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Old-Fashioned Gingerbread Cake

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A historical recipe for gingerbread cake, adapted for today.

This 18th century American gingerbread cake recipe from George Washington’s mother stands the test of time. It is moist, spicy, easy, and perfectly sweet from brown sugar, ginger, and molasses.

gingerbread cake recipe
A slice of moist gingerbread layer cake

Meet This Easy Gingerbread Cake Recipe

Gingerbread makes everything feel — and smell — festive, especially around the holidays. The warm aroma of baking spices and molasses wafting from the oven means that a great dessert is on the way. And turning these festive ingredients into a moist gingerbread cake adds a special “wow” factor you just can’t get from a loaf pan.

This historic gingerbread cake recipe from George Washington’s mother, Mary Ball Washington, stands the test of time. It is moist, spicy, and perfectly sweet from brown sugar and molasses.

spiced gingerbread cake ingredients on marble countertop

The History of Martha Washington’s Gingerbread Cake Recipe

Few cakes have as legendary a backstory. According to American Cake, George Washington’s mother, Mary Ball Washington, served this gingerbread cake to her many guests, including the Marquis de Lafayette in the late 1780s. (The other name for this is Lafayette gingerbread.)

George Washington’s sister, Betty, served the gingerbread cake as well, from her Kenmore Plantation in Virginia. The recipe was then lost to time until the 1920s. While sorting through boxes in the attic, members of the Kenmore Association and the Daughters of the American Revolution discovered the handwritten recipe in a diary.

But this history cannot be complete without acknowledging that both Mary Ball Washington and Betty Washington Lewis were both slaveowners. Thus, we can assume that enslaved people likely baked this cake, and not exclusively the Washington women themselves.

(Editor’s note: I tried doing additional research on this point, and contacted historians at Mt. Vernon for further information on this, but was unsuccessful.)

baked gingerbread cake layers on wire rack

What is this gingerbread cake made of?

This gingerbread recipe combines just the right mixture of spices (including ginger, of course!), dry ingredients, sugar, butter, and eggs to make a delicious cake that’s moist with sweet, spiced flavors and beautiful aroma of orange and baking spices. This recipe does not call for vanilla extract because the original did not, and the cake is already so flavorful from all the spices and citrus, but you could add a teaspoon if you’d like.

For this gingerbread cake, you will need the following ingredients:

  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp. cream of tartar
  • 1 tsp. baking soda
  • 2 tbsp. ground ginger
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1 large orange, zested and halved
  • 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
  • 1/2 cup light brown sugar, packed (you can use dark brown sugar if you’d like something extra robust)
  • 1 cup molasses (I like Grandma’s brand)
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 1/4 cup brandy or coffee (you can substitute use water if you like)
  • 3 eggs, beaten
  • 1 cup seedless golden raisins
  • 1 recipe vanilla buttercream to layer and frost

How to Make This Moist Gingerbread Cake

The steps to making this festive holiday layer cake are fairly straightforward:

  1. Grease two 8″ cake pans and preheat the oven to 350°F. Set the raisins to soften in a bowl of warm water.
  2. Cream together the butter, light brown sugar, molasses, ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, orange zest, and salt. Add the eggs and whip until fluffy and light.
  3. Fold in the flour, baking soda, cream of tartar, brandy or coffee, milk, and juice of half the orange. Mix until smooth. Drain the raisins and mix them in.
  4. Divide the cake batter between the two cake pans that have been greased and preferably lined with parchment paper. Place on the center rack of the oven and bake for approximately 25 minutes, until firm on top and a cake tester or toothpick comes out clean.
  5. Let cool in the pans for about 15 minutes. When cool enough to handle, run a knife or small offset spatula around the edge of the pans, and turn the cakes out onto a wire rack.
  6. Cool fully before serving. Layer and decorate with vanilla buttercream or vanilla powdered sugar frosting, if desired. A simple dusting of powdered sugar would look lovely as well, or you can serve a layer simply with a dollop of fresh whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.

gingerbread cake recipe

Gingerbread Layer Cake Recipe Notes

  • This cake can also be baked in a 13 x 9″ pan. The baking time will increase to about 35 to 40 minutes.
  • I have updated the method for ease and for best results. As usual with spiced cakes, I incorporate the spices into the wet ingredients, and not the dry. This allows the ginger, nutmeg, and orange zest to bloom.
  • This cake — like most cakes — is even better the next day, or even two. The layers should fully cool before frosting them.

sliced gingerbread cake

What goes well with gingerbread cake

This is the perfect winter dessert, especially around Christmastime. This goes very well with a good cup of coffee, a glass of stout or porter, or an off-dry Riesling if you’d prefer wine.

Because this cake tastes quite robust, keep accompaniments simple: vanilla frosting, ice cream, or whipped cream is perfect.

