For most people who have received a fair dose of American holiday tradition, the word "gingerbread" summons one of two mental pictures: the gingerbread-man cookie or a gingerbread house. The former is usually stamped out of dough with a cookie cutter, while the house is typically the architectural feat of someone who has an extraordinary amount of free time.
Both entail a lot of meticulous decorating with frosting, although the proper ornamentation of a good-sized gingerbread house (the culinary equivalent of a four-bedroom rancher in a subdivision) requires an unusual amount of expertise and talent. If you don't know what you're doing, you can wind up with a gingerbread house that has the baker's equivalent of cheap vinyl siding.
I once observed the construction of a gingerbread house that was a couple of feet tall. To get the thing assembled and standing securely upright, the cook had to reinforce the structure with all manner of interior supports. A gingerbread purist might have balked at such shortcuts, but the process still required a steady and skilled hand.
When it was built and decorated, I was humbled to be standing in the presence of the finished product. I did, however, make a mental note that I would never have time in my short life to replicate that effort. And I haven't looked back.
For people like me, who love ginger in holiday baking, there's an easier way. Gingerbread also can be baked up as a quick bread or cake, and the results are tasty, though less ornate and certainly less time-consuming.
The following recipe is from Diana Rattray, whose interpretations of Southern cooking may be found at southernfood.about.com. The recipe is almost identical to the one I ate as a child, except it contains buttermilk. This gingerbread can be topped with whipped cream.
1 cup all-purpose flour, sift before measuring
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 egg, lightly beaten
5 tablespoons dark brown sugar
1/2 cup dark molasses
1/2 cup buttermilk (or use 1/2 cup regular milk soured with a teaspoon of vinegar or lemon juice)
1/4 cup melted butter or shortening
Sift together the flour, salt, soda and spices. In a mixing bowl, combine beaten egg, sugar, molasses, buttermilk and melted butter. Add sifted dry ingredients gradually; stirring to blend. Beat until smooth.
Turn batter into a greased and floured 8-inch or 9-inch square pan and bake at 350 degrees for about 30 minutes.