For me, the holiday season starts with Thanksgiving and continues on until at least January 1, perhaps even longer if I’m so inclined. The days in between are like a long unpacking of traditions and gatherings and other such joy-filled things. When I was young, I spent many of those days anticipating Christmas morning, as children tend to do, but there were plenty of markers along the way that I loved nearly as well. As an adult, I adore it all the same.
We went to the most charming of Christmas tree farms while I was growing up, the sort of place that could be featured in a sitcom’s holiday special. There were rows and rows of trees to wander through, which we of course did, pretending to get lost in the rows, comparing one tree against the other. While my dad cut the tree down, my sister and I would retreat to the big bonfire where we would sit as close as possible, our snow pants in danger of melting at the knees. We were allowed to get hot chocolate or apple cider and maybe even a freshly made donut or Christmas tree cookie, frosted a unnatural shade of green. Sometimes I’d opt instead for a candy cane that I’d drop into my hot chocolate, peppermint infusing the chocolate, like a Starbucks Peppermint Mocha but better. We paid for the tree on the way out, at a little kiosk like the ones in a parking garage. They’d reach through the window to hand us popcorn balls, one for each of us. These were my mom’s favorite, harkening back to her own childhood.
At home, my dad would maneuver the tree into the house (never an easy task) and string on the lights. Soon, we would be pulling the decorations out of their yearlong hibernation, each one holding some sort of memory or meaning. My dad put his collection of Santa ornaments near the top, and we meticulously considered the placement of everything else. (As it happens, everyone in my family is as ridiculously thorough as I am. Clearly that one runs in our blood.) The tinsel was always a source of tension. My dad would put it on in handfuls, while my mom preferred something a little more delicate, and I’ve got to say that I sided with her on that one. I think I recall watching her sneak back to remove the excess when my dad had gone a bit overboard—which, if you know my mom, is pretty surprising, as she generally does very little sneaking.
My sister and I had miniature Christmas trees of our own, too, and after the big tree was decorated, we’d escape upstairs to adorn them with tiny ornaments and tuck little origami boxes constructed from past years’ Christmas cards beneath their branches. My tree’s lights were on a timer, switching on as dusk fell and twinkling until I was fast asleep—magic for a romantic like me.
And the tree was just the beginning. We did a Secret Santa exchange as a family, little gifts hidden for each other in the weeks before the holiday. We watched Christmas movies and old TV specials and listened to favorite albums. We made all kinds of cookies, reveling in the whir of the press we used to make spritz cookies, carefully decorating dozens of homemade sugar cookies shaped like trees and stockings and angels. My grandma would sometimes send tins of her classics: peanut butter balls and peanut brittle and soft caramels that melt in your mouth. We lit Advent candles and caroled and wrapped presents and drove out into the country to look at Christmas lights.
We’re still working out our traditions, me and Ben, as married people and Californians. We get a tree from the stand at the farmers market and decorate it with our funny collection of ornaments. We’ve introduced each other to favorite holiday albums and found a few together as well. There are work parties and gatherings with friends. We always have a special dinner of some sort, just the two of us, before we head back to Michigan for a flurry of family activity. The food, though, I haven’t figured out. I know we’ll be making and/or eating all of the most important-to-me treats of the season once I make it back to my parents’ house: hazelnut cookies, the tremendous cinnamon roll wreath my mom makes for Christmas morning, my dad’s fudge and party mix. And there are a few treats I don’t need each year but am keeping in my back pocket, like the elaborate Santa cookies my mom made throughout my childhood, a tradition I plan to reignite when I have my own kids. These last few years, I’ve baked a wide variety of things, following my whims and whatever catches my eye on the internet and in magazines. I’ve made several types of shortbread, sparkling cranberries, maybe punch if there’s an occasion for it. It’s all delicious, of course, but nothing quite makes it into perennial rotation. But with this gingerbread, I think I finally have a keeper.
There are a lot of opinions about gingerbread, I’m learning, and many ways to make it. I started with Yvette Van Boven’s rendition from Home Made Winter, mostly because I actually had everything needed to make it on hand when the inspiration struck. This gingerbread is very much a bread, with hardly any fat involved and a nice hit of spice. It is excellent toasted, especially with butter and/or jam, or dunked into coffee or tea. I also made Melissa Clark’s version from Cook This Now, a sticky little number with pockets of jammy cranberries throughout. I brought it to a dinner with friends on Friday night and, taking Ms. Clark’s advice, made boozy whipped cream to serve alongside. We were out of bourbon, so I used scotch, and perhaps a little bit too much. But no one complained—in fact, they took seconds. Though pitched as a homey affair, I would bring this to another party in a heartbeat. As so many us have learned, it turns out that what people really want at the end of a meal with friends is something humble and not precious in the least, something delicious and maybe a little messy. This fits the bill.
But when it comes to everyday gingerbread, Megan Gordon’s is the one I want. My cake preferences always align with hers, so it’s really no surprise. But this gingerbread is truly excellent: deeply spiced, full of flavor and sturdy, with a nice, dense crumb. I ate it morning, afternoon and night. It was perfect on every occasion and is worthy of tradition status, indeed.
Adapted from Megan Gordon’s Whole-Grain Mornings
Serves 9 to 12
3/4 cup (120 g) whole wheat flour
1 cup (120 g) spelt or white whole wheat flour, plus additional for the pan
1/2 cup (75 g) packed brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 cup (25 g) chopped crystalized ginger (optional)
1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 tablespoons grated mandarin or orange zest
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
8 tablespoons (115 g) unsalted butter, plus additional for the pan
1/2 cup (120 ml) blackstrap molasses
3 tablespoons honey
1/2 cup (120 ml) whole milk
1/4 cup (60 ml) plain yogurt (anything on the spectrum from nonfat to whole will work just fine)
1 large egg, beaten
Powdered sugar, for decorating (optional)
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour a 9-inch round or square pan.
In a large bowl, whisk together the flours, sugar, baking soda, salt, various types of ginger, cloves, cinnamon, orange zest and pepper. Use your hands to break up any clumps of sugar. Whisk well.
In a small saucepan over medium-low heat, melt the butter. Add the molasses and honey and cook, stirring, until the mixture is warm but not yet boiling. Pour into the flour mixture and stir to combine. Add the milk, yogurt and egg; fold together until combined. The mixture should look like a loose brownie batter.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake until the edges pull away from the pan slightly and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, 35 to 40 minutes. Let the gingerbread cool completely in the pan before slicing and serving. Dust lightly with powdered sugar before serving, if desired.
Store in a tightly closed container at room temperature for up to 4 days.