With the possible exception of roasted chestnuts, nothing says Christmas like gingerbread. There's just something about the warm spices that makes it perfect to munch on while listening to Christmas carols and drinking hot chocolate.
Of course, you don't need to make gingerbread. You can get it at just about every coffeehouse in town, and it's perfectly fine. To be honest, I get a little excited when the red cups at Starbucks come out and the gingerbread replaces the pumpkin bread in the glass case.
But let's be realistic: You can't serve Starbucks gingerbread to your holiday guests, even if they would sell it to you a loaf at a time. And would you want to? If you're a hardcore foodie, as many people in this valley are, odds are you want to serve something a little bit special.
Here's that something: apple gingerbread cake, the perfect dessert to follow Christmas dinner or to elevate an everyday winter meal to an occasion. It serves 12, so there will be plenty to go around, and though the base is a traditional gingerbread, the apple topping adds an unexpected twist on an old favorite.
The best part is that even though it looks fancy, once you throw it in the oven, you're basically done—no frosting required, as the apple topping takes care of that for you. The only minor drawback to this recipe is that it requires three mixing bowls. I recommend paying off your significant other with cake and assigning cleanup to him or her.
If you prefer a lighter cake, feel free to replace up to half of the molasses with honey, but be aware that this adjustment makes the taste less like a traditional gingerbread. The recipe below has been adjusted for high altitude.
Apple gingerbread cake
Adapted from Karen Bates via The New York Times
4 Tbsp. butter, plus extra for greasing the pan
½ cup dark brown sugar
Pinch of salt
4 small Granny Smith apples (about 1¾ pounds), peeled, cored and sliced
½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
½ cup granulated sugar
1 large egg (extra large would also be fine)
2/3 cup dark molasses (replace in part with mild variety or with honey if desired)
1 cup buttermilk
2¼ cups flour
¾ tsp. baking soda (a little less north of Ketchum; a little more in the south valley)
½ tsp. salt
2 tsp. ground ginger
1 tsp. cinnamon (more if desired)
Preheat the oven to 340 degrees. Grease a 10-inch cake pan.
For topping: Melt butter in a small saucepan. Add brown sugar and simmer over medium heat for about four minutes, stirring constantly. Swirl in salt, then remove from heat and pour into the bottom of the cake pan. Arrange overlapping apple slices in circles on top of the caramel, then chop any remaining pieces and place them in the gaps.
For cake: Using a stand mixer, blend butter and the sugar on medium-low speed. Increase the speed to high, and beat until light and fluffy.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the egg, molasses and buttermilk. In another bowl, sift together the flour, baking soda, salt, ginger and cinnamon. Alternate adding the molasses and the flour mixtures into the butter mixture, adding the next once the last has been incorporated.
Pour batter into the pan with the apples and caramel. Bake for 50 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean. Let cool in pan on rack for 10 to 15 minutes, then turn out onto a platter. Expect the caramel to overflow.
Serve to your admiring guests warm or cool, with or without whipped cream. If your guests aren't admiring, feel free to hoard all the cake for yourself.
Katherine Wutz is a reporter for the Idaho Mountain Express.