French Spice Bread

Pain d’épice

All over northern Europe, people once seemed to make celebration biscuits and cookies of gingerbread at the drop of a festive hat. Each town had its own shape, its own recipe, its trademark.

Gingerbread men are still a happy feature on Dutch, German, and British tables, but not something you expect to see in France where the spiced bread pain d’épice has carried the standard of honeyed sweetness coupled with the bite and zest of spices: always symbols of extravagance and celebration.

It was perhaps a speciality of the north and east of the country; and each city, as elsewhere, had its own particular set of ingredients and favoured combinations.

Some pains d’épice are heavy with chopped candied peel and flaked almonds, but this particular recipe is more even in texture, though the aromas in the kitchen as it cooks are heady and intoxicating.

I have used wholemeal rye flour because the texture seems to gain from a little grittiness.

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Ingredients

  • 225 ml/8 fl oz honey
  • 225 g/8 oz wholemeal rye flour
  • 30 g/1 oz white sugar
  • ½ teaspoon baking powder
  • ¼ teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
  • 30 g/1 oz ground almonds
  • 2 bulbs stem ginger
  • 2 teaspoons fennel seeds
  • ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 12 cloves, ground
  • the grated zest of half an orange
  • the grated zest of half a lemon
  • a little milk and sugar boiled to a syrup for glaze

Method

  1. Warm and melt the honey by standing the jar in a pan of hot water. Measure it into the rye flour in a bowl and mix together with a wooden spoon. Leave, covered, for 1 hour, for the flour to absorb the liquid.
  2. Heat the oven to 180°C/350°F/gas 4. Add the rest of the ingredients, except the glaze, and mix with vigour to ensure everything is spread evenly through the dough. This will be rather sticky, it is the pentosans in the rye flour which always make rye more difficult to handle. Knead the dough on a clean work surface for between 5 and 10 minutes. With rye, it helps if you dip your hands into a bowl of water at intervals during kneading, otherwise you seem to get a thin coating of gluey rye paste over everything.
  3. Press this dough into a well greased 1 kg/2 lb loaf tin (or use a non-stick tin). Make sure it gets pushed right into the corners, using wet hands or the dampened blade of a plastic scraper.
  4. Bake the loaf on the middle shelf of the oven for about 35 minutes, until a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean. Cracks may open up the top crust, but these are nothing to worry about. When you have taken it out of the oven, brush the top of the loaf with the glaze and return it to the oven for 1-2 minutes to set the glaze.
  5. Let the bread stand in the tin for a few minutes, then invert it on to a wire rack. Pain d’épice keeps very well indeed. Because it is made from rye, it is better for being left a couple of days before cutting into thin slices and buttering for an excellent snack.

Variation

Although rye is the customary grain, it is quite possible to substitute wheat and, in this case, you don’t need to wait a couple of days before eating it.