A historic gingerbread cake recipe, adapted for today.
This classic gingerbread layer cake recipe from George Washington’s mother stands the test of time. It is moist, spicy, and perfectly sweet from brown sugar and molasses.
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. This historic gingerbread layer cake recipe from George Washington’s mother stands the test of time. It is moist, spicy, and perfectly sweet from brown sugar and molasses.
The History of Martha Washington’s Gingerbread Layer 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 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.)
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.
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Gingerbread Layer Cake
- 3 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon cream of tartar
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 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
- 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
- 1/2 cup light brown sugar, packed
- 1 cup molasses (I like Grandmom's brand)
- 1/2 cup milk
- 1/4 cup brandy or coffee (can use water in a pinch)
- 3 eggs, beaten
- 1 cup seedless golden raisins
- 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 can't 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. Add the eggs and whip until fluffy and light. PRO TIP: Grease the measuring cup before measuring the molasses. That way, it will slip right out instead of sticking. Same goes for measuring honey or other liquid sugars, such as glucose or corn syrup.
- 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.
- Divide the cake batter 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 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.