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.