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the taste of the familiar in ginger-molasses cupcakes

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11 December 2008

the taste of the familiar in ginger-molasses cupcakes

ginger-molasses cupcakes

Every Christmas season, my mother made ginger-molasses cookies. Every year, she pulled out the recipe, written in blue ink, slightly smeared from butter stains and time. My grandmother's spidery handwriting crawled across the index card. I don't remember my mother's mother ever baking, but I'm told she did, once. This recipe probably came from her mother, or an older aunt, or a magazine article from the 1940s. They grew up in Pennsylvania, near Amish country, and the baking tasted of generations.

By the time I was 7 or 8, I was helping my mother bake the Christmas cookies. Back then, I felt mature because I could open a cupboard door and heft out the five-pound bag of flour and carry it to my mother. The counters still loomed above my head. Baking felt like magic. Sift, pour, stir — every action seemed important. The smell of ginger powder — tumbling out of the square McCormick's tin box — made me smile every time.

As the years went on, I began baking the cookies. I loved the familiar actions, the thumbed index card I only saw once a year, the smell of the cookies coming from the oven. And the cookies themselves, of course. Thick instead of crisp, these cookies had heft. Layered tastes of ginger and molasses, a bite of butter, the dimpled bottoms where an extra bit of sugar baked unevenly — all topped with a simple powdered sugar frosting. These cookies were Christmas to me.

When I found I had to go gluten-free, I gave up baking. How would I ever understand all those little bags of flour? Would I ever eat pie? Happy to be healthy for the first time in my life, I romped through foods and thought I would never hold a cookie in my hand again.

It's not really a surprise that the first real baked goods I posted on this site were around the holidays. We long for the familiar, the kiss of ritual, the span of time we taste in that Scottish grandmother's fruitcake everyone passes around. (And passes by. You won't see me trying to adapt a fruitcake gluten-free any time soon.) The holidays have emotional resonances beyond the actual cookie.

A few months after my diagnosis, I started baking again because I missed the smell of cookies in the oven. I missed dragging out the flour, even though the bags are much smaller now, and my hands more capable. I missed that sanctified space in the kitchen, quiet and measured, of laying out ingredients to bake.

And now, when I meet folks who are new to this, or who feel overwhelmed by baking in general, I hear this:

Baking feels daunting. It takes too long and I just don't have the time. Besides, I'll make a mess of the kitchen and I'm not going to be good at it. I might as well buy the packaged goods. But the gluten-free packaged cookies taste like sawdust and three pounds of sugar. Now I won't have anything to eat for the holidays. Damn, life stinks.

If this is your first gluten-free holiday season, or your tenth but you are afraid of baking, or you can eat gluten but you just don't take the time to bake, I have a word for you. Try.

There is nothing like baking. The cookies that spread, the ones that burned at the edges because we rushed to the phone, the attempts at family favorites that fall flat — they are all better than not baking at all. Which is better, an imagined perfection or an uninhabited kitchen?

Whoever first created that thick ginger-molasses cookie recipe that my mother had written in a small tin in her kitchen? I salute you. I still haven't figured out entirely how to make those cookies gluten-free. But I'm still trying. It's Christmas, after all.

bon appetit's blog envy

p.s. I'm honored to be part of Bon Appetit's holiday round-up of food blogs they love. My goodness! They're calling it Blog Envy and they posted it on their website yesterday. You've already seen my sugar cookies if you read this site. But there are so many great recipes for the holidays from incredible bloggers that I highly encourage you to click here now. I mean, David Lebovitz's milk chocolate and black pepper ice cream? Dreamy.

ginger-molasses cupcakes II

GINGER-MOLASSES CUPCAKES, adapted from Dorie Greenspan's gingerbread recipe

Since I put up the post on chocolate cupcakes with coffee ganache a few weeks ago, I've been in a cupcake mood. There's something so cheerful about cupcakes, right? And luckily, it's really not that hard to make gluten-free cupcakes successfully.

