Fresh Ginger Cake: Making Friends from Foes

David’s Fresh Ginger Cake with Caramel-Roasted Pears

Among all the types of dishes I collect recipes for – the latest, greatest twists on comfort-food favorites, exotic creations from far-flung places I’ll probably never even muster the courage to attempt, things that look quick and nutritious enough for weeknight dinners – one category is probably the bizarrest. I collect dozens of recipes for things I don’t even really like that much.

For example, I bookmark nearly every bread pudding recipe I come across, despite the fact that the most complimentary thing I’ve ever been able to say about one is that its texture reminded me of wet Kleenex. Ditto for rice pudding, only I think my precise words here involved something about wallpaper paste. And oh, don’t even get me started on fruitcakes – deep down I must know that putting dried fruit and cake together is the culinary equivalent of, say, double-booking a banquet hall for both the NRA and PETA, but that hasn’t stopped me from filling an entire folder on my computer with recipes for it, many of them promising to be the fruitcake even fruitcake-haters love. The thing is, I don’t even identify myself as a fruitcake-hater, or a hater of anything else for that matter; I prefer to think of myself as an aficionado-in-waiting, someone who will love it unconditionally just as soon as the right version presents itself. I mean, the millions of people who do can’t all be wrong, can they? Somewhere out there I’m convinced there’s a recipe with my name on it, and all I need to do to find it is keep trying.

It doesn’t happen very often, but every once in a while this strategy pays off. Like last week, for example, when I finally fell head-over-heels for gingerbread (or in this case, ginger cake, though the difference, as long as we’re not talking about gingerbread cookies, is strictly a matter of terminology). I have been collecting recipes for this most quintessential of cold-weather desserts since I was thirteen years old and pulled one out of my oven that was so heavy, dry and completely dominated by the acrid taste of molasses that it went straight into the trash. I made a few more over the years that fared marginally better, but I think it’s safe to say that I never once met one that I had any desire to meet again. My collection of recipes for them has kept growing, however, including a recent contender from our very own David Lebovitz that he claims is his most-requested recipe ever, and whether you think you like ginger cake or not, that’s the kind of statement that makes you sit up and pay attention.

As it turned out, it took me the better part of a year to put his claim to the test, but last week, battling one the nastiest colds I’ve had in ages, and looking for a bit of distraction from all my nose-blowing, I decided to give it a try. Funnily enough, at some point between putting the cake in the oven and pulling it out both my sense of taste and smell vanished without a trace (this often happens to me during colds, but never from one minute to the next like that!) and for two whole days all I could do was stare miserably at the cake while Manuel helped himself to piece after piece. So strong was his enthusiasm for the cake, in fact, that I had to start thinking about hiding places for the last few pieces, but luckily my airways unclogged before I had to resort to any truly drastic measures.

And what did I think of the cake, when I was finally able to taste it? Well I know it sounds clichéd, but this is the very cake fall was made for. It was a cake that propelled me (leaky sinuses and all) out of the house on a late October afternoon, hands buried deep in my pockets and scarf wrapped tight against the arctic northern wind, the frigid air condensing my every wheeze and cough into wispy little breath-clouds, the weak sun doing nothing to stop my nose and earlobes and toes from turning into icicles as I trudged aimlessly through piles of brown and yellow leaves just so I could have the pleasure of coming home to a slice of it, tender and moist and so warmly spiced it seemed to thaw me from the inside out. In fact, as I settled back into my toasty apartment, a steaming mug of milky tea clutched between my frozen fingers and a softly slumped roasted pear nestling up against it on the plate, I would have been hard-pressed to say I’d ever eaten anything better.

So I’ve obviously made my peace with gingerbread, but it does make me wonder if my other long-term food foes are going to be quite as easy to conquer. Certainly if you, dear readers, happen to have any favorite recipes for, say, bread or rice pudding, or even a fruitcake that you can’t imagine life without, I hope you’ll share. Buoyed by such success, my other aficionados-in-waiting are getting restless.

