gingerbread cake bars with espresso ermine frosting.

when i got this month’s e-mail regarding the Recipe Swap, i got all sorts of nostalgic.

scanning the list of ingredients, i spied cinnamon, ginger and coffee, all flavors i happen to know and love very well. instantly, i started to think about the holidays.

okay, maybe i was thinking about wintertime because i happened to be listening to holiday music, but that’s besides the point. and yes, i’m aware that it’s awfully strange for a Jewish girl to be singing along merrily to Christmas songs in the middle of August. that’s just how i happen to roll, my friends.

holiday music just makes me all sorts of nostalgic for my childhood. i adore it.

when i was a little girl growing up in North Dakota, i happened to be the only Jewish kid in my elementary school. the month of December was full of holiday songs and Christmas pageants. we sung about Santa, made snowmen during recess, and decorated gingerbread houses to bring home to enjoy with our families. very fun, but a little part of me always felt a little left out, since we didn’t celebrate Christmas.

not wanting me to feel left out of all the merriment, my mom would come in every year and teach all of the kids in school about Hannukah.

when she first came up with the idea, i think i was a little nervous. what if my schoolmates were bored and didn’t care about Hannukah? what if they didn’t like the food, or thought it tasted weird? worse, what if they thought i was weird, because i was different?

psssh. everyone in the class loved it, year after year. they totally thought i was the coolest, because i got presents for eight whole nights in a row. pretty cool indeed.

Mom would spend all morning making dozens upon dozens of the most delicious latkes and soft, chewy coconut macaroons to share with my classmates. we’d nosh while my mom read the story of Hannukah to the class, and then taught everyone how to play the dreidel game. before she said goodbye to us all, Mom gave everyone a little mesh bag full of chocolate gelt. pretty sweet, right?

i love my mom for doing that for me; she was able to make me feel special for being different from everyone, rather than an outsider. she’s kind of the best mom ever.

but those years of singing carols and decorating the school’s Christmas tree definitely left an indelible mark on me. these days, my fiance and i light candles for Hannukah, but we also hang lights outside our home. we hang stockings from our small mantle (for both of us and our dogs, of course!), and our small tree is decorated with vintage-inspired, food-themed glass ornaments i’ve been collecting for years. i love all aspects of the holidays, but none more than the food. naturally.

one Christmas cookie i never actually liked was gingerbread. it was always too spicy, or the little gingerbread men burned in the oven, ending up dry and brittle. i figured that this month’s recipe for the swap was the perfect opportunity to reinvent gingerbread into something i’d actually find edible!

these gingerbread cake bars are incredibly moist, but still hold their shape incredibly well. you could certainly bake the cake in a larger, wider sheet pan to make a thinner cake, then use a cookie cutter to stamp out any shape you’d like. i blended cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, and other traditional gingerbread spices with espresso powder to create a cake with a wonderful, slightly spicy, deeply complex flavor.

to round out the nostalgic sensibility of these cake bars, i topped them with an espresso-infused ermine frosting. red velvet cake was traditionally topped with ermine frosting, but fell out of favor due to the popularity and stability of cream cheese frosting. it’s too bad, because ermine frosting is creamy, rich and pitch-perfect when creating a retro-inspired dessert.

flour and milk are heated together, almost creating a pseudo-bechamel sauce, thickened to the point of a soft pudding. the thickened milk is gradually added to fluffy butter and sugar, and the resulting frosting is simply sublime. not overly sweet, and also not too buttery, either.

while i know it’s only August, i really think you should keep these gingerbread cake bars with espresso ermine frosting in mind for your holiday baking. it’s only a few months away, you know…plus, i’m pretty sure that Santa would be all about them!

gingerbread cake bars with espresso ermine frosting

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Cook Time: 22-25 minutes

Total Time: 35 minutes, plus frosting and cooling time

Ingredients:

for the cake

2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon espresso powder
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon allspice
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/8 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
10 tablespoons (1 1/4 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
3/4 cup dark brown sugar, packed
1/2 cup light brown sugar, packed
1 teaspoon vanilla bean paste
2 large eggs
1/4 cup molasses

for the ermine frosting

1 cup whole milk
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon espresso powder
pinch of kosher salt
1 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla bean paste

Directions:

for the cake

preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

butter and flour a 15" x 13" x 1" baking sheet and set aside. if you don't have this pan, you can always make this cake in a regular cake pan.

in a medium bowl, sift together the flour, cinnamon, espresso powder, nutmeg, cloves, allspice, ginger, cardamom, baking soda and salt. set aside.

in the bowl of a stand mixer with the paddle attachment, combine the butter, brown sugars, and vanilla bean paste.

beat on medium speed until fluffy, about 1-2 minutes.

add the eggs, one at a time, and mix on medium speed until incorporated and fluffy.

turn the mixer off, and add the molasses to the bowl. turn the mixer back on and beat until molasses is incorporated.

add the dry ingredients and mix until incorporated.

pour the batter into the prepared pan, and smooth the top. tap the pan on the counter a few times to release any air bubbles.

bake at 350 degrees F for 22-25 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean.

allow the cake to cool completely on a wire baking rack before frosting.

cake can be baked and refrigerated up to three days ahead of time before frosting.

for the ermine frosting

in a medium saucepan, combine the milk, flour, espresso powder and salt. whisk to combine, and place over medium heat.

whisking frequently, cook until mixture has thickened, about 1-3 minutes. remove from heat and allow to cool slightly.

in the bowl of a stand mixer with the paddle attachment, cream the butter and sugar on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 1-2 minutes.

add the vanilla, and mix to combine.

with the mixer on medium speed, add the cooled milk mixture slowly, about a tablespoon or so at a time. the mixture will slowly begin to thicken and emulsify.

when all of the milk mixture is added to the butter mixture, beat on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 1-2 minutes.

spread the frosting over the top of the cooled cake, and set the cake in the fridge for 1 hour to firm up.

once the cake is set, cut into squares and refrigerate until ready to serve.

the cake bars will keep in the fridge, covered for up to 3 days.

frosting adapted from bakespace