Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Samantha's Gingerbread Cakes

Although really, this post should probably be called Samantha and L. Frank Baum's Gingerbread Cakes!

Although only a few members of my immediate actually like eating gingerbread, it's definitely one of the most iconic desserts traditionally served at Christmas, and was a pretty obvious choice to feature for Samantha. A gingerbread house is a prominent plot point in Samantha's Surprise, and while I don't think I've ever met anyone who builds gingerbread houses to eat them (even though whenever I bring friends home when we have one on the island, it's the first question they ask even if it's been sitting out for the better part of a month), it still gave me a great jumping off point 

Gingerbread houses date back to the early 1800's in Germany, but gingerbread itself - both in the hard cookie form and the softer cake - goes back even farther, with history dating back to the middle ages. There are recipes for it available in Samantha's Cookbook and Samantha's Cooking Studio, but since I don't own copies of either of those yet, the recipe I made has some really cool history of its own, and comes from the family of one of the most prominent authors of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century!

Samantha presented an interesting twist on my original plan to make the recipes featured in each character's holiday books. Unlike most of the other historical characters who have sets that feature holiday foods, she didn't have a plastic model of it like Josefina or Kirsten, but she also didn't really have a kit to make it like Felicity or Addy either. Instead, the treat featured was the gingerbread house she makes with her soon to be aunt Cornelia, and kids could buy their very own replica they could build themselves, out of actual gingerbread and candy.

Image courtesy of the AG Wiki.

This set has always slightly confused me and I'm shocked it lasted as long as it did before being retired or revamped, in that when I was a kid, fifteen dollars wasn't exactly money you could just toss around at anything, and definitely not on something that would get all gross about a week after making it. I'd have much rather spent my money on Sam's music box or china doll, both of which had way more play value and were only a dollar more expensive. Why not just make a little plastic gingerbread house, maybe with a few removable parts or that had to be assembled when you first got it to recreate the experience in a way that would make it last? At least you could still make Shrewsbury cakes if you used the whole sugar cone that came with the set.

Evidently, my sister felt the same way because it's the one piece of her holiday collection she's missing.

Still, there's no question that the gingerbread house plays an important part in Samantha's Surprise. The story focuses on Samantha's awesome Uncle Gard coming to visit for the holidays. For those who aren't familiar, Samantha is an orphan being raised by her mother's mother, and Gard is everything Grandmary is not. He's progressive and interested in new ideas and inventions, and even owns his own automobile, which Samantha is super excited to ride in. Sam is disappointed to discover that he's bringing his lady friend for the holidays, and that means things are changing. She doesn't get to decorate like she usually does or do any of her other plans all because of this other person she doesn't know very well, and is initially very put out by all of it, as any nine year old would be. Cornelia surprises her by being an intelligent, interesting and super fun person who seems to really understand her, and the two decorate a gingerbread house together, something that originally Samantha was told she couldn't do this year because there simply wasn't time. Cornelia going out of her way to do something fun with her future niece and just knowing what Sam would want for Christmas cements Samantha's acceptance of this new presence in her life, and overall it's a cute story that's worth a read.

I've always appreciated the way her series has handled adoptive relationships and family by choice. Even if it's not super historically accurate for people like Cornelia and Gard to adopt children like Nellie and her sisters, media often doesn't do a great job of presenting relationships like this well, and I genuinely enjoy that there's no question that Gard and Cornelia love Samantha and the O'Malleys like they were their own biological children. (This is especially true in the Samantha mystery The Curse of Ravenscourt, and while parts of the story are a bit absurd, I really enjoyed that the series continued to present adoptive relationships as something valid and important, rather than trying to dismiss it in favor of genetics.)

As I said above, there is a recipe for gingerbread included in both Samantha's Cookbook and Samantha's Cooking Studio, but since I don't have either of these and couldn't find them republished online, I had to get a little creative in finding a recipe. After spending a good hour trying to find a 20th century or late 19th century, I stumbled upon the blog Paper and Salt! The author takes recipes associated with famous authors and does her best to recreate them while teaching her readers about where the recipe comes from. It's super interesting and features a lot of great historical and literary information and trivia, so I'd definitely recommend giving it a look if you're into history and food! (And I hope you would be, if you're here reading my blog.)

