I have a few things to tell you about this cake today, and none of them at the outset sound terribly upbeat, but bear with me, cheer is nigh.
The first is that if you put this out in small squares, dusted with powdered sugar and in proximity to a hand-whisked bowl of lightly sweetened schlag at a packed tree-trimming party, one by one, the handsome revelers will fall upon them, take a big delighted bite, and then you might out of the corner of your eye note that cheer melting from faces into a brief pang of surprise as they realize that no, that was not a brownie, but an extremely dark and intense square of gingerbread cake. Oopsies?
The second is that yes, I know, I already have a gingerbread cake recipe on this site — what I still consider the Greatest Gingerbread of Them All — and that is still the one I make for every Christmas dinner I’m invited to. However, if there could be one bad thing about it, it would be that on a rare occasion, usually because it sat in the pan longer than it was supposed to or the baking winds were not in our favor that day, it does not like to come out of the bundt pan in one piece. Sometimes it comes out in several. Sometimes it leaves half the cake in the pan. Sometimes you’re trying to get it out of the pan a single hour before you have to be at a Christmas Eve dinner an hour twenty minutes away and you… you cry.
I think this would be a good time to state for the record that The Smitten Kitchen does not condone crying over cake. The Smitten Kitchen wants you to know that it’s going to be okay, that cake is delicious whether it’s in one piece or seventeen irregular ones that have been tossed in a bowl with whipped cream because of course you meant for it to be a trifle, sheesh. The Smitten Kitchen wants you to know that in all cases where cake brings one to the brink of tears, the cake is to blame, the cake is actually kind of a jerk, and you should just pour yourself a glass of ‘nog, go outside and catch some snowflakes on your tongue, and come back inside and have a good laugh about it because even if it’s not funny yet, it will be one day so you may as well pre-set the record straight.
Needless to say, these Smitten Kitchen “teachings” were not, in fact, in my head at the time so I didn’t remember any of this. What I did remember, however, was a Gingerbread Snacking Cake I’d spotted from Martha Stewart that week, a simpler cake, one served in little squares, one baked with a parchment paper liner to ensure that it always releases from the pan, and I suspected that I could throw it together in very little time. I melted the butter instead of softening and beating it. I fudged the steps so it was almost a one-bowl cake. It barely took 30 minutes to bake a half-recipe. And what came out of the oven was incredible — almost all of the lovely intensity and complexity of the great and grand Gramercy gingerbread in fewer steps with fewer beads of sweat on one’s forehead. And I have since then kept this recipe in my back pocket, not just for December emergencies and big December holidays, but for December itself, or anytime you crave a deeply spiced gingerbread cake but want a forgiving recipe with minimal fuss. It goes well with mulled wine, with lazy family afternoons and unfurrowed brows, like everything important should.
Gingerbread Snacking Cake
Adapted from Martha Stewart
This cake may not look like centerpiece material, but it is no less worthy of your full admiration. As written, it makes a maximum intensity (via fresh ginger and a full cup of molasses) gingerbread cake. For a moderate intensity gingerbread cake, skip the fresh ginger (I usually do because I’m a wimp) and swap 1/3 cup of the molasses with honey or golden syrup. If you can’t get molasses, use black treacle syrup.
I suspect it would also make a wonderful layer cake, maybe with eggnog filling and whipped cream for frosting. It can be baked in 1 9×13 pan or 2 9-inch round or 8-inch square pans. I cut it into 32 petite squares.
8 tablespoons (1 stick, 4 ounces or 115 grams) unsalted butter, cut into chunks, plus more for pan
1 cup water
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
2/3 cup packed dark-brown sugar
1 cup unsulfured molasses
1 tablespoon freshly grated ginger (optional)
2 large eggs, room temperature, lightly beaten
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for pan
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon ground or freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
Confectioners’ sugar, for dusting finished cake
Lightly sweetened whipped cream, essential for serving
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Line a 9×13-inch baking pan with parchment paper. Butter and flour parchment and sides of cake pan, or spray both with a nonstick baking spray.
Bring water to a boil in a medium saucepan (or large one, if you’d like to make the cake entirely in there) and add baking soda — it will foam up! this is fun! Let stand for 5 minutes, then stir in butter until melted. Whisk in dark brown sugar, molasses and fresh ginger, if using. Mixture is usually just lukewarm by now, but if it still feels quite hot to the touch, set it aside to 10 to 15 minutes to cool further before using.
Place flour, ground ginger, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, salt and baking powder in a fine-mesh strainer or sifter so that you can sift them over the wet ones in a minute.
Transfer molasses mixture to a large mixing bowl if your saucepan isn’t large enough to make the batter in. Whisk in eggs until just combined. Sift dry ingredients over wet, then stir the wet and dry ingredients together until just combined.
Pour batter into prepared pan; bake for 30 to 35 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean. Transfer cake to a wire rack and let cool completely. Once fully cool, cut around cake to make sure no parts are sticking to the side and invert cake out onto a rack, then onto a serving plate. Dust with confectioners’ sugar and cut into squares. Please, promise you’ll serve this with lightly sweetened, softly whipped cream. They’re made for each other.
Do ahead: Whipped cream needs to be stored in the fridge, of course. Cake keeps at room temperature for up to a week in an airtight container. It gets better with age, just like you, babe.