David’s Fresh Ginger Cake with Caramel-Roasted Pears

Surprisingly for someone as tinker-happy as me, the only thing I felt the need to change in this cake was the amount of molasses. Since the recipe called for mild molasses and the black treacle I was using tasted anything but mild, I decreased the amount by one-third and made up the difference with golden syrup. I thought the flavor was perfect, so if you have any doubts about the strength of yours you might want to the same. As for what to eat with this rich, spicy cake, I have to admit it’s pretty spectacular plain, with nothing but a cup of tea or coffee to help it go down, but garnished with a dollop of tangy yogurt cream and a sweet-salty caramelized pear, it verges on dangerously good. As in, I-may-never-make- another-dessert-again good. Or almost-worth-losing-my-taste-for-two-entire-days good!
Serves: 8
Source: Room for Dessert by David Lebovitz

4 ounces (120g) fresh ginger, peeled
1 cup (250ml) mild molasses (or 2/3 cup (160ml) black treacle + 1/3 cup (80ml) golden syrup)
1 cup (200g) sugar
1 cup (250ml) vegetable oil
2 1/2 cups (350g) flour
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 cup (250ml) water
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 large eggs, at room temperature

For pears: 
6-8 medium ripe yet firm pears, peeled, halved and cored (a mellon-baller works great for this)
1/2 cup (100g) sugar, brown or white
1/2 cup (160ml) water
3 tablespoons (50g) butter
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 vanilla pod, halved lengthwise, or 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract 

generous pinch sea salt 

lightly-sweetened whipped cream mixed with a few spoonfuls plain yogurt, to serve

Position the oven rack in the center of the oven. Preheat the oven to 350°F/175°C. Line a 9-inch (23cm) springform pan (or a 9×3-inch cake pan) with a circle of parchment paper.

Slice and chop the ginger very fine with a knife (or process in a food processor until very finely chopped). In a large bowl mix together with the molasses, sugar, oil and ginger. In another bowl, sift together the flour, cinnamon, cloves and black pepper.

Bring the water to a boil in a saucepan, stir in the baking soda, and then stir the hot water into the molasses mixture. Gradually whisk the dry ingredients into the batter. Add the eggs, and continue mixing until everything is thoroughly combined. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake
for about 1 hour, until the top of the cake springs back lightly when pressed or a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. If the top of the cake browns too quickly before the cake is done, drape a piece of foil over it and continue baking. Cool the cake for at least 30 minutes. Run a knife around the edge of the cake to loosen it from the pan. Remove the cake from the pan and peel off the parchment paper.

If you’re making the pears, increase the oven temperature to 375°F/190°C. Nestle the pear halves in a baking dish just big enough to fit them in a single layer. Bring the remaining ingredients to a boil in a saucepan, stirring to distribute. Pour this mixture over the pears and roast in the oven, basting them with the liquid every ten minutes or so, for about 25-30 minutes, or until the liquid is bubbling very thickly and the pears are tender when pierced with a knife. (Don’t forget to remove the vanilla bean, rinse it lightly and add it to your extract jar, if you’re making some!) Let cool slightly before serving.


Cinq Jours à Paris, or If You’ve Gotta Turn 30, You Might as Well Enjoy It


For as long as I can remember, my dad and I have had a little joke running. Every year I pretend I can’t quite remember how old he’s going to be on his next birthday, and every year he replies the same thing when I ask him, "why, 29, of course!"

When I was a kid, it didn’t make any sense to me. Why would somebody want to remain 29 forever? Why not 17? Or 35? At that point 29 seemed like an adult age no different from any other, certainly older than anything I could fathom being myself someday. And it was also strange because as far as I could tell most other adults didn’t seem to care much about their age at all, with some going so far as to claim they’d forgotten the precise number entirely. Not my dad, though – he continued to turn 29, year in and year out.


It’s taken me a few decades, but I think I finally understand. Having just said goodbye to that very age myself, I already find it assuming some kind of mystical quality in my memory. Ah yes, I find myself saying as I come across a six-month old photograph, that was taken when I was still twenty-nine. And that blog post was written when I was still twenty-nine. What is it about being twenty-something? I had no such reservations about leaving my awkward, confused teens behind, but my twenties are a different story. They were a decade bursting with such promise and potential. Any number of career paths and endless childbearing years stretched before me to the horizon. It was okay that I didn’t yet earn much money, still claimed my student discount at the cinema and drove around a car nearly as old as me. I wasn’t expected to own a house or have an answer to the question "what do you do for a living?" Things like joint pain and heartburn and which brand of pro-retinol alpha-hydroxy amino-peptide face cream combats wrinkles best weren’t even on my radar yet. Indeed who wouldn’t want those years to end?



