Some time ago, with the windy and rainy weather here, I found myself craving a tasty pain d’épices, that is "spice-bread", as we call it in France. Not that I had been a big fan of gingerbread before : as a child, though not being a picky eater, it was one of the things my dad ate (with fruitcake, the one with chopped candied fruits) that I couldn’t stand. So, I bought some at the supermarket, and it would be an understatement to say I wasn’t satisfied with it : too dry, almost rubbery, with an artificial and almost bland taste. That’s why I decided to go for homemade, which on the contrary turned out to be a dense yet soft gingerbread cake, well flavored but not too sweet, with an appreciated long shelf life. Plus, I choose to add bits of dried fruits and nuts, which meld their taste to that of the cake and make it burst not only with flavour, but also with energy. It is thus perfect for a wintry breakfast or afternoon tea !
As a basis to my gingerbread cake, I used a traditional French recipe, the spice-bread of Reims which includes rye flour. While getting information about this recipe, I happened to learn spice-bread as we know it actually originated in medieval China, where a similar honey-based cake called "mi-kong" used to be prepared. I couldn’t learn more, but considering my passion for Chinese cuisine, I’m very interested in it, so don’t hesitate to share your knowledge if you know about it…
But let’s get back to our recipe ! I have to insist on the fact that no egg nor fat is involved except a little olive oil that you can skip since it is an additional ingredient, so it is somehow quite a healthy food and might suit some specific diets. A lot of ingredients is required, but not of work, it is quite quick and simple if you have all on hand. For me, it constitutes an improved spice-bread and fruitcake at one time !
Ingredients (for one loaf, weighing about 2.5 lb) :
- 1 cup (250ml) milk
- 450g good quality honey (I used mountain honey while the original recipe called for chestnut tree honey, and it was fine)
- 1 tsp powdered ginger
- 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1/2 heaping tsp of ground aniseeds (or substitute ground star anise)
- 1/4 tsp ground allspice
- 1/8 tsp ground cardamom
- 300g rye flour (makes for a richer yet smoother batter)
- 150g plain wheat flour
- 30g brown sugar (preferably beet sugar) (which gives the spice-bread its nice color)
- 1 tbsp olive oil (optional) (makes for a "fruitier" taste)
- 2 tsp baking soda (sodium bicarbonate)
- 1/2 tsp fleur de sel
- 2 tbsp raisins (about 20g)
- 2 soft dried figs (about 40g)
- 3 soft dried apricots (about 25g)
- 2 tbsp candied lemon and/or orange peel (about 20g) (I substituted store-bought candied citron peel)
- 2 tbsp (about 15g) each of almonds, hazelnuts and walnuts
- some all-purpose flour to dust the fruits and nuts
Method (note that you can find illustrations for all steps of the recipe except those specific to my recipe on the site where I picked the recipe, that is here) :
Place the milk, honey and spices in a medium saucepan and cook on low heat, stirring until the honey gets dissolved. Turn off the heat and let cool completely to allow the spices to infuse their flavour into the milk.
Meanwhile, prepare the dried fruits and nuts : halve the almonds and hazelnuts, break the walnuts into similar-sized pieces as the halved nuts, dice the dried fruits into similar-sized pieces as the raisins (the candied citron peel I bought was already diced into smaller pieces). Put all fruits and nuts in a large bowl and dust them with flour, then stir to coat slighlty and evenly all bits. This will allow them to be set and evenly distributed in the batter while baking.
Put all the other ingredients in a mixing bowl and combine, then pour in the first mixture. Stir with a wooden spatula to get a smooth, dense and silky batter (thanks to the rye flour, it takes only a 1 min or 2).
Preheat the oven to 150°C / 300°F.
Add the mixed dried fruits and nuts bits to the batter and stir a few moments more to have them evenly distributed.
Pour the prepared batter in a greased (and floured if not a non-stick pan) large loaf pan and bake 1 hour to 1 hr 10 mins, according to the efficiency of your oven. If the cake starts browning at the end of baking, cover it with a tin foil.
Line your working surface with cling film and as soon as the baking is over, unmold the cake onto the film and wrap it completely, tightly, being careful not to burn yourself. Let the cake cool in the film, which will allow the cake to retain its moisture and thus not dry out.
You can start eating it from the following day, but it turns better after a few days. Anyway, it would keep up to 2 monthes or until it is stale (I haven’t actually experimented it as it didn’t last so long here ;) ). And if you’re a gourmand, please do wait my next recipe before finishing the whole loaf !
Enjoy with a glass of milk, a coffee or a cup of tea !