These cupcakes taste exactly like the ginger-molasses cookies my mother always made for the holiday. I've been determined to conquer those cookies. Meanwhile, these slipped out easily. Now, I'm not sure I need the cookies anymore. It's hard to turn down ginger-molasses cupcakes for breakfast. (Ahem. The Chef and I had to taste them one more time this morning before we told you about them.)

Dense and moist as gingerbread, these cupcakes are not dainty mouthfuls. They'll fill you up. The ginger rushes in for the first few bites, followed by a whoosh of brown sugar and butter, followed by the faintest afterburn of ginger later. The texture owes its thanks to teff flour and cream cheese. And they're ready for tweaking, so you can make them your own.

I have a feeling we might be eating these at my parents' house this Christmas.

(And part of this post is also on the fabulous blog, Cupcakes Take the Cake. I'm the guest blogger today, but they have so much to offer us. You really need to go read them too!)

for the cupcakes

2 tablepoons fresh ginger, peeled
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 cup sorghum flour
1/2 cup sweet rice flour
1/2 cup potato starch
1/2 cup teff flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons ground ginger
3/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon cracked black pepper
12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
3/4 cup brown sugar, packed
1/2 cup sugar
3 large eggs
1/2 cup molasses
1/2 cup whole milk
3 ounces cream cheese, softened

for the icing
1/2 cup powdered sugar
1 tablespoon heavy cream (or more, depending on the consistency you like)

Getting ready to bake. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease your cupcake tins with canola oil and dust them with a bit of sweet rice flour.

Preparing the ginger. Peel the ginger with a fine micrograter or nutmeg grater. Or, you can slice it fine, if you wish. Mix the ginger with the tablespoon of sugar. Stir and set aside.

Combining the dry ingredients. Sift each of the individual flours into a bowl through a fine-mesh sieve. When you have combined them all, sift the combination through the sieve. This helps to make the flours fine, and to create one flour for baking. Add in the baking soda, salt, and spices. Stir well and set aside.

Creaming the butter and sugars. Put the softened butter and sugars into a mixing bowl. Stir and whirl until they are well-combined and fluffy, about 3 minutes.

Making the batter. Add in the eggs one at a time, waiting for a moment before adding the next one. Pour in the molasses and continue the mixer. Throw in the sugared ginger. Reduce the speed of your stand mixer to low and add 1/3 of the dry ingredients. Beat. Add the milk. Beat. Add another 1/3 of the dry ingredients. Beat. Drop in small bits of the cream cheese by hand, as the mixer continues to run. As soon as the ingredients are all added and just combined, turn off the mixer.

Baking the cupcakes. Spoon the batter into the cupcake tins, filling them about 3/4 of the way full. Bake for about 20 minutes, or until a knife inserted in the middle of the cupcake comes up clean. Take the cupcakes out and allow them to cool. Don't worry if the cupcakes fall a bit flat. That creates the texture of gingerbread in these cupcakes. Cool the cupcakes for 10 minutes, and then let them tumble out of the tins. Allow them to cool to room temperature before frosting them.

Frosting the cupcakes. Combine the powdered sugar and cream and stir until the mixture is smooth. If you want the cupcake thick, stop. If you want it to be more of a drizzle, then add a bit more cream. Frost the cupcakes. Eat.

Makes about 12 medium-sized cupcakes.


At 2:30 PM, Blogger mechiko said...

Those sound like the cookies that my mom, grandma, and great-grandma make (and I do too) - we call them cry babies, and I thought they were a secret family recipe! Haha. I've never thought of making them into cupcakes but I might have to give it a try now!

At 3:21 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think this will make you laugh, but my mom called me this morning so excited to tell me that she'd adapted her fruitcake recipe to GF- the celiac in our family is my 10-year-old daughter. I laughed, and said, well, did you like it? Cause I think you'll be the only one eating it! Fruitcake isn't exactly filled with tastes that kids love.
In my mother's defense, she doesn't use candied fruit or citron- simply apricots, prunes, walnuts, and pineapple. So, it's better than most, but still!
Love your blog-
Debi in Lake Oswego, Oregon

At 3:23 PM, Blogger Carolyn J. Martone said...

