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)