Alas, I haven’t yet figured out how to stop time, and so last week, the inevitable happened. I turned thirty, and rather than sit around and count grey hairs to celebrate, I decided to do what any sensible person trying to distract themselves from the unrelenting march of time might do: I ate. For five days straight. In Paris.

It’s too bad marathon eating isn’t a sport, for if it were we’d now be in the shape of our lives. In five short days we somehow managed all of the following, and more. Macarons in a rainbow of colors from Pierre Hermé. Every flavor of nutty financier Eric Kayser makes. Salted-caramel ice cream from Berthillon. Falafel from Chez Hanna (for the second time L’As was mysteriously closed for my visit). Pistachio and yogurt gelato at Pozzetto. A slice of Kouign Amann oozing salted caramel at Chez Michel. Rabbit braised in cider at Chez L’Ami Jean. Canneles, everywhere we could find them. Fork-tender venison in red wine at A la Biche au Bois. Baguettes stuffed with foie gras and a glass of sweet white wine on the steps of Sacre Coeur. More foie gras sandwiches with fresh spinach and onion jam from La Grande Epicerie. Croissants, fresh brioche, pain Poilane, Jean-Yves Bordier butter and Christine Ferber jams every morning for breakfast as we gazed out on the rooftops of Paris. Surprisingly good idlis and dosas at a dirt-cheap South Indian restaurant near the Gare du Nord. An afternoon filled with a large bottle of pastis and great friends*. A post-birthday shindig featuring spectacular food and even better company.


Paris has been called many things: city of light, city of love, city of dreams. For me, however, it will henceforth be the city of distraction, where surrounded by food and friends I barely noticed the decade counter click silently forward from two to three. And if that serves as any kind of precedent for the coming years, I don’t think I have anything to fear.


As a general rule, restaurant reservations are always a good idea. I recommend booking for popular bistros like the ones below at least 3-4 days in advance, or a week if you want to be sure. Note that all of the below have fixed-price menu options ranging from €25-32 for three/four courses, with supplements and à la carte options at an additional cost.

Chez Michel
Everything we ate from the thick lobster bouillon to the chunky pâté en croûte was stellar at this cozy Breton-inspred bistro, though it was the Kouign Amann that has set the standard for this luscious pastry forever. We ordered from the menu options, but if we’d felt a bit more flush we’d have splashed out on some of the game specials advertised on the chalkboard (all available at a €5-20 supplement to the menu price).
10 rue Belzunce 75010
Tel: +33 (0)144530620
Closed Sunday, Monday, all of August.

Chez L’Ami Jean
Can you forgive me if I tell you I can barely remember what I ordered here? I just remember a fabulous cream-laden soup with nuggets of sweet chestnuts, and a loin of cider-braised rabbit so tender I could cut it with a spoon. Those in the know around us seemed to be ordering the charcuterie spread, which included an all-you-can-eat cornucopia of house-made terrine and various saucisson secs, chewy wood-fired bread and a slab of Bordier demi-sel butter.
27 Rue Malar 75007
Tel: +33 (0)147058689
Closed Sunday, Monday, all of August.
A La Biche au Bois
I’m not sure whether it was smart or stupid that we saved this sweet little restaurant for our last night in Paris. If we’d gone on our first night we might not have had the appetite to sustain us for the rest of our trip, but going on the last night meant we had to reluctantly send mounds of food back to the kitchen uneaten. For less than 25 euros, you get enough food to feed an army, including game options i
n season and some of the best value foie gras in Paris.
45, avenue Ledru Rollin 75012
Tel: +33 (0)143433438
Closed Saturday, Sunday, Monday lunch.

Chez Hanna
The length of the line here at four o’clock in the afternoon attests to the quality of the food. Pay first at the counter inside, then join the throng of people on the street waiting to get their hands on an enormous, eggplant-crowned falafel spécial. Don’t forget the extra napkins.
54 Rue des Rosiers 75004
Open daily until late.

*That means you too, Alisa!