I got excited because one of the recipes featured was L. Frank Baum's grandmother's recipe for gingerbread cake, and as anyone familiar with Samantha's collection will know, this was exciting news because...

The Wizard of Oz was included in her Nighttime Necessities set! This cover is technically from the 1920's version of the book, but I guess people at the Pleasant Company thought that people would be more familiar with this version. The book is also featured in Samantha: An American Girl Holiday, a.k.a. the Samantha movie, and is given to Samantha by Cornelia when they first meet. Sam is similarly not sure what to make of her and more than slightly resentful that she's shaking things up for her, so it seemed like this recipe was the perfect way to combine the plot of the book with the plot of the movie, while also being something that Samantha might have eaten herself.

The recipe is pretty simple to make, and at first glance, seems like it doesn't need that much spice. You just need cinnamon and ginger, and not even that much of either of them, but I promise, this is definitely a gingery cake!

As you can see, we also don't have a sifter, so things are usually "sifted" with whatever utensil is on hand.

The recipe only needs a tablespoon of butter. I was really excited to see that the butter needed to be melted, because making "softened" butter is always a little bit of a Mexican stand off with my microwave. I have yet to find the sweet spot of legitimately softened and not in a puddle at the bottom of a bowl, so it's always an exciting moment to know that I won't have to fight with my microwave to heat stuff up.

It only needs brown sugar and molasses, and the sour cream is what gives it the nice moist texture after it's been baked. It does make storing it a little bit of a nightmare, or at least it did for us, because now the cakes look a little funky and apparently that means no one wants to eat them, even if they taste fine still. I guess it doesn't help that there are only a few people in my house who actually like to eat gingerbread, but it's still kind of a bummer when you make something and no one wants to eat it. Oh well.

It's easy enough to combine by hand. The only ingredient that's difficult to incorporate is the sour cream because it sort of just becomes streaks, so a whisk or a beater will probably help get rid of those faster if you're in a hurry.

I got the hand mixer out to combine the flour and the wet ingredients, and again, this was a pretty hassle free experience. The cake batter is a little thicker than a batter you'd get from a boxed cake mix, but it's still very easily workable and smells great when everything's all blended together.

The recipe says to put the batter in greased ramekins, but since we don't have any of those, I had to go with the suggested substitute of muffin tins. It turned out the extra butter left over from the sweet potato pudding was the perfect size and shape to grease the pan pretty thoroughly so I was very excited to see that it could be put to use somewhere.

The batter made enough cakes to fill a pan and a half.

My muffin-cakes were ready to eat after only twenty minutes, but I assume it would take a little longer for ones baked in a larger tin to get solid all the way through. I feel like the texture is definitely similar to a muffin more than a cupcake, but it's still something I can definitely see being served as dessert because it's sweet, but not too sweet, so it might also be a tasty breakfast snack too, if you're in the mood for that!

The original recipe also included a recipe for butterscotch sauce, but no one in my immediate family is a big fan of butterscotch, so we decided to just make some whipped cream really fast to serve with it.

Overall, this was a pleasantly simple, tasty treat to make, and the fact that it's got such good history behind it was another really special surprise. I really encourage you guys to go check out Paper and Salt because it's got a lot of really cool information about famous writers, the times they lived in and the foods they would have eaten, and I'd also encourage giving these cakes a try for yourself. They're really tasty, with just the right amount of spice and without being too sweet, so they've got some versatility beyond just being a dessert if you need it. The recipe itself is very simple, and could easily be made by a younger chef with minimal assistance if need be, so it's definitely a fun way to introduce some history and significance to any Samantha themed soirees you might be planning with your little person.

And may your gingerbread houses stay in one piece! Ours has already lost a few pieces somehow.

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