Dear Shauna,

I just finished reading your book, and it is truly amazing and inspiring. I am not even gluten-free; I simply love your writing. I posted your blog address on my own. If you ever have the time to check it out, I'm

Many thanks for all the inspiration you have given me, and your other loyal fans!

Carolyn Martone

At 3:41 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have made gluten free fruit cake and it tastes just like the one my mom used to make (delicous)and my mom's recipe was not gluten free. The secret? Pamela's Baking Mix. I use it for cookies, muffins and pancakes and it never lets me down. I ordered the candied fruits on line and the quality was excellent. I love this fruit cake. It is moist and addictive.

At 3:52 PM, Blogger H.Peter said...

Great recipe. Love the Ginger in a cupcake.

At 4:58 PM, Blogger Pearl said...

they look sooooo beautiful! i really want to make them now!

and congrats on the award! you totally deserve it :)

At 6:09 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi There!

I love your posts. I agree with the statement about just TRYING to make some gluten-free items. It honestly isn't as hard as it seems! I've made some really wonderful things that I think are better than their gluten counter-parts.

Just the other day I made a buckwheat banana bread with chocolate chips that was surprisingly delicious (I ran out of the other GF flours!). I'm also thinking of making gluten-free florentines (thin, crispy cookies with chopped, candied fruits, coconut, etc in then and one side dipped in chocolate). I haven't tried to make them but I figure it's worth a shot!

Happy Holidays!


At 6:15 PM, Blogger gfe--gluten free easily said...

Ginger + molasses + frosting on a cupcake ... how can that add up to anything but wonderful! Yummmmmy!

At 8:22 PM, Blogger jill elise said...

I just made MY moms (and probably moms moms) molasses softies, which are ginger-molasses cookies today!

Cupcakes sound wonderful, also.
I made a gluten-free fruitcake last year, I don't think I'd ever had fruitcake before but it was delicious.

At 8:50 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have been reading this site for years. My boyfriend of over three years is both gluten-free (although not celiac) AND allergic to legumes. So many of the wheat-free recipes that I see online use soybean or chickpea substitutes, which obviously do not help.

I love to bake, and reading your posts always makes me itch to be in the kitchen. The bonus is that the boyfriend can actually eat most of them. So thank you for making my gluten-free experience just that much easier.

Also, your daughter is completely adorable, and looks like a happy and well-cared for baby. She is so lucky. I wish the three of you all the best for the new year!

At 6:19 AM, Blogger Another Suburban Mom said...

Those look really good. I am sponsoring a Virtual Holiday Cookie Exchange. It was not on purpose but both of my cookies are gluten free.

At 7:18 AM, Blogger face said...

What a wonderful recipe! Thank you so much for sharing. I'll definitely have to pass that on to my GF, handy-in-the-kitchen husband...

My grandma makes a fruitcake that has always been known in our family as "fellcake", because big slices of it were always taken on fellwalking trips to the Lake District in the NW of England. Grandma says it started life as a Christmas cake recipe which she or her mother tweaked because it wasn't *quite* right. I tried making it with my husband's prescribed GF flour and the fruit sank like a whole lot of stones. My mother made the same thing using the same flour and it was DIVINE. Guess the baking gene didn't come my way...!

I read your site as often as I can and have done for a couple of years now. Thank you so much for sharing your experiences and your recipes.

At 8:27 AM, Blogger Maeve said...

That sounds completely lovely. This is my first Winter season eating a crazy diet (wheat/dairy/sugar/soy-free), so I'm thrilled to find recipes that can (potentially) work for me. How sweet do the cupcakes end up being? Think I could nix a bit of the sugar? What about the cream cheese - any ideas on substitutions (or can it be omitted)?

