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Ginger spices up almost all holiday baked goods

Editor's Note: Our "Spice of the Month" series is a monthly look at how to spice up your cooking.

You may already be planning to make an army of gingerbread men or houses with gingerbread walls. Remember, though, that ginger has many more uses. This pungent spice is an ideal complement to baked goods and sweets, such as white chocolate fudge and cookie bars.

Allaboutginger

•Where it comes from: Ginger is the rhizome of the lily Zingiber officinale, a tropical plant.

•Forms: Fresh ginger root. Dried powder. Stem ginger is boiled and preserved in syrup, while pickled ginger is preserved in seasoned rice vinegar. Crystallized ginger is preserved with sugar.

•How it's used: Candied ginger is best for desserts and baked goods. Stem ginger also works well in desserts. Pickled ginger is most often served with sushi. Whole ginger should be peeled, sliced, mashed or grated. Ginger works well in cakes, pastries, stir-fry dishes and curries. Ginger can be rubbed on red meat before grilling and can counteract the fishy flavor of some seafood.

•What it goes with: This spice can be paired with cardamom, chili, cinnamon, fennel seed, lemongrass, paprika and turmeric.

•How it should be stored: Keep fresh ginger in an open container in the cabinet. Ginger preserved in vinegar should be refrigerated after opening. Ginger preserved in syrup or crystallized should be stored in a cool, dry place and will keep for at least a year.

•What you might not know: Ginger comes from a number of different countries. Its origin can influence its taste.

Sources: "Joy of Cooking: 75th Anniversary" by Irma Rombauer, Marion Rombauer and Ethan Becker (Scribner, $30)

"The Spice and Herb Bible" by Ian Hemphill, with recipes by Kate Hemphill (Robert Rose, $24.95)

Double Ginger Oat Bars

8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter or light butter, divided

2⁄3 cup firmly packed brown sugar

1 package (14.5 ounces) gingerbread cake and cookie mix

11⁄4 cups Quaker Oats (quick or old-fashioned, uncooked)

1⁄3 cup water

1 large egg

4 ounces reduced-fat cream cheese

11⁄2 cups confectioners' sugar

2 tablespoons finely chopped crystallized ginger or 1⁄2 teaspoon ground ginger

Red and green decorator's icing (optional)

For bars, heat oven to 350 F. Spray 13-inch by 9-inch by 2-inch metal baking pan with cooking spray; set aside. In large saucepan, melt 6 tablespoons of the butter over low heat. Remove from heat. Add brown sugar; stir with wooden spoon until well blended. Add gingerbread mix, oats, water and egg; stir until well blended. Spread evenly in prepared pan. Bake 30 to 33 minutes or until wooden pick inserted in center comes out with a few moist crumbs clinging to it. Cool bars completely in pan on wire rack.

For frosting, beat cream cheese and remaining 2 tablespoons butter with electric mixer in medium bowl until blended. Gradually add confectioners' sugar, beating until smooth. Beat in ginger. Spread frosting evenly over bars. Cover and refrigerate until ready to cut and decorate. To decorate, cut into bars and remove from pan. Using red and green frosting, pipe ribbons, holly leaves and berries or other decorations onto each bar. Refrigerate uncovered until decorations set, then cover and refrigerate up to 3 days.

Makes 42 bars.

Source: Quaker Oats

White Fudge with

Crystallized Ginger

and Cranberries

11⁄2 cups granulated sugar

1 teaspoon ground ginger

2⁄3 cup (5-ounce can) Carnation evaporated milk

2 tablespoons butter

1 cup miniature marshmallows

2 cups Nestle Toll House white morsels

11⁄4 cups sweetened dried cranberries

1 jar (2.5 ounce) or 1⁄2 cup crystallized ginger

Line 8-inch or 9-inch square baking pan with foil.

Combine sugar and ground ginger in medium, heavy duty saucepan. Add evaporated milk and butter. Bring to a full rolling boil over medium heat, stirring constantly. Boil, stirring constantly, for 4 to 5 minutes (to 234 F). Remove from heat.

Stir in marshmallows, morsels, cranberries and crystallized ginger. Stir vigorously for 1 minute or until marshmallows are melted. Pour into prepared pan; refrigerate until firm, about 11⁄2 hours. Lift from pan and remove foil. Cut into pieces.

Note: Crystallized ginger can be found in the spice aisle at the grocery store.

Makes 49 pieces.

Source: Nestle Carnation Evaporated Milk

Soft Ginger Cookies

1⁄2 cup (1 stick) butter

1⁄3 cup firmly packed brown sugar

11⁄2 teaspoons ground ginger

11⁄2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

1⁄2 teaspoon ground cardamom, optional

1⁄4 teaspoon ground cloves

1⁄2 teaspoon salt

1⁄4 teaspoon baking soda

1 large egg

1⁄2 cup soft diced ginger (if unavailable, use finely minced crystallized ginger)

21⁄2 cups all-purpose flour

1⁄2 cup light molasses (for a lighter dough, use 1⁄4 cup molasses and 1⁄4 cup corn syrup)

Cream in the butter, sugar, spices, salt and baking soda until well blended. Beat in the egg and ginger, then the flour, alternately with the molasses. Refrigerate the dough for several hours or overnight. It needs to be stiff enough to handle easily.

Preheat the oven to 350 F.

Roll half the dough about 1⁄4-inch thick on a floured surface. Cut into whatever shapes you like. Transfer cookies to an ungreased or parchment-lined baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining dough.

Bake the cookies 10 to 12 minutes until they're puffy and the edges are firm. Remove them from the oven and cool on the pan for 10 minutes before transferring to a rack to cool completely.

Makes about 4 dozen cookies, depending on size of each.

Source: King Arthur Flour, www.bakerscatalogue.com