One day last fall, my spouse came home with five growlers of stout. How he got them is a long and boring story, but suffice it to say fridge space was at a premium for a while. I don’t drink beer, so I couldn’t help make a dent in the stash. Then, during dinner on Christmas Day, a friend mentioned she was craving gingerbread. A bit of quick Googling and easy baking later, and black beer gingerbread entered my life. Now, whenever my husband brings home stout while the weather’s chilly, I make him set aside a bottle for baking.
This is gingerbread the way I like it: plush and cakey, bittersweet and spicy. The beer and molasses make it impenetrably dark brown, and lend a gruff bitterness underneath all the flour and sugar. (If you don’t want to use beer, black coffee makes a reasonable substitute.) I also up the ginger ante by using two types. The ground ginger gets whisked into the dry ingredients; the fresh ginger gets finely grated and gently warmed with the wet ingredients, so that its hot bite mellows and infuses throughout the cake. You could easily omit the fresh stuff and just use ground, though—the cake will still be plenty intense.
The first time I made this gingerbread, I baked it in a bundt pan, as instructed on Epicurious and Smitten Kitchen. But, like many commenters on both sites, I ran into problems: the cake stuck to the pan, and it cracked along the seams when I turned it out. It turns out that this gingerbread’s wonderful qualities—its stickiness and softness—make it tricky to bake in a tall, narrow pan. Fortunately, there’s a much better alternative: a 9×13 pan lined with parchment paper. The parchment eliminates any risk of sticking, and the shallow pan means the cake stays flat and sturdy.
When ready to serve, use the parchment to lift the gingerbread out of the pan, then dust the whole thing with powdered sugar and cut it into squares. And here lies the one caveat of a rectangular cake: you may need to warn people that they’re about to eat gingerbread, not brownies.
Is it weird to say that bran muffins are my favorite muffins? Because it’s true. I have no problem with a lemon-poppyseed muffin, or a blueberry muffin, or a banana-nut muffin, or even a chocolate chip muffin. But to me, a muffin is meant for breakfast or snack, and those are basically dessert. They’re halfway down the road to cake. A bran muffin, on the other hand, has plausible deniability. It’s damn near health food. And there’s nothing else in the baked good kingdom quite like it.
Of course, most bran muffins aren’t actually health food. They’re stealth sugar bombs, and for a while I had to go cold turkey on them. But recently I found a recipe that’s let bran muffins back into my life. It’s built entirely on whole wheat flour, and sweetened with molasses and a touch of honey. I still wouldn’t call them health food, but they’re substantial and slow-burning enough that I can have one in the morning and stay satisfied for hours. The molasses makes these wonderfully dark and damp and bittersweet. The whole wheat makes them extra-earthy and amps up the spongy-grainy texture. They’re my perfect bran muffin.
I like to pack these muffins full of fruit, nuts, and seeds, so that they can stand on their own as a light breakfast or afternoon snack. The muffin pictured below has raisins, sunflower seeds, and blanched slivered almonds. Really, just about anything is fair game. I know lots of people hate raisins, but I love them, and for me a bran muffin isn’t a bran muffin without them. That said, any dried fruit will do just fine, or even no fruit at all. And although I’m normally not a big fan of nuts in baked goods, they’re really lovely here, adding crunch and a wonderfully unpredictable texture.
There’s another reason I love this recipe: it produces those wonderful overhanging dome-tops that are my favorite part of a bran muffin. The key is to fill the muffin cups all the way to the top; if you do, there should be exactly enough batter for 12 perfectly domed muffins. As the muffins bake, the tops rise up out of the cups, nudging right up against each other. My favorite way to eat these is to carefully separate the spongy bottom from the chewy top, then eat the bottom first and save the top for last.