Project Vanilla

Homemade Vanilla Extract

Before you start jumping to all kinds of wrong conclusions about me, let me tell you what I don’t do. I don’t bake my own bread. I don’t roll my own pasta. I don’t simmer my own stocks. I don’t make my own yogurt, cheese, beer, wine, or jam. I don’t grow my own vegetables or herbs. I have been known to churn my own butter, but if you knew how insanely easy that is you wouldn’t think much of it. I don’t, as a matter of course, can, pickle, bottle or preserve much of anything. While I might do any one of these things occasionally – purely for culinary kicks, mind you – if you assumed my fridge and shelves are full of anything other than what I bought at the supermarket last time I was there, I’m sorry to say you’d be sorely, sadly mistaken.

I’ve told you all this not because I’m looking for your sympathy (or scorn), but so you can better appreciate the following. I do make my own vanilla extract, and if I can do it, I’m pretty sure you can too.

It’s funny, my vanilla-making started without the fanfare of many of my other culinary projects. This spring’s sourdough project, for example, required a level of planning, commitment and meticulous attention to detail more akin to building a nuclear bomb than cultivating a bit of fungus in a bowl. And while after completing Nancy Silverton’s gruelling two-week boot camp of precision-timed twice-daily feedings I felt proud as a new parent when my first little loaf actually rose in the oven, that couldn’t keep me from abandoning the poor starter to its fate in the back of the fridge a few months later. Preserve-making is another sad story; after forcing myself to get over my fear of canning one fateful day last year, I naturally assumed I would be canning up a storm every summer for the rest of my life, and quite possibly never buy mass-produced jam again. How has that gone, you ask? I think you know the answer.

But this vanilla thing, it all started so innocuously. So innocuously, in fact, that I didn’t even know what I was doing until after I had done it. A couple of years ago, you see, I made my first bulk purchase of vanilla beans through the internet (at what I thought then must be misprinted prices), and all of a sudden I had a problem I’d never faced before: a growing pile of used beans that were still far too fragrant to throw away. I tried sticking them in sugar like everyone suggests, but I was going through beans so quickly that I ended up infusing every bag we bought, and I grew tired of having to run out to the store every time I wanted a pinch of non-vanilla-scented sugar to stick in my pasta sauce. I had a bottle of light rum on the shelf, though, and this brilliant idea hit me that if I stuck a few beans in the rum, after a few months I might have a very interesting cocktail mixer – maybe even one I could give as a gift, with a cute hand-printed recipe for a vanilla mojito or something.

So I put a few spent beans in the rum, stuck it back in the cupboard, and pretty much did nothing to it except open it every so often to throw in a new bean. I noticed the color getting darker and the aroma getting stronger, but it didn’t hit me until about five months later when I finally decanted some that what I had actually made was not any vanilla-flavored booze, but a ripe, powerful and intoxicatingly fragrant vanilla extract. I quickly finished up my trusted Nielsen Massey and started using this in its place, and wouldn’t you know, it was every bit as good, if not even better! I ordered more vanilla beans – Tahitian ones this time – and kept adding my spent ones to the bottle, topping the liquid up every now and then with whatever mild alcohol we happened to have on hand, and as the months passed the flavor grew stronger, bolder, more complex. That was a year and a half ago, and I’ve never looked back.

I feel a bit silly trying to convince you that you too can easily make your own homemade vanilla extract, like Nancy Silverton convinced me I could have bread as good as hers coming out of my oven every weekend when what would actually happen is that I would spend weeks creating a living thing only to have it end up in the trash, but really, I can’t stress enough how easy this is. If you use vanilla beans regularly – and I’ll give you a couple of sources for cheap ones in a minute – there’s no reason not to; it’s effort-free, it’s more versatile than vanilla sugar, and it makes really great gifts (maybe even better than vanilla flavored rum!). And the best part? If you forget about it for a couple of months, it doesn’t shrivel up and die, it actually improves. I’m not quite sure what it says about me that the one project I’ve had success with is the one that actually requires neglect, but hey, as long as there’s great vanilla coming out of it I’m not going to sweat the implications.