At 9:10 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As you know, Shauna, when we went GF last year, the baking daunted me at first. Baking was in my blood, and the flour became foul- a total taboo. But with your guidance and guide to "GF grains 101" it all came together eventually, and is no big deal anymore. It's become almost like painting: a bit of Teff, a dab of Flax seed meal, some sorghum and sweet rice flour... and it may need an egg...

My advice to overcome the "fear of baking again" is to choose some of the myriad recipes that call for a very small amount of flour- which is easy to substitute with one GF flour. I make kick-butt brownies with 1/2 cup of sorghum flour or Teff. The clafouti needs only 2 Tablespoons- so I use sweet rice flour to make that yummy custard. Martin Yan's new Chinese Cooking has a fabulous recipe for a Flourless Chocolate Chinese Five Spice Cake. Cheesecake is easy, too- the crust can be made from ground nuts, or ground GF cereal.

So... no whining! Get baking and get happy!

Congrats on the great award- and I agree- I would not touch a fruit cake with a ten foot pole.

At 9:13 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've just found your blog and I'm very grateful for all your work and care in posting. We've just found out that we are going gluten free for my son's health. He does not have Celiac but his nutritionist believes that he has an intolerance. The poor boy has had tummy and sinus issues his whole life. He can have wheat if it has either been soaked or sprouted first. So a traditional sour dough should be fine. The soaking and sprouting break down the things that make it hard for him to digest.

I have to say that I am intimidated by all those different flours in those little bags. I'm not even sure where to find some of them. I've starting looking. I'm finding much encouragement by reading your blog.

Thanks so much!


At 9:49 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Shauna - A BIG congratulations for making Bon Appetit's Blog Envy roster! Way to go!

Happy Holidays to you!


At 1:04 PM, Blogger Aundrea said...


I was diagnosed with celiac this year (I will turn 42 this week) and my mother also realized she had it too after my diagnosis. She gave me your book as a birthday present and I'm really enjoying reading it.

I've tried some gluten-free baking and my daughter likes it, but my husband and son are not convinced. It is so sweet and supportive that your husband bakes gluten-free food for you.

I'm lucky to live in South Orange County and have an organic farm/Trader Joe's, many ethnic restaurants etc. nearby. I'm still wishing for a gluten free bakery, but I've gained 10 lbs. since going gluten free, so maybe it's a good thing!

Thanks for all your helpful info and insights!

At 2:12 PM, Blogger Lauren Denneson said...

I agree - baking GF can be intimidating at first, but it fills your home with a kind of warmth only baking can do - even when your experiment produces less-than-desirable results. The important thing is that you try!
Congratulations on the award!

At 3:05 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi, I'm hoping someone can help me with an egg free version of this recipe. Shauna, your recipes sound so good, and I can't eat eggs! Usually 2 eggs are easy to replace, 3 not so much.

At 3:06 PM, Blogger KatBouska said...

I have recently joined the world of the gluten free and was directed to your blog by a mutual reader (sheri and george).

My five year old has recently been diagnosed with wheat and egg allergies and I feel a little overwhelmed. I can't wait to read more from your blog!

At 12:21 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great recipe. Love the Ginger in a cupcake.

At 10:22 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is there anything that can be used in place of potato starch? I am deathly allergic to potatoes and most GF baked goods include it. thanks!

At 3:08 AM, Blogger David said...

that ice cream would go spot-on with your cupcakes, too! xx dl

At 6:23 AM, Blogger CatherineMarie said...

I just made some gluten-free mince tarts and panforte for church. The mince tarts were the first thing to go, from a whole range of gluten-containing baked goods!

At 8:42 AM, Blogger Rosiecat24 said...

This post is so lovely and warm! There are few things more pleasurable than baking.

I really enjoyed La Nina's comment about how baking is like painting. Contrary to what the supreme baking experts might say, there IS some room to play when it comes to baking, and the folks who have to work with restrictions in the kitchen inspire me not to be afraid to try different things. Three cheers for baking! Three cheers for brave gluten-free bakers!

