Shuna's Famous Gingerbread

About a month ago I came home to this intriguing note:

"OK Eggbeater, your food blog kept me interested for hours. But the recipe that the world REALLY needs is for your gingerbread...so when can I look forward to that? sd"

I laughed out loud. SD is Stephen Durfee, pastry chef from my time at The French Laundry. A wild and wacky fellow with energetic ideas and a personality riding just this side of mayhem. Suffice to say we were at times near opposite ends of the wall containing our illustrious department. I learned to take chances working for Stephen. He taught me to verbally "grade" my work so that we could both track my improvement. And he pushed the envelope of "shoulds," supporting and nurturing in me my own "what ifs" and "why nots." We created desserts with bacon, dressed fruit and nuts with virgin oils and worked dark to dark sometimes months in a row without a day off.

The day Stephen learned he had been nominated for the James Beard award for best pastry chef he called to thank me. I was puzzled. "For what?" I inquired. "For supporting me. I didn't win this nomination on my own," he explained generously.

Stephen was the last pastry chef I worked for. It was his nest I was pushed out of, propelled just down the road to Bouchon. Stephen was who I leaned against when I couldn't figure out how to make something work. He gently and almost inperceptibly transitioned out of being my boss and singular mentor to becoming a fan of my desserts, asking me for my recipes. Here in lies one of the differences between a chef who can share and a chef who needs to maintain her/his egotistical, maniacal power over their cooks. For are we not comprised of where we came from, the gifts others give us and that which we pass on? We keep what we have by giving it away.

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My professional cooking started out as foreplay; sensual descriptive romantic words tempted, lured and seduced me into hot searing kitchens. Laurie Colwin held me rapt at attention, first with her novels, later with real life stories of cooking and entertaining in her first Greenwich Village apartment, a space so tiny it had neither dining room nor kitchen! Down to earth and hysterically funny, Colwin spoiled me with extremely well-written prose about an ecclectic and eccentric mix of edible subjects. In the foreward of her first book she reminds us we are never alone whilst cooking. In citing which authors kept her company at her own stoves, I was cordially introduced to Jane Grigson's Fruit Book, which remains, to this day, my favorite book, my go-to location for inspiring, elegant fruit ideas and beautiful anecdotes.

Edward Behr let me in on his secret: be not afraid of obsessively and passionately uncovering every detail about one ingredient. Research apples, cream or eggs to their very point of origin and then live in the library to learn more. Ronni Lundy wrapped me in her warm Southern arms, shared stories from old-timey hollers, presented family recipes and photographs, beguiling my modern mind with comforting foods. Biscuits so simple I learned early on that a recipe is nothing without learned hands. Hands timid and reverant enough to honor simple is not simplistic.

Yes, baking is about paying close attention. But it's also about taking chances. Making the pie dough you fear. Sharing tiny tasty whimsical cookies. Becoming crazy with happiness and delight at the sight of a souffle rising.

In a repetoire of hundreds of recipes I've made, tweaked, learned, and taught, I am very very proud of a small handful. Ones I brought from belly crawl to walk. Recipes which crept into dreams quietly whispering, or came wafting through dusty old library stacks, never settling, souls in limbo, teasingly, like the one you can never catch during hide & seek. Taste memories.

My gingerbread is one of these such recipes. In both Home Cooking and More Home Cooking, Laurie Colwin's two books of compiled Gourmet Magazine essays, Ms. Colwin dedicates a chapter each to gingerbread. A sweet considered old world, the gingerbread, she sadly notes, has gone out of fashion.

"...gingerbread made from scratch takes very little time and gives back tenfold what you put into it. Baking gingerbread perfumes a house as nothing else. It is good eaten warm or cool, iced or plain. It improves with age, should you be lucky or restrained enough to keep any around." Laurie Colwin, Home Cooking.

Every word of her two odes to gingerbread is true. Make the following recipe if you don't believe me. Shuna's Famous Gingerbread can be made in any baking vessel, metal or ceramic. It sits proudly on the fence between sweet and savoury. In one mood I eat it toasted with runny cheese, another with chocolate ice cream. It can be haughty beside creme fraiche, will bed a poached pear or get in the ring confidently with a perfectly ripe August Stilton. A strong restaurant plated dessert component, this gingerbread keeps and strengthens in character over the course of a week. And you don't need a Kitchen-Aid!

I will reiterate that recipes are guides. Over many years of making gingerbread from various sources I took all my favorite traits and their corresponding results, combining them into one recipe. Please don't let the amount of ingredients scare you. Although it's a tall order, many substitutions can be made, and in the end it can just be an excuse to make too much. Friends and co-workers of mine rarely complain that, yet again, I have made more than what my own small household can decently consume.

SHUNA'S FAMOUS GINGERBREAD

18 ounces All Purpose Flour
6 ounces Sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons Kosher Salt
1 Tablespoon Baking Soda
3 Tablespoons + Ground Ginger
1/2 teaspoon Ground Cloves
1 1/2 teaspoon Ground Cinnamon
1 Tablespoon Ground Cardamon
1 teaspoon + Freshly Ground Black Pepper
1 teaspoon *optional: Ground Coriander*

8 ounces Unsalted Butter
3 1/2 ounces Blackstrap Molasses
6 ounces Simple Syrup **recipe in instructions** you may substitute Lyle's golden syrup or light corn syrup

3 each Large Egg Yolks
2 each Large Eggs
8 ounces buttermilk you may substitute sour cream or use a mixture of them both to create the eight ounces

Suggestions: Use the freshest, organic if possible, ground spices. Rainbow Grocery is a fantastic source for buying small amounts in bulk. Keep spices away from light and heat in your kitchen and try to use them up within 6 months of purchase date.

**To make simple syrup place equal parts sugar and cold water in saucepan and bring to a boil until mixture is clear. For a thicker syrup boil for at least 10 minutes or increase the amount of sugar. For this recipe 1/2 cup sugar to 1/2 cup water will be sufficient.**

1. Preheat oven to 350F
2. Butter desired baking vessels. {Sometimes I coat with raw or white sugar inside as you would flour for a cake.}
3. Sift all dry ingredients except salt and pepper into a large bowl
4. Whisk in salt and pepper until mixture is uniform and create a "well" in center
5. In a medium non-reactive saucepan bring butter, molasses and simple syrup to a boil slowly {this mixture is feisty and will boil over if the heat is on too high or your saucepan is crowding it}
6. In another bowl whisk together egg yolks, eggs and dairy
7. When mixture on stove comes to a boil, shut off heat and let rest for a moment
8. Pour this hot mixture all at once into the center of your bowl of dry ingredients
9. Using a whisk, mix dry ingredients into liquid, from center out, carefully
10. When batter begins to seize, pour in second bowl of wet ingredients
11. Whisk batter until smooth and uniform. Batter is loose
12. Pour batter a little over halfway into buttered baking tins
13. I set my first timer for about 15 minutes, {unless you are making muffin-size or smaller}, so that I can turn the pan around for a more even bake
14. Gingerbread is done when sides pull away from the pan, middle bounces back to the touch and/or a cake-tester inserted in the center comes out clean
{From this recipe I made one cake pan, one loaf, and it took about 35 minutes}
15. Cool at least until warm before slicing.

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And now for the fantastic final detail/hint. You may turn this recipe into a "mix"! Assemble one recipe of just the dry ingredients. Weigh mixture and jot it down. You can keep mix in the cupboard for a rainy day and bake any fraction of it which suits you. This gingerbread is spicy and warming. A perfect, not-too-sweet confection for the coldest month of the year. Happy 2006!

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