Applesauce Gingerbread


Now into December, the “pumpkin spice” lattes and bagels (and more) have mostly been replaced in coffee shops and Trader Jo’s with wintry peppermint treats. Still, today I was in the mood for the warm and cozy fragrances I remember from my mother’s kitchen on gray fall and winter days like the weather we’ve been having. The day was definitely made for baking something full of spices that would provide that home-baked aroma from my childhood.
Gingerbread seemed to be just the right old-fashioned but quick dessert to go with the day’s simple soup and bread supper. There was still a cup or so of applesauce in the refrigerator from last week’s baking, so it was time to do some experimenting with ways to blend that in to a soft, rich molasses-y dessert.
After finding pages and pages of applesauce gingerbread options on Google, I knew it was time to try my own version. Out with any butter or oil–the applesauce would easily replace that. 

I also wanted to reduce the molasses levels (probably the most expensive ingredient of the cake) without losing that deep rich flavor. With dark brown sugar well priced at a lot of stores right now–holiday baking specials are at their peak–I could still be assured of a good deep flavor even with less molasses. 

One of the things all the “old-fashioned” gingerbread recipes called for was hot (or even boiling) water. Wondering if this was a step I could skip, I did a little more searching and found the following possible explanations at 
  • One explanation claims that the baking soda is added to neutralize the acids in the batter, in addition to adding tenderness. This makes sense when you consider that the leavening must be balanced to achieve a neutral pH.
  • Molasses and brown sugar are very acidic, thus the baking soda neutralizes this acidity, allowing the baking powder, which in itself is balanced, to do the actual leavening.
  • When baking soda is added to hot liquid, gas releases that changes the pH of the recipe and darkens the color of the batter (especially when cocoa is part of the batter).
  • Hot water loosens the gluten strands in the flour, creating a lighter textured gingerbread.
  • Warming the eggs prior to baking the gingerbread allows them to expand to their utmost in the oven.

Whatever the reason for it, hot water would stay. Still, I was looking for as streamlined a recipe as possible, so I ended up with the following. Using the microwave to heat the water while mixing up the rest of the batter didn’t really add any time to the preparation–and probably even shortened the overall baking time, even if only by a little. 

In the end, this amount filled a 9 X 13 pan (or two 9 inch square or round pans), even though it is almost the same as several recipes that called for putting all the batter into a 9 inch square pan. While the smaller pan would give a very high cake that some might prefer, I would be concerned that the center might not be done until the edges were beginning to dry out, not a result I was looking for. Spreading the batter into the larger space still provided a cake with slices at least 2 inches high.
Served still warm from the oven (or re-warmed for a few seconds in the microwave), this is a fine dessert without any kind of topping. Of course, you could add a plain powdered sugar icing (and some sprinkles to match the season) or, as I remember my father doing, just split a piece and spread a little butter over each piece. After all, Dad would say, it is bread. 
The picture at the top of the page resulted from trying to please both those who like their gingerbread unadorned and those who appreciate a little more elaborate presentation. By alternating the iced and plain pieces, the presentation turned out to be a little more fun. 
To stay closest to the version I grew up with, however, I would need to make some real whipped cream. You can scroll below the recipe for a quick story on the whipped cream topping of my childhood.
Whether you decide to whip up some cream, scoop rich vanilla ice cream on to each warm square, frost it, or just eat it plain, the result will be a warm, rich finish that can turn even the simplest weeknight meal into a very special meal.
Applesauce Gingerbread
2 1/2 c flour
1 1/2 t soda
2 t cinnamon
2 t ground ginger
1/4 t nutmeg
1/4 to 1/2 t cloves
1/3 c sugar
2/3 c molasses
1 c applesauce
1 egg
3/4 c  hot water
1. Prepare the pan(s) by oiling well, and preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Use either one 9 X 13 pan or two 9 inch round or square pans. As soon as the batter is mixed, you will want to get the gingerbread into the oven, as the hot water will begin leavening the batter immediately.
2.  Mix wet ingredients (except the hot water) together and set aside. Heat the water in the microwave (or on top of the stove) until almost boiling.
3.  Mix the dry ingredients in a large mixing bowl.  Make a well in the bottom of the dry ingredients and pour in the wet ingredients. Mix just until blended.

4.  Add the hot water and mix again, stirring just until blended. Immediately turn into the prepared pan and put into the oven.
5.  Bake for about 25 to 30 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
6.  If not serving from the pan–the most “authentic” way for a home-y dessert like this–wait about 10 minutes before turning it out on a cooling rack.
 This keeps quite well, though it is moist enough that it will be best stored, tightly covered, in the refrigerator.

 Nostalgic thoughts on gingerbread from my childhood:

For most of my early years, we had a cow or two on our tiny farmstead, so we had plenty of cream-on-top milk. When Mom made gingerbread, she would pull out an old green pitcher that had an egg beater built right into a wooden lid. We then took turns whipping that fresh cream, with just a tiny bit of sugar beaten in, ready for each person to dollop on to their warm gingerbread squares.
The mixer and lid are long gone, but the pitcher remains one of my favorite heirlooms from my mother’s kitchen.In the spring, I love filling it with peonies or lilacs. In the summer, though it doesn’t pour as easily as other pitchers, it looks great filled with ice-cube-cooled lemonade. 

One thing I have not done with it, though, is use it for whipped cream; that’s a delight I have never enjoyed. Maybe, just for old times sake, and to help my grandchildren share a memory with me, I need to find an egg beater that will fit the narrow confines and whip up a mound of creaminess to go on top of another batch of gingerbread. For now, however, they were fully satisfied with just the gingerbread, still warm from the oven. Maybe that will be their memory they carry deep into the 21st century for their own future families.

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