At 11:01 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh yum. I can't wait to try these! I may try to make them vegan as well! I am a Nutritional Counselor and will be working with Autistic/Asperger's children. It is generally recommended that they eliminate gluten from their diets. Your site will be indespensible in providing me with information and inspiring stories! Thanks so much. I am putting you on my blogroll.

At 3:29 PM, Blogger 4ddintx said...

I was so excited when I saw this recipe, as I had just ordered teff flour. I bought some fresh ginger and was ready to go.

Just a note, if you are using a standard cupcake pan, it will make far more than 12 cupcakes. I doubled the recipe since I wanted 2 dozen. I ended up with an 8x8 pan of batter leftover, plus I ended up overfilling the pans (since I had so much batter) and got to test my smoke alarms, prove that my young children won't sleep through the alarm, and add "clean the oven" to my pre Christmas to-do list! ;-) The batter tasted heavenly, though, and I'm hoping to salvage at least the 8x8 pan, since the cupcakes are probably ruined. I will make these again and try not to mess them up next time!

At 8:47 AM, Blogger m. said...

Could you substitute 2 cups of baking mix (Pamela's,etc.) for the flours? Or can anyone suggest a flour to sub for the teff? These look delish and I have been looking for a GF gingerbread recipe (that's not a cookie) but I don't have teff flour. Any ideas are appreciated. I can't wait to try these!

At 7:15 PM, Blogger Miri said...

I loved these so much I had to save them in my own cookbook! Thanks a bunch!

At 11:31 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I made these last night for the family and for Santa. I have a yummy Harvest Ginger Spice Cake recipe that I usually put a Ginger Cream Cheese Frosting on. I made up a batch of the frosting for these and it is an amazing pairing.

I had to share it as an option for these delicious cupcakes of yours.

Ginger Cream Cheese Frosting
1 lb cream cheese (soften to room temp)
1/2 lb unsalted butter (soften to room temp)
4 1/2 cups powdered sugar - sifted
1 Tbsp candied ginger, finely chopped
2 tspn dry ground ginger

Mix the cream cheese with half the amount of powdered sugar until fluffy and light. In a separate bowl do the same with the butter and the other half of the powdered sugar. Combine the two mixtures into one bowl and add the gingers. Mix until creamy (about 5 minutes)


At 6:18 PM, Blogger Gwen said...

Just tried these, in fact there's one more pan still in the oven. I grew up eating gingerbread with a tart lemon sauce and in my opinion it's the best flavor combo possible. So I read the labels on lemon curd until I found one that appears safe (yes, I've made lemon curd myself, I'm just being lazy today) - I tried putting a spoonful of curd on top of the batter before baking but it sinks to the bottom... so I tried putting the curd in a decorating bag and injecting about a teaspoon into the middle of the cupcake - works like a charm ans so yummy! Then make your favorite icing, or just make your glaze on the thick side and you can hide the hole you made. These are gonna be a hit tomorrow!

At 6:13 PM, Blogger lesley said...

Oh my goodness...I made these last night and actually cried out "Oh my GOD" so loudly my daughter had to explain to my husband on the phone with her that it was "just Mommy eating a cupcake." As if! More like sheer heaven. Thank you Shauna, I shall dream of these cupcakes at night.

BTW To ratchet up the scrumptious factor I added cream cheese to the icing. Yum.

I love your book and your blog!

Lesley in Mill Bay BC

At 8:03 AM, Blogger m. said...

I made these for xmas and the flavor was incredible! I did have the problem another commenter mentioned of the batter running all over my oven though. I think that next time I make these I will reduce the amount of milk or liquids and see what happens. Any other suggestions on how to avoid this problem?

At 8:06 PM, Blogger hanna said...

Made these this week, and my goodness! yummy!
(I have blogged them here )
Thanks so much for sharing.


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