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Gingerbread has and always will hold a place in my heart (and my stomach) as my favorite Christmas cookie. We made gingerbread cookies a couple weeks ago, for the first time with blackstrap molasses, and this only stoked my craving for this spiced holiday cookie.
Of course, gingerbread does not solely refer to a type of chewy cookie; you can also make a fragrant and earthy-sweet gingerbread loaf of holiday goodness.
My history geek tendencies are no secret on this blog, so let’s briefly discuss the history of gingerbread today! (Does anyone else find food history and food anthropology fascinating? I would get oddly excited in my history classes when we talked about food, and not just because my grad school history class coincided with dinner time. Okay, maybe a bit because of that.).
While scholars argue as to when the ginger root arrived in Europe (some claim via the Silk Road from China, others posit that crusaders brought it back with them after their battles in the Mediterranean/Middle East), small ginger cakes rose to ubiquity in medieval life, especially in France, England, and Germany (source). From the 16th century onward in Germany, gingerbread was called lebkuchen, and these heart-shaped cookies inscribed with frosting messages still appear at Christkindlmarkts and Oktoberfest festivals today.
Soft gingerbread loaves, such as the one in today’s recipe, emerged in popularity during the 17th and 18th centuries in the American colonies. Mary Ball Washington (the mother of George Washington) famously served soft gingerbread to Marquis de Lafayette on his visit to Virginia (source).
The ingredient which truly distinguishes melt-in-your-mouth, rich gingerbread from mediocre gingerbread is high-quality molasses, which has its history in the sugar trade of the Caribbean. Molasses is the by-product of the extraction of sugar from sugarcane and sugar beets. As the sugarcane/sugar beets are boiled to crystallize the sugar, they release a thick liquid, which is molasses. Molasses has just a bit of natural sugar in it, but it contains most of the vitamins and minerals found in the sugarcane or sugar beet plants. Blackstrap molasses in particular contains the highest concentration of these vitamins and minerals, which happen to be the exact ones which our running bodies require for overall health and optimal performance.
Endurance athletes need iron to offset the effects of foot-strike hemolysis (especially female runners who will also lose iron through menstruation), magnesium to reduce muscle fatigue and enhance athletic performance, and calcium to maintain healthy bones and prevent stress fractures (again, another area of concern for most female runners). Unsulphured blackstrap molasses will provide you with approximately 20% of your daily calcium requirement, 20% of your daily iron, 17% of your daily potassium, and 12% of your daily magnesium for every 1 tablespoon serving. If you are monitoring your sugar intake (which I do when a goal race approaches), there is no need to avoid blackstrap molasses: since most of the sugar is extracted during boiling, 1 tablespoon only contains 47 calories and 12 grams of sugar. That is less sugar than one banana contains and it is natural, unrefined sugar.
Speaking of bananas, those healthy and naturally sweet fruits make an appearance in this sweet, soft, and spiced banana nut gingerbread loaf, along with crunchy pecans. This gingerbread loaf contains no refined sugars; rather, maple sugar (crystallized form of pure maple syrup), molasses, and bananas provide the sweetness. While it does contain some butter, natural unsweetened applesauce lightens the calorie count. Ground ginger, as I’ve mentioned in other recipes, is a fantastic addition to any runner’s diet, as ginger reduces inflammation (meaning you recover better from hard workouts) and calms upset stomachs. Whole wheat pastry flour adds heart-healthy fiber while maintaining the luxurious fluffiness characteristic of quick breads.
How does this gingerbread loaf achieve such a soft texture and a tall rise when it contains such healthy ingredients? The secret rests in both the ingredients and the preparation. I used both baking powder and baking soda to create leavening reactions both when the bread is mixed and when it is baked. Next, the dry and wet ingredients are very gently folded together, as not to overmix the bread and destroy any carbon dioxide bubbles released by the baking soda. Finally, this quick bread bakes at 375 degrees for 50 minutes, rather than 350 degrees for 60 minutes, which yields a soft yet sturdy loaf.
- 1 3/4 cup whole wheat pastry flour (such as Bob's Red Mill)
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 2 eggs
- 1/3 cup molasses
- 1/4 cup maple sugar*
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1 1/2 teaspoon ginger
- 2 ripened bananas
- 1/4 cup of milk (cow, almond, or coconut)
- 3 tablespoons butter, melted
- 3 tablespoons natural unsweetened applesauce
- 1/3 cup chopped pecans
- Optional: 1 teaspoon maple sugar + 1 tablespoon pecans for topping
- Preheat your oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.
- In a large mixing bowl, stir together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Create a small well in the middle of the mixture.
- In a separate bowl, whisk together the eggs, molasses, maple sugar, cinnamon, and ginger. Mash the bananas and add to the wet egg-sugar mixture, along with the milk, melted butter, and applesauce. Whisk until there are no clumps remaining.
- Pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients and add the pecans. Gently fold the batter until just combined. There should still be some streaks of flour, as a completely blended mixture means you could have overmixed the batter.
- Line a loaf pan with parchment paper and evenly pour the batter into the pan. Top with sugar and pecans if desired. Bake for 50 minutes, or until an inserted toothpick comes out clean.
- Let cool at least 20 minutes before cutting. Store in an airtight container for up to five days.
- *You can use organic cane sugar or brown sugar in place of the maple sugar, with an equal substitution ratio.
- For a dairy-free loaf, substitute coconut butter for the butter and coconut or almond milk for the milk.
I’ll be linking up with Jess, Annmarie, Esther, and Farrah for Foodie Friday and Tina and Deb for Meatless Monday. Thank you to these wonderful ladies for hosting and be sure to check out other delicious recipes!
Looking for a gift for the baker in your life? Consider gifting my e-cookbook, which is full of 50+ healthy recipes, including desserts!
What’s your favorite Christmas cookie?
Gingerbread: love it or leave it?
What are your weekend plans? —> Seeing Star Wars: The Force Awakens!