Sunday morning, pad quietly into the kitchen. Kettle on, cupboards open. Pull out the box of cake flour, just the right amount still in the bag, the bottle of inky molasses, soda, baking powder. Two eggs from the fridge, cold and smooth in my hands; spices from the freezer, their bottles frosting immediately in the warm kitchen.
Baking first thing in the morning, before the first cup of tea, before opening the door to get the paper, before even being entirely awake, is one of life's small pleasures. One of my life's small pleasures. I love the silent, solitary work in the kitchen, the concentration, the satisfaction at seeing a few simple ingredients come together under my hands and blossom into something else entirely.
It so happens that the best recipes for this kind of early morning venture are plain and homey ones. They have to be. I'm not interested in four-layer cakes at 9:00 am on a Sunday, or in rolled fondant, or pastry cream. What I revel in making are recipes that dirty just one bowl, that surprise you with their ease, that come laden with history, the knowledge that they've been made a hundred thousand times before, in thousands of kitchens, by thousands of slightly sleepy home cooks who don't have the luxury to worry about whether or not the cake will rise or turn out as it should.
This recipe seems to have been made for this purpose - you whisk together the dry ingredients: cake flour and leaveners for lightness and a mix of cloves, ginger and cinnamon for warmth and flavor. Then you melt a stick of butter in boiling water and whisk that, along with a couple eggs, into the flour. That is it. Quite literally. What results is a dark and moodily cracked cake that, if left to its own devices for a day, gets moister and more complex, and if eaten while still warm, is a very good snacking cake, best if served with whipped cream to round out the hard molasses edge.
The cake is from The Gift of Southern Cooking by the late, great Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock, which doesn't have the same bewitching lilt as Miss Lewis's The Taste of Country Cooking, but is packed with information and interesting recipes from a region that I used to know very little about culinarily. The baking recipes, in particular, are just the kinds of things I like to think about making early on a weekend morning, while the neighborhood still sleeps and the day stretches languidly, full of promise, ahead of me.
For a short film on Edna Lewis, go over to Gourmet's website, right here. The first photo you see of her, a black-and-white one with her in profile at 0:21, kills me.
Dark Molasses Gingerbread
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, more for pan
2 cups cake flour, more for pan
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups dark molasses
Freshly whipped cream, for serving
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour an 8-inch round baking pan. Sift flour, baking soda and baking powder into a large mixing bowl. Blend in spices and salt with a wire whisk.
2. In a small pan, bring 1 cup water to a boil. Melt 1/2 cup butter in it, then whisk water into flour mixture. Beat eggs and add to mixture, along with molasses. Whisk until well blended. Pour into pan.
3. Bake for 40 to 45 minutes or until a skewer plunged into center comes out with no trace of raw batter. Interior will be moist. Serve warm with freshly whipped cream.
Note: This cake is also delicious the day after it is baked. The spices meld and the texture gets more like a steamed pudding.