Fannie Farmer’s Gingerbread Cake, somewhat better for you

Every so often, I just have to have some gingerbread.  I’ve always loved gingerbread–who doesn’t?  And after two years living in central Europe, where this spice-laden cake was everywhere, the added dose of nostalgia only intensifies my cravings.  I even prevailed upon my friend Jennifer to bring me some back from her annual trip to visit family in Vienna.  She happily indulged me, and threw in some marzipan and plum butter, the other habits I picked up while over there.

Now, I have nothing against fancy cakes with frilly frosting, but when I’m baking, I go for something that doesn’t need that little bit extra.  I must be honest and admit part of it could be a touch of laziness as I often run out of steam when it comes time to whip up a buttercream frosting.  As I see it, this failing of mine is a virtue, as a cake is already sugar and fat a-plenty, and frosting only makes things worse.  So I’m not making a tremendous effort to reform my ways.

A gingerbread cake, with the warm, complex flavors of molasses and spice, certainly can stand on its own, though it can handle a drizzle of icing if you must. Because it’s homey and unfussy, it takes beautifully to a bit of whole-grain flours as well, which is all the better–as you know I’m often tweaking recipes to add a bit of whole wheat pastry flour here, or buckwheat flour there…

So here I am, tinkering a Fannie Farmer recipe.  I came across this in the current issue of Edible Boston (where else would Ms. Farmer, of the Boston Cooking School, get a shout-out?).  If you don’t know the Edible Communities series of magazines, you can check here to see if there’s one for your city or region–they round up the best of local food producers and purveyors, together with thoughtful articles, beautiful photography, and of course, recipes.

Fannie Farmer's Gingerbread Cake (1 of 2)

This cake pulls together easily, but is fun to make as it has an unusual method–melting the butter and molasses together.  You add baking soda directly to the hot mix, causing this fragrant concoction to foam and bubble up furiously.  Speaking of which–make sure to have that baking soda all measured and ready to go:  you don’t want a sticky mess of molasses and butter spilling out of the pot while you’re looking for that 1/4 teaspoon measure.  Stir it down, let it cool a bit, and add in the remaining ingredients.

I have no idea what the purpose is behind this unusual set of steps, but it’s fun and I don’t have to get out the stand mixer, so I’ll go with it.

Fannie Farmer's Gingerbread Cake (1 of 6)Fannie Farmer's Gingerbread Cake (2 of 6)

Fannie Farmer's Gingerbread Cake (3 of 6)Fannie Farmer's Gingerbread Cake (4 of 6)

Fannie Farmer's Gingerbread Cake (5 of 6)

Fannie Farmer's Gingerbread Cake (6 of 6)

The cake is not overly sweet, but it is rich, which means that a dollop of tart (but admittedly also rich) creme fraiche on the side complements it quite well.

Gingerbread Cake, adapted from Fannie Farmer’s 1896 Soft Molasses Gingerbread

Notes:  I used spelt flour in place of some of the all-purpose flour, but I’m certain you could easily use whole wheat flour or whole wheat pastry flour as well.  And make sure to line your cake pan with parchment–like any good gingerbread cake, this is moist and sticky.  

  • 1 cup molasses
  • 1/3 c unsalted butter (80g), plus additional butter for greasing the pan
  • 1 3/4t baking soda
  • 1c buttermilk
  • 1 egg
  • 1c all purpose flour (125g)
  • 1c spelt flour (125g)
  • 2 teaspoons ground ginger
  • pinch mace
  • pinch allspice
  • 1/2t salt

Preheat oven to 350F (175C).  Butter a 9″ round cake pan and line with a circle of parchment paper cut to fit.  (This cake is very dense and moist).

In a large saucepan, melt the butter and the molasses together, and heat until boiling.  Turn of the heat (and remove to a surface it won’t be too hard to clean up) and add the baking soda all at once.  Stir it down–it will froth and foam and bubble up for longer than you’d expect.

Allow to cool for a few minutes.  (You might prepare the pan now if you haven’t done so).  Add half of the flour, then the milk and egg, and then the remaining flour.  Pour into the prepared pan, and bake for about 30 minutes or until a cake tester comes out clean.  Allow to cool for at least 30 minutes before removing from the pan.

Fannie Farmer's Gingerbread Cake (2 of 2)

19 thoughts on “Fannie Farmer’s Gingerbread Cake, somewhat better for you

    • It’s from a family friend who picked it up for me as a gift because it reminded her of our wedding china (which is french tuile/country scene in style). She used to live in Japan and says there is a tradition there of collecting different patterns of plates that have a similar unifying theme, sounds lovely!

  1. Oh me too, it’s such a wonderful type of cake! It’s one of the reasons I loe visiting Germany :). Am so glad you use molasses, it makes it very similar to my recipe – you really need that dark taste to make it perfect.

  2. Ooh, I’ve never seen plum butter before, but now I need some. We went to a ginger party last year and I baked a Ming gingerbread molasses cake, which is about as far away from Fannie Farmer as can be. It was full of candied ginger and called for a brown sugar cardamom whipped cream. Total life changer.

  3. Sorry for the “nerdy” question but is that a 2-quart pot? & an enameled iron one? I’m cooking/baking @ my mom-in-law’s house, not my own where I know what’s what, so I don’t want to ruin any of her pots OR her nice counters. Also, can I use use fresh ginger? She’s got SOME sort of powdered ginger in her cupboard but I can’t be sure it’s there from my last visit abt 2 yrs ago. Don’t ask .. =D

    • Nothing wrong with nerdy! I don’t know if it’s technically enameled–it’s staub so I think it has some sort of coating so it doesn’t need to be seasoned as much as a regular cast iron pot but I don’t think it’s exactly the same as a le creuset for example. I think it is about two quarts, good eye! I don’t think there’s any problem using a regular pot though, I just happened to use my staub, probably because I was using the other for something else. I’ve never substituted, here’s two links I just found (I was interested in the answer too–see, nerdy is fine here) that say how to do it though apparently it’s not a perfect substitution. Tell me how it goes! and

  4. This looks like a great recipe! I am a huge fan of ginerbread (anything with molasses, really) and I may try this tomorrow if I can get out to the store for the buttermilk. I keep whole wheat pastry flour in the house for pancakes, and this may be a good use of it as well. The last two gingerbreads I have made were from the Trader Joe’s mix, so it will be fun to have the real thing!

  5. I love gingerbread – anything with molasses for that matter! And the Edible series is terrific. I always find great recipes in the Seattle one. What a gorgeous plate and lovely Japanese tradition of collecting.

  6. For cheddarchat: a good substitute for buttermilk is half plain yogurt/milk. Whichever kind tho personally, I like the low-fat yogurt vs non-fat, but that’s just me. 😀 As for the ginger pwdr/fresh substitution, will have to make it soon ’cause I just abt finished off Dad D’s stash of ginger snaps (these r wafer-thin & DELISH!). Will def report on results! Thx for the “nerdy validation”! XD

  7. Pingback: Homey Tomato Cheddar PieThree Clever Sisters

  8. Pingback: Pear Gingerbread Muffins | Three Clever SistersThree Clever Sisters

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