Gingerbread is one of the oldest of cakes: I speak, of course, from a historical point of view, not as someone who likes to bake and eat stale cakes. An ancient version of gingerbread using honey as the sweetener was probably first baked by Greeks on the island of Rhodes around 2400 B.C. Romans copied the idea and spread the recipe as their empire grew.

Extravagantly decorated gingerbread appeared during the Middle Ages, and ladies gave it to their knights before tournaments. A forerunner of the gingerbread man was the ornately decorated gingerbread of the Elizabethan era. It was molded to reproduce the features of guests entertained at British royal feasts.

Over time, various gingerbread specialties became associated with specific European countries--the thin Moravian ginger cookies of then-Czechoslovakia, the whimsical gingerbread houses of Germany and the moist cakelike gingerbreads of England and the United States.

The two flavorings in most gingerbread are molasses and ginger, with the ginger being ground, crystallized or fresh. Ground ginger is the popular spice produced from dried ginger root; crystallized ginger comes from cooking the root in sugar syrup and coating it with sugar; fresh ginger root can be grated or crushed to extract its juice.

After you buy powdered ginger, store it tightly covered in a cool dark place for no longer than six months. Before each use, check to see that the spice still has a strong pungent odor. If not, buy a new jar or your gingerbread won't have the peppery snap that you desire. If you're using fresh ginger root, choose a piece that has smooth skin and is free of mold. Crystallized ginger keeps fresh for several months if tightly wrapped in plastic wrap and refrigerated.

It pays to know your molasses as well. Molasses is a dark syrup produced during sugar refining. Look for unsulfured molasses, which has a milder and lighter flavor than the sulfured kind.

Dense and sturdy gingerbread falls into the "good keeper" category, and its spice flavor often develops and strengthens after a couple of days. Whether your gingerbread takes the form of a dark sticky cake gingerbread, a mild gingerbread baked as a pear upside-down cake, a big chewy cookie or a crisp shortbread studded with pungent bits of ginger, it will fill your home with the rich spicy scents of old-fashioned holiday baking.

Gingerbread People

(Makes about 11 5- to 6-inch cookies and 25 2- to 3-inch cookies)

Use several sizes of cookie cutters to produce a family of Gingerbread People and have an anything-goes attitude to decorate each person. I use currants on the small cookies and raisins on the larger cookies. This recipe is adapted from "125 Cookies to Bake, Nibble, and Savor" by Elinor Klivans (Broadway Books, 1998).

For the cookies:

3 cups all-purpose flour, plus additional for the work surface

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon ground cloves

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

2 teaspoons ground ginger

1/2 teaspoon ground mace or nutmeg

4 ounces (1 stick) margarine or butter

1/2 cup packed light brown sugar

1/4 cup unsulfured molasses

1/4 cup maple syrup

1 large egg

Raisins and currants for decorating

For the frosting:

1 1/2 cups confectioners' sugar, sifted

3/4 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 tablespoons plus 2 to 3 teaspoons water

For the cookies: Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.

In a large bowl, sift together the flour, baking soda, cloves, cinnamon, ginger and mace or nutmeg. Set aside.

In a medium saucepan over low heat, heat the margarine or butter, brown sugar, molasses and maple syrup, stirring occasionally, until the butter melts and the sugar dissolves. Increase the heat to medium-high and bring the mixture to a boil. Remove the mixture from the heat; set aside to cool for 10 minutes.

In a medium bowl, whisk the egg. Slowly whisk in the warm molasses mixture.

Form a well in the center of the flour mixture; pour the molasses mixture into the well and stir until a smooth dough forms, about 1 1/2 minutes. Divide the dough in half; form each half into a smooth disk about 6 inches in diameter. Wrap 1 disk in plastic wrap.

On a lightly floured surface with a lightly floured rolling pin, roll the unwrapped disk into an 11-by-9-inch rectangle that is about 3/16-inch thick. Slide a thin metal spatula under the dough to loosen it from the rolling surface.

Using lightly floured 5-inch and 2- or 3-inch gingerbread cookie cutters, cut out a combination of as many gingerbread people as possible. To keep the arms from tearing, fold them over the chest of each cookie and slide the cookies onto the prepared baking sheet, placing them about 1/2 inch apart. Then spread the arms flat.

Gather the scraps and wrap in plastic wrap; set aside.

Unwrap the second piece of dough and repeat the rolling and cutting process.

Press all of the dough scraps together to form a smooth disk. Repeat the rolling and cutting process.

Firmly press raisins in the large cookies and currants in the small cookies to form eyes and a nose in the head and 3 or 4 buttons down the middle of the body.

Bake the cookies in the preheated oven for 7 minutes. Rotate the baking sheets to ensure even browning. Bake for about 5 minutes, or until the tops of the cookies are firm and the edges just begin to darken slightly.

Cool the cookies on the baking sheet for 5 minutes. Transfer the cookies to a wire rack to cool completely. While the cookies are warm, you can use a toothpick to poke a hole in the top of the cookies so that they can be hung as ornaments.

For the frosting: In a medium bowl, mix together the confectioners' sugar, vanilla and enough water to form a stiff frosting. Transfer the frosting to a small pastry bag fitted with a small round writing tip or a large resealable plastic bag (cut one of the bottom corners). Holding the tip of the bag about 1 inch above the cookie, pipe hair, a mouth and shoes on each cookie. You can also draw a frosting bow or bow tie at the neck and outline a dress or jacket around the edge of the body, or create any whimsical design with the frosting. Set the cookies aside until the frosting is firm. (The cookies may be placed in a tin between layers of wax paper, tightly covered and stored for up to 2 weeks at room temperature.)

