hard sauce: not too hard and not really that saucy

It’s not Christmas anymore, but I’ve still got a tree up and I’m still eating Christmas cookies, so I think we can still talk about gingerbread. Or more specifically, we can talk about hard sauce. Since I can remember, my mother has made a mild, cake-like gingerbread with rich, sweet hard sauce for dessert on Christmas Day. I’ve since learned to appreciate gingerbread on its own, but when I was a kid, I considered it little more than a convenient vehicle for the hard sauce.
Hard sauce is not quite a sauce and not quite an icing. It’s a dense, silky mixture of butter and sugar that is flavored lastly with alcohol – traditionally brandy or sherry – or, if you must, non-alcoholic extracts. Vanilla, whiskey, and rum are also common flavorings, and I’ve seen a number of recipes for gingerbread with lemon or orange-flavored hard sauces. I like brandy myself. Also, I like brandy in my hard sauce.

In England (and in my small family circle here in the U.S.) (and we can talk about my family’s origins later, but yes, we do enjoy a good Yorkshire pudding now and again), hard sauce is particularly associated with Christmastime, and is served cold, dolloped over hot puddings, gingerbread, or fruitcakes so that it melts over the dense cake. Think English plum pudding – yet another holiday tradition that involves people setting their food on fire. (Only five posts in, and I’m beginning to see some disturbing patterns here, people.)

The recipe my mom has used for years makes a soft sauce that stiffens only slightly in the fridge, probably because it calls for the inclusion of an egg, but traditional hard sauces are stiff and dense enough to pile up in a bowl and set down in the middle of the holiday table and even to press into molds. I’ve seen other recipes that call for eggs, egg whites, heavy cream, or half-and-half, but the four essential ingredients are butter, sugar, and a flavoring agent.

The following recipe is from a copy of The Fanny Farmer Cookbook that my mom has had probably for longer than she’s had me. She may or may not actually feel more loyalty towards this cookbook than she does towards me, in fact. And although I gravitate towards spicier, darker gingerbreads these days and I eat them outside on mild winter evenings in the desert, I make Fanny Famer’s recipe almost every year and it always reminds me of Christmases back home when we’re all stuffed from the roast beast and the peas and the Yorkshire pudding (see?!), and we’re tucked away inside a warm house settled into the wintry, ice-glazed Ohio fields. There are few experiences better than shutting your door against the cold, slicing a warm slab of gingerbread, daubing onto it a thick spoonful of chilled, pale gold sauce, and eating it as the sauce melts slowly over the hot cake.

Gingerbread with Hard Sauce
Make sauce ahead and cool in fridge so it will melt on gingerbread.

Gingerbread:
1 1/2 cup flour
1/2 cup sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon ginger
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup butter
1/2 cup boiling water
1/2 cup molasses

Sauce:
1/2 cup butter
1 cup confectioner’s sugar
1 egg, well-beaten
salt
for flavor: vanilla, sherry, or brandy

Gingerbread:
Butter an 8″ or 9″ square pan (or 12 muffins cups). Preheat oven to 325 degrees for the square pans (250 for muffins).

Sift together flour, sugar, baking powder, ginger, and salt.

Combine 1/4 cup butter and 1/2 cup boiling water. When butter melts, add molasses. Stir into butter mixture into flour mixture and beat until batter is smooth. Spread in prepared pan.

Bake 35 minutes (15 minutes for muffins).

Sauce:
Cream butter. Beat in gradually the confectioner’s sugar, beaten egg, and a few grains of salt. Set mixture over hot water and beat until light and smooth (about 7 minutes). Flavor with vanilla, sherry, or brandy.

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