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Spicebush Gingerbread: My Version of M.F.K. Fisher’s Classic Recipe

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Spicebush Gingerbread: My Version of M.F.K. Fisher’s Classic Recipe

December 15, 2017

After a summer baking hiatus (too hot, too humid), I begin to bake again in earnest when the weather turns cold. The nesting instinct kicks in, and the good smells make our winter-dark garden apartment in Brooklyn nice and toasty. My favorite spice to use at this time of year, hands down, is spicebush. Also called Appalachian allspice, it is the fruit of Lindera benzoin. Despite its native status and appealing flavor, spicebush remains virtually unknown in most kitchens. In mine, I go through about half a pound a year.

Read on to learn more about this aromatic ingredient—and for a recipe for a holiday pain d’épice.

Photography and food by Marie Viljoen.

Every early winter I like to bake batches of small cakes that I can send to friends around the holidays. Often I make traditional, dark fruitcakes, albeit spiced with either foraged spicebush or mahlab (powdered toasted wild cherry kernels). They keep &#8\2\1\1; and consequently travel &#8\2\1\1; well.
Above: Every early winter I like to bake batches of small cakes that I can send to friends around the holidays. Often I make traditional, dark fruitcakes, albeit spiced with either foraged spicebush or mahlab (powdered toasted wild cherry kernels). They keep – and consequently travel – well.

This year I am making pain d’epice, a Dijon-style gingerbread based on a rather enigmatic recipe that M.F.K. Fisher includes in Serve it Forth (a volume within the classic collection of her work, The Art of Eating). My little cakes are spiked with ginger, spicebush, and mustard. Sliced thinly and eaten with butter and jam, they are a perfect sidekick for a cup of tea or strong coffee. Nibble them plain with a glass of Sauternes, or toast a slice before topping it with duck liver mousse (yes, really).

Spicebush is an understory shrub or small tree that grows in moist woodlands east of the Rockies. It is quite prolific in the Northeast, where I live, and is also an excellent native choice for semi shaded gardens, blooming in very early spring.
Above: Spicebush is an understory shrub or small tree that grows in moist woodlands east of the Rockies. It is quite prolific in the Northeast, where I live, and is also an excellent native choice for semi shaded gardens, blooming in very early spring.

The female trees produce fruit, useful from summer onwards through early fall, when they are ripe. All parts of the tree are very aromatic (in winter and spring I use twigs to infuse sugar or savory dishes; in summer, leaves).

Green spicebush fruit, picked in summer, is very herbal and sharp—I prefer it in savory dishes. Ripe spicebush is more warmly scented, strongly reminiscent of citrus zest, with a little pepper and pine thrown in.
Above: Green spicebush fruit, picked in summer, is very herbal and sharp—I prefer it in savory dishes. Ripe spicebush is more warmly scented, strongly reminiscent of citrus zest, with a little pepper and pine thrown in.

It dries and keeps very well if frozen, and is impeccably suited to Northern holiday baking and cooking traditions, where cranberry, oranges, or apple feature. And it loves bourbon and brandy. Just saying…

Above: The really happy news is that this versatile spice is available online if you cannot collect it yourself, or live where it does not grow.  Integration Acres in Ohio has been selling it for years. When I have not been able to forage the fruit in quantity, I supplement my cache with the click of a mouse.

A 1-ounce packet of Appalachian Allspice of excellent quality is $3 (1 pound is $30) from Integration Acres. Keep it well wrapped in the freezer and grind on demand.

While M.F.K. Fisher’s writing was a formative part of my reading life, and despite having read everything she ever wrote, several times, I was never tempted to try a single one of her recipes. With this exception. She writes a lot about Dijon gingerbread, or pain d&#8\2\17;épice. The wonderful smell, the sense of nostalgia it evoked.
Above: While M.F.K. Fisher’s writing was a formative part of my reading life, and despite having read everything she ever wrote, several times, I was never tempted to try a single one of her recipes. With this exception. She writes a lot about Dijon gingerbread, or pain d’épice. The wonderful smell, the sense of nostalgia it evoked.