Love this festive ginger cake recipe? Spice things up some more with these holiday recipes:

Gingerbread Cake Recipe

Gingerbread Cake

You will love this old-fashioned recipe for Martha Washington's easy gingerbread cake, updated into a moist, spiced layer cake fit for modern holidays.
Prep Time20 minutes
Cook Time25 minutes
Course: Dessert
Cuisine: American
Keywords:: 4th of july, cake, christmas, dessert, gingerbread, gingerbread cake recipe, gingerbread layer cake recipe, holiday, how to make gingerbread, layer cake, spice cake
Servings: 2 x 8" layers
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Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
  • 1/2 cup light brown sugar, packed
  • 1 cup molasses (I like Grandma's brand)
  • 2 tablespoons ground ginger
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1 large orange, zested and halved
  • 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 3 large eggs, beaten
  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon cream of tartar
  • 1/4 cup brandy or coffee (can use water in a pinch)
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 1 cup seedless golden raisins
  • 1 recipe vanilla buttercream (recipe linked below)

Instructions

  • Grease two 8" cake pans and preheat the oven to 350°F. Set the raisins to soften in a bowl of warm water.
    PRO TIP: Always soak and soften dried fruit before adding it to scones, cookies, or cake. That way, the fruit will not burn or toughen, and will not draw moisture from the batter.
  • In the bowl of a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream together the butter, light brown sugar, molasses, ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, orange zest, and salt until fluffy and lightened. Add the eggs and whip until fluffy and light.
    PRO TIP: Grease the measuring cup before measuring the molasses. The molasses will slip right out instead of sticking. Same goes for measuring honey or other liquid sugars, such as glucose or corn syrup.
  • Add the flour, baking soda, cream of tartar, brandy or coffee, milk, and juice of half the orange to the mixture. Mix until smooth. Drain the raisins and stir them in.
  • Pour the cake batter evenly between the two cake pans. Place on the center rack of the oven and bake for approximately 25 minutes, until firm on top and a cake tester or toothpick comes out clean.
  • Let cool in the pans for about 15 minutes. When cool enough to handle, run a knife or small offset spatula around the edge of the pans, and turn the cakes out onto a cooling rack. Cool fully.
  • Layer the cake and frost with Swiss vanilla buttercream or vanilla powdered sugar frosting, if desired. A simple dusting of powdered sugar would look lovely as well, or you can also serve a layer unfrosted with a dollop of whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.

Notes

This gingerbread cake makes an outstanding, easy holiday dessert without being fussy. You can make the layers up to two days in advance, and store wrapped in plastic wrap and kept at room temperature. Then just frost and serve! 
Substitutions and ingredient notes:
  • You can skip the brandy and substitute coffee or even water if you'd like an alcohol-free cake.  
  • Avoid blackstrap molasses, which will taste too strong
  • This recipe uses light brown sugar, but you can also use dark brown sugar if you'd like an extra robust flavor and a darker color

 

20 comments

  • 5 stars
    perfect little holiday cake. Can these be made into cupcakes? If so, how many would it make, about? Thank you

  • Steph Ingalls

    5 stars
    Excellent cake and I love the history!! I have been making this at Christmas for the past couple of years, and it has become such a nice tradition we all look forward to having.

  • Rômulo

    how many grams of butter??? Is this amount of wheat flour correct? hug !

    • Unpeeled

      Hello there! Yes, this is for white, all-purpose wheat flour, though you are welcome to substitute gluten-free flour as you like. The gram equivalent for the 4 ounces (1 stick) of butter is 113 grams. Enjoy 🙂

  • Catherine

    Does this cake freeze well?

    • Unpeeled

      Absolutely. When it has fully cooled, wrap it securely in plastic wrap and freeze. You can thaw at room temperature overnight.

  • 5 stars
    Thank you for this recipe and I loved learning about the history of the recipe as well.

  • Could this cake work with cream cheese frosting? Cake recipe looks delicious but I’m not a huge fan of buttercream frosting.

    • Unpeeled

      Absolutely! I think that would actually be delicious. I sometimes think buttercream frosting can be a little too sweet. I think the slight tang of cream cheese would taste wonderful.

  • Kristine

    Omg.. how did I almost over bake the outside while the middle was underdone.. fell in the middle. What did I do?? Lol. The flavor was great though ?.

    • Unpeeled

      Oh no! That’s so sad! So sorry to hear that. Nothing’s worse in the kitchen than a baking fail. The most common reasons a cake can fall are under-baking, the oven temperature being off, accidentally measuring the leavening agents incorrectly (baking soda, powder, etc.), or under-mixing the batter and not building enough aeration for the cake to rise evenly. Does any of that sound possible? I love diagnosing and helping with cake issues, so let me know how we can put our heads together on this one. In any event, I am glad you thought it tasted good at least!

  • Can I use this recipe to make cupcakes?

    • Unpeeled

      Great question. Absolutely. Keep the same oven temperature. They will take around 25 minutes in a standard muffin tin (but start checking at 20 minutes). Hope you enjoy!

  • Becky W.

    5 stars
    Turned out great!

  • 5 stars
    I really liked the robust flavor of this. It was sweet and very “gingerbready,” and was very good with the frosting because the sweetness was a good counterpoint to the spice cake..

5 from 8 votes

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