Per 2- to 3-inch cookie: 89 calories, 1 gm protein, 16 gm carbohydrates, 2 gm fat, 5 mg cholesterol, trace saturated fat, 55 mg sodium, trace dietary fiber

Sticky-Top Gingerbread With Toffee Sauce

(9 servings)

Toffee sauce tops this dark gingerbread cake as it bakes, forming an instant glaze.

For the sauce:

1 cup heavy (whipping) cream

2 tablespoons unsulfured molasses

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 cup packed light brown sugar

For the cake:

6 ounces (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, plus additional for the pan

1/2 cup unsulfured molasses

1 cup packed light brown sugar

2 large eggs

2 cups all-purpose flour

1/8 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon ground ginger

1 tablespoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

1/2 teaspoon instant coffee granules

1 1/4 cups warm milk

2 teaspoons baking soda

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9-by-9-by-2-inch pan.

For the sauce: In a medium saucepan over medium heat, stir together the cream, molasses, butter and brown sugar. Simmer, stirring often, until the sauce thickens slightly, about 5 minutes. Set aside.

For the cake: In a medium saucepan, heat the butter, molasses and brown sugar, stirring, until the butter melts and the brown sugar dissolves. Remove from the heat and stir in the eggs, mixing well. Set aside.

In a large bowl, stir together the flour, salt, ginger, cinnamon and cloves. Stir in the molasses mixture just until it is incorporated. Set aside.

In a medium bowl, dissolve the coffee in the milk. Stir in the baking soda.

Slowly add the milk mixture to the cake batter and mix just until it is incorporated; the batter will be thin. Pour the batter into the prepared pan.

Bake the cake in the preheated oven for 25 minutes. Reduce the oven temperature to 250 degrees. Spoon 1/2 cup of the warm toffee sauce evenly over the top of the cake; reserve the remaining sauce.

Bake the cake for about 20 minutes longer, until a toothpick inserted in the center of the gingerbread comes out clean. Transfer the pan to a wire rack to cool for 20 minutes. Serve the gingerbread warm or at room temperature. Pass the remaining warm toffee sauce on the side to pour over the gingerbread. (Leftover gingerbread may be covered and stored at room temperature for up to 3 days. The sauce may be covered and refrigerated for up to 5 days; warm the sauce over low heat prior to serving.)

Per serving: 574 calories, 6 gm protein, 71 gm carbohydrates, 31 gm fat, 137 mg cholesterol, 18 gm saturated fat, 377 mg sodium, 1 gm dietary fiber

Buttery Oatmeal and Ginger Parkin

(Makes 16 bars)

Parkin is the old-fashioned name that the English use for a crisp gingerbread. It includes a hefty quantity of oatmeal and has a dry, hard, breadlike texture.

These crisp, buttery bars studded with bits of crystallized ginger have the texture of a shortbread and the oatmeal crunch of parkin.

6 ounces (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus additional for the pan

1 cup packed light brown sugar

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour

3/4 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon ground ginger

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 cup old-fashioned oatmeal (not quick cooking)

2 tablespoons finely chopped crystallized ginger

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9-by-9-by-2-inch pan.

In a large bowl with an electric mixer on medium speed, cream together the butter and brown sugar. Reduce the speed to low, add the flour, salt, ground ginger and cinnamon and mix until the flour is incorporated. Add the oatmeal and crystallized ginger, mixing until the dough forms small clumps and clings together.

Press the dough evenly into the prepared pan. Use a fork to prick the dough at 1-inch intervals, pressing the fork to the bottom of the pan. Bake for about 25 minutes, until the edges of the parkin are lightly browned. While it is warm and soft, cut the parkin into 16 pieces. Cool in the pan; the parkin becomes crisp as it cools.

Per serving: 173 calories, 2 gm protein, 22 gm carbohydrates, 9 gm fat, 23 mg cholesterol, 5 gm saturated fat, 115 mg sodium, 1 gm dietary fiber

Pear and Gingerbread Upside-Down Cake

(8 servings)

Honey-glazed pear slices top this mildly spiced gingerbread. Sliced apples may be substituted for the pears. Remember to remove the cake from the pan when the glaze and pears are still warm.

For the glaze:

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 tablespoons honey

1/4 cup packed light brown sugar

2 pears, peeled, halved, cored and cut into 1/4-inch slices (may substitute apples)

For the cake:

2 cups all-purpose flour

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1 1/2 teaspoons ground ginger

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

6 ounces (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature

3/4 cup sugar

3 large eggs

2 tablespoons unsulfured molasses

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Have ready a 9-inch round cake pan that is at least 2 inches deep.

For the glaze: In a small saucepan over medium-low heat, heat the butter, honey and brown sugar, stirring until the butter melts, the sugar dissolves and the mixture is smooth. Pour the honey mixture into the pan, spreading it evenly to coat the bottom. Arrange the pear slices in overlapping layers to cover the bottom of the pan. Set aside.

For the cake: In a large bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, ginger, cinnamon and cloves. Set aside.

In a large bowl with an electric mixer on medium speed, cream together the butter and sugar until lightened in color and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add the eggs, 1 at a time, beating well after each addition. Add the molasses and vanilla and beat well. Reduce the speed to low and mix in the flour mixture just until incorporated. Spread the batter evenly over the pears.

Bake the cake in the preheated oven for about 45 to 55 minutes, or until the top is firm when touched lightly and a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean. Cool the cake in the pan for 5 minutes. Using a small sharp knife, gently loosen the sides of the cake from the pan. Invert the pan onto a wire rack to cool for 20 minutes.

Per serving: 488 calories, 6 gm protein, 61 gm carbohydrates, 25 gm fat, 141 mg cholesterol, 15 gm saturated fat, 203 mg sodium, 2 gm dietary fiber

Elinor Klivans's latest book is "125 Cookies to Bake, Nibble, and Savor" (Broadway Books, $25).