Dana's Bakery features gingerbread in a winter macaron.

Sweet Ways to Taste Ginger this Winter

ICE alumni innovate with a staple ingredient in seasonal pastries.

Photo courtesy of Dana's Bakery

As far as winter ingredients go, ginger is as beloved and widely used as any in the pastry pantry. Though the highly herbaceous root of a perennially flowering plant can be found in everything from stir fries to fancy sodas, haute cocktails and punched-up teas, it receives special attention in dessert and pastry recipes during these cold, winter months.

Technically classified as a spice, ginger belongs to the same family as turmeric and cardamom. The word comes from an old sanskrit one meaning “shaped like a horn,” and the gangly root is characterized by a strong woody and sweet smell when sliced free from it’s rough, tan skin. Consumption of ginger root can be traced back 5,000 years when the Chinese used it medicinally, namely to aid in digestion, and Confucius was known to eat or chew the root with every meal.

With a complex and acute spiciness, ginger lends a balancing sweetness, which is one of the reasons that it works so well in pastry or when it is candied. Most are familiar with gingerbread, which rose to prominence in Queen Elizabeth’s court and has since claimed its place in the holiday food canon, but brilliant alumni from ICE’s Pastry & Baking Arts program have found fascinating ways to infuse zesty ginger into modern dessert offerings from coast to coast.

Ginger is particularly friendly with other warm spices prominent in winter baking ⎯ cinnamon, cardamom and clove among them. A fact not lost out west at Little T Baker in Portland, Oregon, where Owner and Baker Tim Healea (Culinary, ‘98) sings the praises of ginger and a merry band of winter spices that complement it so well. Tim’s hugely popular steamed ginger pudding ⎯ a moist and “ginger-y” cake ⎯ makes its annual showing just before Thanksgiving to the delight of Portlanders, and includes fresh and crystalized ginger, topped with a buttercream hard sauce.

Sugar Couture offers a lemon ginger cake.
Sugar Couture offers a lemon ginger cake.

Chef-Instructor Penny Stankiewicz (Pastry, ’04), who opened custom cake shop Sugar Couture in New York more than a decade ago after graduating from ICE, uses fresh ginger in her signature lemon ginger cake. Through masterful use of fondant, Penny can turn this base (or any other) into anything, from a car to a cactus, but it all starts with fresh ginger beat in with sugar to accelerate its flavor. After that, lemon, a classic match for the root, is added to create bright, almost tropical flavors. Finished with a passionfruit buttercream, it’s the perfect way to end any heavy, celebratory meal.

Zac Young (Pastry, ’06) lauds ginger as a single ingredient with three wildly distinct profiles, depending on the method in which it’s procured. Zac knows a thing or two about threes, thanks to his viral sensation dessert, the PieCaken: a turducken-inspired trio of pecan pie, pumpkin pie and apple upside-down cake. His entire stall at Revolution Food Hall in Roseville, Minnesota, is devoted to the treat.

Fresh (grated), dried and candied ginger represent the three most popular forms for baking, according to Zac, a former “Top Chef” star and current director of Craveable Hospitality Group, although others like ginger oil can also be found. Pickled and preserved ginger, both popular sushi accompaniments, are consumed worldwide, most often in a savory context. Of the three (fresh, dried and candied), Zac suggests tabling dried or powdered ginger where possible because it offers a “dull and muted” version of the complex flavor profile, and notes that ginger is best when it’s “spicy and bitey,” something achieved through grating or juicing the fresh root.

Zac’s grandmother's favorite version, ginger candy, earned a special place in his heart, and he fondly remembers a bowl of the chewy, crusty treats she’d set out during visits. In his newly minted PieCaken Bakeshop, Young sells a popular pumpkin “stuffin,” a pumpkin muffin stuffed with cream cheese frosting and topped with candied ginger. “Don’t bother trying to make ginger candy,” Zac warns. “You might have fun with it, but like peanut butter, it's just never going to come out as good as store-bought and not worth the hassle.”

Back in New York, Dana Pollack (Pastry, ‘12) of Dana’s Bakery churns out macarons and cookies in dreamy flavors like cornbread and sangria at three NYC locations. Dana’s anything but traditional, though her winter "mac menu" features ginger in uncharacteristically classic ways. Popular gingerbread macarons are available for the month of December while pumpkin cheesecake macs, a fan favorite available in New Jersey, Brooklyn and Manhattan (at Dylan’s Candy Bar), are dually underscored by a warm gingerness.

L'Appart offers a pineapple gratine with spruce milk ice cream.
L'Appart offers a pineapple gratine with spruce milk ice cream and Seedlip: Grove 42.

Farther downtown at New York’s L’Appart, the upscale offshoot of Le District with a dining room that’s meant to resemble a secret Parisian apartment, Pastry Chef Mina Pizarro (Pastry, '02) shares her unorthodox method for infusing ginger and winter spice into dessert creations. Seedlip: Grove 42, a new-to-market non-alcoholic distilled spirit blended with orange and ginger, is added where one might have previously used cognac and is a favorite of Mina’s. The chef notes that the deep, complex flavors of distilled herbs are tailor-made for a winter tongue, and Seedlip lets one achieve them without any worry for non-drinkers.

In a pre-dessert palate cleanser on L'Appart’s latest tasting menu, Mina seasons a pineapple granite and spruce milk ice cream with the boozeless spirit. “Even better than booze, it doesn’t interfere with the freezing point,” she explains. “You get all that complexity without alcohol and don’t even miss it.”

Carrying with it a storied history in and out of the kitchen, ginger’s signature zest continues to add life and depth to desserts across the country, as smart and talented pastry chefs find new and exciting ways to harness the ginger goodness.

Innovate with versatile ingredients in ICE's Pastry & Baking Arts program.

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