December 6, 2011

Gingerbread for St. Nicholas Day

Today is St. Nicholas Day. This is the day that German children put shoes outside their door to be filled with goodies by St. Nicholas - not our kitschy version of the present-toting Santa Claus, but the real St. Nicholas, the Early Medieval saint from Asia Minor. He helped the poor and secretly gave away coins and other gifts - allegedly in shoes left on doorsteps. St. Nicholas was the man.

I always loved St. Nicholas Day in Germany. Families come out to the downtown Christmas markets with their children for cones of hot fried almonds and little ceramic mugs of spiced wine. These markets are beyond spectacular. Each city, town, and village starts pulling out its Christmas grandeur around the first weeks of November so that by St. Nicholas Day they are in full swing. Some markets feature ferris wheels and carnival-like entertainment. Some are huge and resplendent, while others are tiny and humble. In North and East Germany, you can find giant Christmas pyramids (Weihnachtspyramide), which look like merry-go-round nativity scenes. Vendors sell densely rich loaves of Christstollen - a kind of German fruitcake - and lots of nuts and fruits. Everywhere is the smell of spicy sausage and mulled spices. Memories of these Christmas markets may just be the best thing about Germany, and every December I get lost in browsing the hundreds of snapshots I took during my two years there.

Christmas Pyramid in Quedlinburg

One of the most famous Christmas markets in Germany is in the Bavarian town of Nuremberg, whose crenellated walls and colorful turrets give it a truly medieval feel. Its Christmas market occupies the large square in front of the Renaissance-era city hall. And friends, you can get the most delicious gingerbread there. Called Lebkuchen and distinctly more cakey than our traditional gingerbread cookies, these delightful little spiced rounds are baked atop a foamy circle of sugar base and are the size of small cakes.

Erfurt Christmas Market and Cathedral

 Other Christmas markets have their own unique distinctions: Leipzig has a fairy-tale village and a 3-story train station Christmas city (complete with indoor ice skating) that will make you weak in the knees. Berlin's market on the Gendarmenmarkt is bounced by costumed tin soldiers and requires admission for its completely magical experience. Freiburg's market is Black Forest-themed and forms a circle around the town's 800-year-old Gothic minster. Erfurt has a ferris wheel. Quendlinburg has a series of light-decorated Advent courtyards, or Innenhöfen. Dresden has delicious homemade Christstollen. And on, and on, and on.

Erfurt, Advent wreath from the Cathedral steps
So get ready. I plan to write at least two or three more times about Christmas markets because I still haven't covered Munich, Basel, Salzburg, and various breathtaking villages that required carefully-planned day trips to see. And I still have to write about sausage.

But for now, let me backpedal to gingerbread.

Leipzig train station, top floor

My ideal gingerbread comes in the form of a soft cookie or dense cake, much like the Lebkuchen rounds you can get at the Nuremberg Christmas market. For today, I worked with a more cake-like gingerbread approach, with a definitive Southern twist. Unsulphered blackstrap molasses gives this cake its sticky-dark character, and the infusion of cloves, ginger, and allspice lend to it that comforting December-feel.

Variations to this recipe could come in the form of spice alterations; crystallized ginger in the place of powdered ginger; icing or frosting or drizzle. This time, I prepared my German-Southern gingerbread with a bittersweet chocolate ganache, which definitely pushes it into the dessert category. However, this gingerbread is perfect served warm with a little sweetened whipped cream, or even served for breakfast with orange slices. (Hey, if we're allowed to have doughnuts for breakfast, what's wrong with a little gingerbread, right?)

Serve this as a dessert this December, and let it remind you of St. Nicholas. While you're at it, check out The St. Nicholas Center, a non-profit website dedicated to enlightening the world on this amazing saint.

Serves 12

Dry mix
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon allspice

Wet mix
1 stick unsalted butter, melted and cooled to room temperature
3/4 cup Blackstrap molasses
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup buttermilk
1/2 cup milk
1 large egg
2 teaspoons strong coffee, room temperature

Preheat oven to 350 F and grease a 8" x 11" glass dish thoroughly with non-stick cooking spray. Sift dry ingredients together through a wire-mesh sieve, pushing flour and spices through with a wooden spoon. Set aside.
With hand mixer on low speed, beat together wet ingredients (including sugar) until completely blended. Make sure the butter is not at all warm or you will end up with clumps of cooled butter (like I did).
Combine wet mix with flour and spices, and mix on low speed with hand mixer until the flour is just combined. With a wooden spoon, make sure that all flour in the batter is incorporated. This batter should look like a normal cake batter, but not too fluid.
Pour into greased dish and bake for 40 minutes, or until toothpick inserted comes out clean. Cool completely.

Bittersweet Chocolate Ganache
3/4 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons butter
6 ounces good-quality chocolate, chopped (I used Scharffen Berger)
1-2 teaspoons bourbon vanilla

Chop chocolate in food processor until chunks are very small, about the size of rice. Heat cream and butter in microwave-safe dish until very warm, about 90 seconds. In a large bowl, slowly add warm cream and butter to chocolate and whisk briskly until well combined. Add vanilla. Let cool to room temperature, about 1 hour, until thicker and cool. Spread evenly over gingerbread cake, or serve with individual slices.

Leipzig train station, main floor

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