Homemade Vanilla Extract

There are probably easier ways to do it, where you just use a set ratio of beans to alcohol and let it sit until ready. The beauty of this method, however, is that a) aside from the very beginning, you’re only sticking used beans in there (which feels delightfully frugal), b) your extract will continue to improve as you keep adding new beans, and c) once you get the ball rolling, as long as you keep using vanilla beans in your kitchen you’ll have an unending supply of extract on hand too. Pretty nifty, no?

Yield: 1 quart/liter to begin with, and as much as you like after that

1. Find a supplier of good, cheap vanilla beans. I buy mine from the San Francisco-based Vanilla, Saffron Imports, whose beans I can highly recommend (though interestingly enough, I haven’t been all that impressed with their extracts); another good option is eBay; try The Organic Vanilla Bean Company or Vanilla Products USA – or just search for ‘vanilla beans’ to see all your local options. All of these companies will ship anywhere in the world, though the eBay sellers are probably the cheapest for that. I usually buy 1/2 lb. at a time (about 60-80 beans, depending on variety), which lasts me for about a year, depending on how much baking I do. If you can, get a mixture of Bourbon (Madagascar) and Tahitian beans; I usually prefer the Bourbon’s flavor, but a mixture makes a very nice extract.

2. Buy two 4-oz (118ml) jars of vanilla extract – something good and strong, like Nielsen-Massey, Penzey’s, etc. Trader Joe’s is fine too. Just make sure it’s real vanilla extract, not some nasty cocktail of chemicals. Now, put one on the shelf and start using it. Yes, it’s going to take a while for your homemade stuff to be ready, and you’ll need something to tide you over. Sorry, there’s no way around it! The other one you’ll be using to kickstart your homemade stuff. If you live in some remote corner of the planet where you can’t buy vanilla extract, I’m afraid you’ll have to skip this step. Your homemade extract will take a while longer, but it will still be good.

3. Buy two bottles of booze: vodka, light rum, bourbon, or whatever as long as it’s around 40%
alcohol. Nothing fancy, just the cheapest stuff your supermarket sells. Some people shy away from booze with its own flavor, but you’ll be using it in such small quantities that it really won’t make a difference, though if you’re worried about that just use vodka. Again, put one bottle in the cupboard (no, this one is not to tide you over, so hands off!). This is your ‘top-up’ bottle which you will start using once you start decanting your own extract. You can, of course, buy the second bottle later, but it never hurts to be prepared.

4. Find yourself a 1 quart/liter glass container with a lid such as a mason jar, an old booze bottle, etc. Clean it well. Make sure it doesn’t harbor any weird odors.

5. Pour one bottle of store-bought extract and one bottle of booze into the container. Now you need to add some vanilla beans. If you’ve already got some used ones lying around, lucky you – use those. If you don’t, you’ll have to sacrifice some new ones. How many you put in to start with is completely up to you; the more you put in the faster your extract will be ready. I think I started with 4-6 new ones, and added 3-4 used ones per month after that. Split them down the middle and throw them in. Put the lid on tightly, give everything a shake, and put the container in a cool, dark cupboard somewhere.

6. Carry on with your normal life, using both the extract on your shelf and your vanilla beans, only that every time you use a vanilla bean, throw it in the container afterwards. If you’ve simmered the bean in milk or something for your recipe, give it a good rinse first. Take the container out and shake it around once a week or so, at which time feel free to poke your nose in and see how things are developing. It will start out smelling powerfully like alcohol, but over time, the vanilla flavors will take over and the boozy smell will almost disappear.

7. Continue doing this for, oh, at least 6-8 weeks. The longer the better. Of course YMMV depending on your personal consumption habits, but what we’re aiming for is that by the time you’ve finished that bottle of store-bought extract on your shelf, your own should be rich, fragrant and ready to start decanting. The other reason to wait until you’ve finished the supply on your shelf is that you can use the handy little bottle for your own extract.

8. When the container of homemade extract has reached your preferred strength, decant some into your own 4 oz bottle (or multiple little bottles, if you’re going to give some away). Now get out that second bottle of booze you stashed away all those weeks ago and top up the container so it’s full again. You’ll need to do this every time after you decant. You can probably leave all the beans in there at this point, but as a general rule if things start to get too crowded in there I just remove a few of the mushiest ones. Place the container back in the cupboard to mature for another couple of months and repeat steps 6-8 as many times as you like. The extract you get from it will just keep getting better and better and better…