I haven’t read Fisher’s work in some years, but this fall I suddenly remembered the strange method she outlined for pain d’epice, which called for aging honey and flour together for months.

Perhaps my relatively recent exploration of wild yeasts and fermentations has loosened my inhibitions. I tried her method, at last, beginning by mixing up the paste and aging it in a jar for six weeks. The results, post baking, surprised me. The dense little cakes were very good.
Above: Perhaps my relatively recent exploration of wild yeasts and fermentations has loosened my inhibitions. I tried her method, at last, beginning by mixing up the paste and aging it in a jar for six weeks. The results, post baking, surprised me. The dense little cakes were very good.
The stiff mixture does not break up completely in the mixing, and leaves delectable little nuggets of paste within the dough, similar to marzipan in texture, but honey flavored—this gives the cakes a unique character.
Above: The stiff mixture does not break up completely in the mixing, and leaves delectable little nuggets of paste within the dough, similar to marzipan in texture, but honey flavored—this gives the cakes a unique character.
I adapted the recipe, and added a little butter to the M.F.K. Fisher method, as well as spicebush, of course.
Above: I adapted the recipe, and added a little butter to the M.F.K. Fisher method, as well as spicebush, of course.

If you are nervous about the aging, or simply do not have the time, the recipe still works well if you skip the waiting part. See below for the two methods. When it comes to working the dough, it will be very stiff—expect that. The result when baked is a dense crumb and a very aromatic, sliceable little cake or loaf. Wrapped and kept in an airtight container —I like to use stainless steel U Konserve lunch boxes—it will last for at least six weeks with no ill effect.

The darker your honey, the more complex the flavor of the cakes. Chestnut is ideal. But even a very budget-friendly dark buckwheat, or an economical light clover tastes fantastic.
Above: The darker your honey, the more complex the flavor of the cakes. Chestnut is ideal. But even a very budget-friendly dark buckwheat, or an economical light clover tastes fantastic.

Spicebush Gingerbread Cakes – American Pain d’Épice

Makes four small cakes (4.5 -inch springform cake pans), three small loaves (three  6-inch loaf pans), or one 9-inch loaf.

The recipe doubles well, but use two mixing bowls for the assembly.

  • 1 pound warm honey
  • 14 ounces all-purpose flour
  • 2 ounces rye flour
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon powdered ginger
  • 1 tablespoon ground spicebush
  • 2 teaspoons dry mustard
  • 1 teaspoon orange or clementine zest
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 3 large egg yolks
  • 2 ounces melted butter, cooled

If aging the paste: Mix the flour and honey in a bowl and stir until it is a thick paste. Transfer the paste to a clean jar, cover with a lid, and allow to age at a cool room temperature for a minimum of eight days (and up to several months). When you are ready to bake, remove the paste from the jar with your clean hands, in stages. It will be stiff, like thick marzipan. Place the chunks you have removed in a mixing bowl and break them up into smaller pieces.  Add the melted butter and stir well. Sprinkle the salt, spices, and orange zest over and stir in. Add the baking powder and baking soda. Stir again—it will be stiff, be patient. Now proceed with the eggs as for the method below.

If mixing and baking at once: Preheat the oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. Butter four round 4.5-inch cake pans, or one 9-inch loaf pan.

Combine all the dry ingredients and the zest in a bowl. Pour the warmed honey into a well in the center and stir very well. Add the butter and stir it in. Add the egg yolks, stirring to incorporate them. Use an electric beater on its lowest setting to give a final mix to the batter. (If working with the aged paste the beater will take some strain.)

Divide the smoothly mixed batter evenly among the prepared pans and transfer to the oven. Bake for 35 minutes for small cakes and insert a skewer to test for doneness. If it comes out sticky, bake another 5 minutes, or until the inserted skewer comes out clean. Make sure the skewer reaches to the bottom of the cake. For a single, large loaf size, bake for 50 minutes before testing. Turn out onto a wire rack and cool.

When cool, wrap tightly and store for up to eight weeks.

Serve cut very thinly, smeared with butter.

N.B.: For more of Marie’s favorite holiday recipes, see:

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