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Ginger: a versatile spice that can be snappy or subtle

Ginger is a much neglected spice. Its versatility is too often hobbled by the planetary favorites of gingersnaps and ginger ale, when you can find one that uses authentic ginger.

Used sparingly and judiciously, it may play both snappy and subtle roles in many foods. Fresh gingerroot rubbed on roasts and steaks is a refreshing detour from the standard garlic clove rub.

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Sliced ginger in stews and soups, as well as on vegetables such as beets and beans, enlarges the tastes. Chopped candied ginger in homemade vanilla ice cream adds soft kernels of small surprises.

The range stretches from straightforward ginger vinegar to complicated ginger chutney. Pears with ginger is a classic, not to mention that any respectable curry must include ginger. Ginger muffins and ginger waffles add a bright start to a new day. The list is appetizingly endless.

Originating in China, India, and Asia, ginger has a long gastronomic history. The ancient Greeks and Romans cooked with it.

Ginger reveals its adaptability by being used directly from the root, or dried and ground to a powder, preserved in syrup as Canton ginger, and crystallized or candied with cane sugar.

Candied ginger is the next step after ginger preserve. The process begins with boiling fingertip-size pieces of ginger in a thick sugar-cane syrup several times.

Overnight marinade in the syrup eventually produces translucent ginger pieces. By removing the softened pieces from the syrup and drying them, then rolling them in sugar, you have zesty candied ginger to put in a jar, as all old-time grandmother kitchens always had.

Ginger incites an unmistakable aftertaste and helps establish the signature of certain dishes. It joins forces well with other spices and is especially friendly with cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg, as any pumpkin pie and the following gingerbread recipe bear witness.

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At one time European gingerbread resembled our crisp ginger cookies, but this bread is dark, moist, and light. Gingerbread 2 cups sifted cake flour 2 teaspoons baking powder 1/2 teaspoon baking soda 1/2 teaspoon salt 2 teaspoons ground ginger 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves 1 1/4 teaspoons ground cinnamon 1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg 3 tablespoons cocoa 1/2 cup sweet butter 1/2 cup dark brown sugar 1 large egg 1/2 cup blackstrap molasses 1/2 honey 3/4 cup buttermilk 1/4 cup milk

Mix all dry ingredients in a large bowl and set aside. Cream butter and sugar. Beat egg into butter and sugar until light. Warm molasses and honey in saucepan. Remove from heat and stir in buttermilk and milk. Add the molasses and egg mixtures alternately to the flour mixture. Pour into a greased 12 by 8 by 2 -inch baking dish.

Bake at 350 degrees F. for 30 to 35 minutes or until a cake tester comes out clean. Serve topped with ripe banana slices and sweetened whipped cream dusted lightly with ground ginger. Serves 8 to 10.

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