Sometimes baked goods in the spiced genre can taste a bit like a candle shop, or a stale corner of the pantry. No wonder they’re less popular than chocolate and fruit and custard desserts: They feel less alive. All spice cake needs is new blood: A big dose of fresh ginger will give you infinitely more brightness and fire than a dormant jar of the ground kind.
Cookbook author Sylvia Thompson’s is the simplest and best of the fresh ginger cakes I’ve tried. She calls for fresh ginger the size of an egg, grated medium fine. There’s no need to even peel it. Most of ginger’s unsavory fibrous bits, inside and out, break down under the grater and fade into the cake. She also kindly gives guidelines for baking in virtually any cake pan you want, and for serving warm or cool.
Preheat the oven to 350°F (175°C). Choose any baking dish with a 6- to 8-cup (1.4L to 1.9L) capacity (Thompson uses an 8-inch/20cm square). Brush with butter and dust with flour.
To make the quatre épices, stir together all spices. The spice blend will keep in an airtight container for 6 months.
Melt the butter in the water either in a largish saucepan over medium heat or in a glass mixing bowl in the microwave. Do not let the water boil (and thus evaporate).
To the butter and water, whisk in the brown sugar, molasses, and corn syrup, and then the egg. Whisk in the ginger, discarding any long strings the whisk brings up. Add the flour, baking soda, 1 teaspoon of the quatre épices, and salt. Whisk a minute or two until the lumps dissolve. Pour into the pan. Rap gently on the counter to knock out any air bubbles.
Bake until a fine skewer thrust in the center comes out clean and the top, when tapped, springs back, about 35 minutes for a square (or ring or round), less for a shallower rectangle, more for a deeper loaf. Gently turn out onto a doily-lined dish to serve warm or onto a rack to serve cool. Finish with sifted confectioners’ sugar or serve with caramel sauce or chocolate frosting, as food writer Laurie Colwin did.