat, simmering the ginger slices one more time. Mix the sugar and 4 cups (1l) water in the pan, along with a generous pinch of sea salt and the ginger slices, and cook until the temperature reaches 225F (106C.) If you don’t have a candy thermometer, the consistency will be similar to runny honey. It will have reduced quite considerably, and will leave a generous coating on the back of a wooden spoon.
Remove from heat and let stand for at least an hour – overnight is ideal. Or if you want to coat the slices with sugar, drain very well while the ginger is hot and toss the slices in granulated sugar. Shake off the excess and spread the ginger slices on a cooling rack overnight, until they are tacky-dry. Alternatively, the ginger, packed in its syrup, can be stored in the refrigerator for up to one year. If tossed in sugar, the pieces can be stored at room temperature for a few months.