In the annals of books that upset and terrified me, Grimm’s Fairy Tales is surprisingly absent. It would make a heck of a lot more sense if this collection of creepy and horribly violent stories had kept me up at night as a kid, but for some reason I simply couldn’t get enough of them. In third grade I discovered a dusty, old copy of the book in my attic while snooping around after school with my best friends, Christie and Meg. We were heavily into mysteries and ghost stories at the time and when we found the book we were certain that we had discovered some dark secret that my parents had tried to keep under lock and key. The book was tremendously old, with gilded pages and illustrations covered by thin sheets of onion paper, full of beautiful words like “dearth” and “soothsayer” and “earthenware,” and it was certainly not yet edited to be “appropriate” for children. From then on, every chance we got, we snuck up to the attic, settled on some old packing blankets and read it by flashlight. (There was, of course, ample lighting up in the attic, but that wouldn’t have felt very authentic).
In reality, my parents had gotten the book as a gift from a distant relative after my older sister was born and stashed it in the attic, thinking (with very good reason) that it wasn’t well suited for bedtime reading. The only real memory I have of this older-than-time relative is being forced to sit on her lap at a family gathering when I was very little and her telling me, “If you don’t brush your hair, your thumbs will fall off!” so it makes a lot of sense that she was the one who gave my parents the book. Grimm’s Fairy Tales are full of violence—people losing limbs or getting lost in forests or being eaten by witches or wolves—and they are full of food.
Jacob and Wilheim Grimm knew well what it was like to want for food. Although they lived comfortably for the first few years of their life, by the time they reached their teens they had been orphaned and left to care for their younger siblings. While writing their collection of fairy tales they were often eating only one tiny meal a day in order to make sure that their brothers and sisters were properly fed, so it makes sense that food would figure so powerfully into almost all of their stories. It is either overly abundant or absent completely, it heals and destroys, taunts, teases, nourishes and saves, but it is always there.
After reading a few tales, Christie, Meg and I always found ourselves terribly hungry, and often, while eating graham crackers and peanut butter and ice cold milk, we felt vaguely guilty thinking of the starving characters we had just read about. It was conveniently close to Christmas when we reached the story of Hansel and Gretel. We had ferreted a few Christmas decorations up to the attic that we thought our parents wouldn’t miss and switched from reading by flashlight to reading by electric advent candle. All three of us had read an edited, child-friendly version of the story at some point in our lives, which made the discovery of the original version all the more shocking. We were disgusted by Hansel and Gretel’s father, so willing to kill his own children at his horrible new wife’s bidding, and incensed that he got away scot-free in the end. The scene that shocked me the most, though, was the one where Hansel and Gretel discover the witch’s house and immediately begin to devour it with abandon, not even pausing when the old woman appears and yells that someone is eating her house! I was raised to be terrified of adults, petrified of ever disrespecting an old person, and I was horrified at Hansel and Gretel for being so piggish and rude to the old lady, witch or not.
I decided that the only way to rectify this huge misdeed was to build our own version of the witch’s destroyed house, and Christie, Meg and I began drawing enormous, intricate blueprints for the ultimate gingerbread house. Meg’s had spiral staircases and balconies with frosting icicles hanging from them, Christie’s had colorful stained glass sugar windows and mine had pink spun sugar clouds suspended above it and a pistachio pudding swamp in the back. We learned quickly, when we actually went to build our houses, that we were going to have to pare things down…a lot. We drew and cut and traced, both on paper and on dough, editing and re-working our original ideas, chatting about the fairy tales as we mixed and rolled and waited for things to cool. It was not unlike many professional kitchen experiences I would have years later, bouncing ideas off of fellow cooks, drawing and measuring, dreaming huge and then simplifying, simplifying, simplifying. Hours later, eyes bleary and fingers cramped we stood back to look proudly upon our crooked masterpiece, and even though our stomachs were grumbling and our noses were full of the smell of molasses and cloves, we didn’t eat an inch of it, not one broken corner.
I have always found it frustrating that gingerbread houses—which are glorious in their complete edibleness—are not meant, really, for eating. You toil and sweat, smelling good smells and touching sticky dough and mixings sweet icing for hours and your only reward is visual—it seems terribly wrong. This gingerbread cake is not only great because it is actually meant for devouring, I love it because it is serious and grown-up and dark, which is how I think the Grimm brothers would have wanted it to be. The tart cranberry syrup pairs perfectly with the cake’s heavy spicing, and it looks creepy to boot.
Gingerbread Cake with Cranberry Syrup
- 2 cups AP flour
- ¼ teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
- 2 tablespoons ground ginger
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- ¼ teaspoon grated nutmeg
- ¼ teaspoon ground cloves
- 1/8 teaspoon ground cardamom
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- ½ teaspoon baking soda
- 1 cup Stout (I use Guinness)
- 1 cup dark molasses (don’t use blackstrap, it’s too bitter)
- 3 large eggs
- 1 cup dark brown sugar, packed
- 1 cup sugar
- 1 teaspoon good vanilla
- ¾ cup butter, melted
Sift all of your dry ingredients minus the baking soda (flour, salt, baking powder, spices) together in a large bowl and set them aside. Add molasses and stout together in a heavy-bottomed pan, and bring them up to a boil before removing them from the heat. Whisk baking soda into molasses/stout mixture and set aside. Melt butter and pour it into a mixer fixed with a paddle attachment. Add brown and white sugar to the butter and beat until smooth, adding eggs one at a time and beating until fluffy. Alternate adding dry ingredients and molasses/stout mixture to the butter, just until everything is incorporated. Pour batter into well-grease bundt pan and bake for 40-50 minutes, or until a tester comes out clean. Allow the cake to cool in the pan at least 10 minutes before turning it out onto a cooling rack. It is delicious right out of the oven, but gets better and better over the course of three days.
- 1 cup fresh or frozen cranberries, roughly chopped
- 1 cup water
- 1 cup granulated sugar
Put sugar and water in a saucepan and dissolve over medium heat. Add chopped cranberries and bring to a boil. Boil for 10-15 minutes, pushing down on the cranberries gently with the back of a spoon. Strain and allow to cool completely. Serve with gingerbread cake and fresh whipped cream.