This sweet, spiced cake is the perfect showcase for maple.
Right about now in northern New England, sugar maples along the byways begin to sprout clear plastic piping that feeds into buckets at the base of every tree, or, in large operations, runs down slopes to large collection tanks. The clear sap, which looks like water (Native Americans called it “sweetwater”), is boiled and boiled, usually over hardwood fires in small sugarhouses in the woods, and concentrated into smoky-sweet amber ambrosia. Typically, it takes 50 gallons of sap to make a single gallon of maple syrup. The syrup is graded – each state has their own system – and bottled, to be used with abandon on pancakes or waffles, in desserts such as maple cream pie or maple pecan cake, or in such savory dishes as maple barbecue sauce or maple baked beans.
St. Albans, Vermont, proclaims itself the Maple Capital of the World, and every year, on the third weekend of April, the whole town joins in hosting the Vermont Maple Festival. St. Albans is the county seat of Franklin County, which makes more syrup than any other county in the United States. During the three-day event, visitors sniff the sweet-smelling steam and eat maple-glazed chicken in a demonstration sugarhouse, devour hundreds of dozens of doughnuts and cakes with maple cream icing, snack on maple “sugar-on-snow,” and try oddities like maple cotton candy. There are pancake breakfasts and contests for the best maple syrup and for the best apple pie made with maple syrup. There are sugarhouse tours and arts and crafts exhibits, a talent show, a parade, and a blow-out maple barbecue supper.
I think the essential flavor of maple syrup is best showcased when poured straight out of the bottle onto breakfast pancakes or served over ice cream, or when it’s added to whipped cream, such as in this topping for a particularly delicious gingerbread.
Dark and Sticky Gingerbread with Maple Whipped Cream
When Melanie Barnard, my long-time collaborator, and I set out to develop a gingerbread recipe, we decided that ideally the cake should be very moist — almost sticky — dark with molasses, and fragrant with spice. Finally, after much experimenting, we were delighted with the results, especially when we added chopped crystallized (also called candied) ginger to the cake to create a double hit of this pleasantly biting spice. When I’m serving this gingerbread as a dessert (as opposed to a snack cake), I like to bake it in a cake pan so it can be cut into wedges, which seems just a tad dressier than squares. The maple-spiked whipped cream is the crowning touch.
Yield: 8–10 servings
- ½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
- ⅓ cup packed dark brown sugar
- ⅓ cup dark corn syrup
- ⅓ cup molasses
- 1 egg
- ½ cup hot tap water
- 1½ cups all-purpose flour
- ½ teaspoon baking powder
- ½ teaspoon baking soda
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- ¾ teaspoon ground ginger
- ½ teaspoon salt
- ¼ cup chopped crystallized ginger
- 1 cup heavy cream whipped with 2 tablespoons pure maple syrup (optional)
- Preheat the oven to 350° F. Grease a 9-inch round cake pan or square baking pan with butter and line with parchment if planning to unmold the cake (see step 4).
- Using an electric mixer, beat the butter and brown sugar in a large bowl until light and fluffy. Beat in the corn syrup, molasses, and egg and beat until smooth. Slowly add the hot water, beating to blend.
- Whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, ground ginger, and salt in a bowl. Add to the butter mixture, beating on low speed until smooth. Stir in the crystallized ginger. Scrape into the prepared pan.
- Bake until the top is springy and a tester inserted in the center comes out clean, about 30 to 35 minutes. Cool in the pan on a rack for 10 minutes. If unmolding, run a knife around the edge of the pan and invert onto a rack. Serve warm or at room temperature, plain or with maple whipped cream.