We're revisiting this stunning gingerbread cake from a few years ago—there's something about its dark complexion and crystalline frosting that has us enthralled. This time around, we recorded a recipe video.
I wish that anytime gingerbread came up in common conversation, this is what people were referring to; see, in a perfect world, I could call this "gingerbread" without having to qualify it as "gingerbread cake." After all, if gingerbread cookies weren't used to construct such cheerful, Austrian-looking houses, I'd be fine to do away with them. Those hefty crackers are more suitable for small-scale architectural projects than for eating. And I woudn't shed a tear if I had to say goodbye to the kind of gingerbread snack cake that's cut into brick-like squares, so dry and self-contained that a paper towel is a sufficient plate.
No, no, no: This is the only gingerbread I need—and, strangely, it's not at all what I was expecting. By the time I came across this recipe on The Splendid Table, I'd already slipped on my grippy socks in preparation for climbing onto the counter and into the pantry to fetch tiny quantities of every spice I own. I thought I'd have to build up all of the flavors in the cake individually, measuring out 1/8 teaspoon ground cloves and 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg and 1/16 teaspoon allspice and a pinch of ground mustard because why the heck not? But luckily, I didn't have to treat baking this cake like building Ikea furniture.
This cake's incredible richness and complexity comes almost entirely from the slightly burnt sweetness of blackstrap molasses. Yes, there's ground ginger (oh, and a bit of cinnamon, too), but the molasses is the protagonist. It's earthy and caramelly and strong enough to mellow out the shrillness of ginger. The molasses sets all of the other spices straight—you don't have to puzzle over what you're tasting because it just works. While you could use a meeker molasses, the blackstrap kind is more powerful, and it imparts a color that's reminiscent of wonderful holiday-timey things like mahogany dining tables and scorched wood in glowing fireplaces and fresh mulch underneath fir trees.
Against the darkness of the cake, the frosting shines as a beacon. That's dramatic, but justified: The frosting is so special that I toted it around in a Tupperware to our office long after the cake had been finished so that we could eat it with spoons at the end of the day. I took it on a 50-minute subway ride to Brookyln so that my friends could try it at a birthday party. I put it in my freezer, and then two days later, when I realized I had to taste it again, I thawed it as fast as I could. It's made by beating a sweet roux of flour, milk, and sugar (you finally get a roux of your own, bakers!) with whipped cream cheese. There's no butter or powdered sugar, which means the texture is so silky and light that it slips—not skids—on your tongue. The flavor, too, isn't muted by any unnecessary sugar or fat. If original cream cheese frosting were lemonade from concentrate, this frosting would be the fresh-squeezed version.
I didn't expect this cake to have staying power. I thought gingerbread was akin to fruit cake and stollen—something to think about only when Christmas jingles play incessantly on the radio. But you should welcome it on your table for the other ten-twelfths of the year, too. Serve it at Thanksgiving for a dramatic, anti-pumpkin finale; serve it next Halloween (its color is appropriate for a macabre party); serve it in the summer with fresh berries (sure, it's not light and lemony, but no one will complain); and, of course, serve it on every day of the holiday season. This is not the type of cake you'll tire of.
A couple of notes on the recipe: The original calls for optional espresso powder, but I replaced it with cocoa powder to bring out the chocolatey, slightly bitter flavor of the molasses (dessert queen Faith Durand, who we have to thank for this cake, refers to it as "fudgy"). I recommend taking the time to chill and re-whip the frosting before assembling the cake; otherwise, it's so smooth and slippery that the top layer might slide off.
For the cake:
- 12 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into chunks
- 1 1/2 cups (12 ounces) blackstrap molasses (you can find it at health foods stores)
- 3/4 cup brown sugar
- 1/3 cup white sugar
- 3 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
- 1/2 teaspoon fine salt
- 2 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
- 2 teaspoons ground ginger
- 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
- 2 teaspoons unsweetened cocoa powder
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- 2 large eggs, beaten
- 1 1/2 cups whole milk
For the cooked cream cheese frosting:
- 16 ounces (2 bars) full-fat cream cheese, left at room temperature for at least 1 hour
- 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
- 1 cup white sugar
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1 cup whole milk
- 1 teaspoon vanilla