A festive low-fat and healthy treat for the holiday season!
A year ago, my mom dropped a bombshell on me. After we both scheduled to play hooky from work, Mom hopped on the freeway to visit me, and as we cranked up the car heater during our quality mother-daughter time, she shocked me with this statement:
“I’m going gluten-free!”
Me, her baking-obsessed daughter, cringed. No gluten. None. Nil. Nada. She intended to eliminate that special protein from her diet, the one that provides structure to muffins, elasticity to bread dough, and chew to cookies. Oh boy.
With Mom’s birthday quickly approaching, I scrambled to create a special dessert for her that fit within her new dietary restraints. After purchasing my first gluten-free flour mix, I started measuring, stirring, and taste testing cookie dough. Three batches later, I presented her with gluten-free Nutella cookies as we sang “Happy Birthday” and watched her blow out the candles. Whew!
During the past few months, I experimented with more gluten-free recipes, resulting in a moist pecan banana bread and chocolate brownie pancakes (my favorite rich and fudgy healthy breakfast!). And when the wintery weather blew into town last week, I instantly realized what my next treat should be.
Despite how much I loathe the cold (does anyone really enjoy icy white fingers, numb toes, or a sniffling nose?), I do a little happy dance every December when gingerbread season starts. I camp out in the kitchen as the loaves bake in the oven, smiling as the distinctive aroma fills the air and wafts throughout the house. I carve off slice after slice, licking my fingers and checking the countertops for any stray crumbs. And a day or two later, once I finish the entire batch of gingerbread by myself, I start mixing up another one.
After attempting countless recipes from cookbooks and magazines—many of them disappointments—I compiled a list of my required components of gingerbread.
♦ It must be moist. Crumbly, dry gingerbread just doesn’t cut it. Nobody wants their slice to fall apart into tiny pieces as they bite into it! The moister the better, and sometimes I underbake mine just to make sure the center stays on the gooey side. (Exactly the way I like it!)
♦ It must be spicy. Ginger is naturally spicy, but only when added in an ample amount. Certain recipes require only a teaspoon or two—enough to flavor the loaves, but not nearly enough to give them that intense kick. I like that sharp taste to linger in my mouth after I’ve swallowed the last bite, so I make sure I mix in extra.
♦ It must have molasses. Molasses gives gingerbread a deep robust flavor, as well as its characteristic dark color. It also adds to that tangy ginger taste.
This gluten-free gingerbread contains all of those qualities. To combat the dry crumbly problem, I added Greek yogurt. Extra oil would have worked too, but the Greek yogurt provides just as much moisture while still keeping the gingerbread skinny, low fat, and low calorie. Bonus: It also bumps up the protein content!
For that spicy kick, I mixed in 2 heaping tablespoons of ginger. The taste lingers in your mouth long after your swallow the final morsel, which is dangerous for me. It tempts me to turn back to the kitchen and carve off another slice! I also added a teaspoon of cinnamon to warm up and round out the flavor.
I used 3 tablespoons of molasses, which tinted the loaf a gorgeous milky brown. (Brown sugar also adds to the color and moisture!) Molasses’ slightly bitter taste complements the spicy ginger and helps give gingerbread its distinctive taste.
Tip: Measure the molasses after the oil in the same measuring spoon. The residual oil prevents the thick molasses from sticking, so it slides right out into the mixing bowl!
With gluten-free baked goods, I prefer to use 2-4 different gluten-free flours in place of all-purpose. Each gluten-free flour differs in texture—some finer, some coarser, some in between—and blending them together creates a texture closer to that of all-purpose flour. But any more than 4 complicates the recipe! In this recipe, I chose millet, brown rice, and tapioca flours. I bought mine from Whole Foods, and other grocery stores probably stock them as well.
Xanthan gum is crucial to most gluten-free baking. It imitates the elasticity of gluten and provides structure as the leavener activates. If you omit the xanthan gum, the gingerbread fails to rise, almost as if you left out the baking powder too. After a few test batches, I concluded that ¾ of a teaspoon of xanthan gum gave the perfect amount of structure and rise, while still maintaining gingerbread’s classic dense texture. Whole Foods carries xanthan gum as well.
If not following a gluten-free diet, you could probably substitute 1 cup of all-purpose flour in place of the millet flour, brown rice flour, tapioca starch (aka tapioca flour), and xanthan gum. However, I have not tried this myself, so I can’t entirely vouch for it.
I baked this healthy gingerbread in an 8” x 4” pan. I prefer a smaller, taller loaf, but you could use a standard 9” x 5” pan instead. Begin checking on the gingerbread about 5-8 minutes earlier than the suggested time in the recipe; with more surface area, it bakes faster!
Although practically impossible to wait, if you cover the gingerbread with plastic wrap and allow it to sit overnight, the flavors meld and intensify, and the spicy ginger taste really shines. The loaf also develops a thin sugary film on the top, similar to banana or zucchini bread. (Do you know what I’m talking about? Please say yes!) It’s my favorite part, and I always save that soft top layer for last!
I surprised my mom with a loaf of this Gluten-Free Gingerbread when visiting for Thanksgiving last week. As I stuck turkey and sweet potato leftovers into my tote bag on Friday, she asked if she could sneak another slice before I packed it up too. When I answered that I planned on leaving it behind for her, Mom’s face lit up and she replied, “It’ll be gone before tomorrow!”
It definitely was.