Why It Works
- Brown sugar and molasses provide a bold flavor and mellow sweetness.
- Buttermilk helps with tenderness and rise.
- Whole wheat flour adds a nutty, graham cracker–like flavor.
- Ginger and cinnamon do the heavy lifting, but warm hints of nutmeg, cloves, black pepper, and Chinese five-spice powder add complexity and depth.
Fanciful gingerbread houses and singing gingerbread men are the stuff of fairy tales, but, alas, no stories extol the magic of a simple gingerbread cake. Which is a shame, as it figured so prominently in my childhood. It was the sort of dessert I could always find at potlucks and family gatherings once the weather turned cool.
Considering the time and place (suburban Kentucky in the mid-’80s), I expect most of those cakes came from a box, but that doesn’t stop me from recalling them fondly. They were always tender and rich, gingery but not aggressively so, with a slick layer of lemon glaze over the top—a bright and sunny counterpoint to the earthy spice cake below.
How to Make a Better Gingerbread Sheet Cake
My made-from-scratch version of gingerbread sheet cake differs in a few key ways. Instead of using a lemon glaze, which turns crusty over time, I balance the dark flavors of gingerbread with a tangy cream cheese frosting that stays silky-smooth, no matter how long it’s left out.
To make the cake itself, I use a blend of all-purpose and whole wheat flour.
Whole wheat flour plays off the cinnamon and other spices to give the cake a cozy, graham cracker–like vibe. With a roughly 2:1 ratio of all-purpose to whole wheat flour by weight, it’s a gentle effect, but if you’re crazy about the hearty flavor of whole wheat, the recipe leaves plenty of room to play with the proportions.
When it comes to spicing the cake, I don’t hold back, calling for a blend of black pepper, Chinese five-spice powder, cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, and (of course) ginger. The instantly familiar flavors of ginger and cinnamon don’t require much explanation in a cake like this, but the others might.
I use a bit of nutmeg to add a woodsy aroma, a pinch of cloves to bring out the citrusy notes of molasses, and Chinese five-spice powder for a herbaceousness that breathes a little more dimension into the mix as a whole.
Rather than creaming together the butter and sugar, I whip the eggs and sugar together, drizzling melted butter in at the end. The most important thing to remember during the whipping phase (especially if you’re using a hand mixer rather than a stand mixer) is to let the color, volume, and consistency of the egg-and-sugar mixture be your guide—the specific timeline can vary considerably depending on the wattage of your mixer, so use your eyes rather than a stopwatch. When properly aerated, the mixture should be thick, fluffy, and pale.
Cultured Buttermilk Keeps the Batter Thick
Along with the all-purpose and whole wheat flour, I incorporate a good deal of cultured buttermilk into the batter. It adds a big dose of moisture without thinning the batter, so it stays nice and thick. (For this reason, DIY buttermilk substitutions won’t work here—plain milk will make the batter runny and thin.)
In my book, gingerbread is a casual weeknight affair, or a last-minute dessert for a potluck, so I bake it off in a 9- by 13-inch anodized aluminum cake pan. If you’d prefer a layer cake, the recipe can be doubled and baked as three eight-inch or two nine-inch rounds.
As with brownies, I serve this sheet cake in simple squares, with swirls of cream cheese frosting on top (though tangy whipped Greek yogurt or tart freeze-dried-cranberry whipped cream could play a similar role).
Whether it’s served as a snack on a chilly afternoon or as the finale to a holiday meal, gingerbread cake is just about the perfect seasonal dessert—as easy to prepare as it is to devour.
8 ounces light brown sugar (about 1 cup, packed; 225g)
3 ounces unsulfured molasses, not blackstrap (about 1/4 cup; 85g)
1 tablespoon ground ginger
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon (2g) Diamond Crystal kosher salt; for table salt, use about half as much by volume or the same weight
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg, preferably freshly grated
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon Chinese five-spice powder
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
3 large eggs, straight from the fridge (about 5 1/4 ounces; 150g)
8 ounces unsalted butter (2 sticks; 225g), melted and cooled to about 100°F (38°C)
5 1/2 ounces all-purpose flour (about 1 1/4 cups, spooned; 155g)
2 1/2 ounces whole wheat flour, not stone-ground (about 1/2 cup, spooned; 70g); see notes
8 ounces cultured lowfat buttermilk or kefir (about 1 cup; 225g)
Adjust oven rack to middle position and preheat to 350°F (180°C). Line a 9- by 13-inch anodized aluminum cake pan with parchment, then grease lightly with pan spray.
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a whisk attachment, combine brown sugar, molasses, ginger, cinnamon, baking powder, baking soda, salt, nutmeg, cloves, five-spice powder, black pepper, and eggs. Mix on low until moistened, then increase to high and whip until foamy and thick, about 8 minutes.
Reduce speed to low and drizzle in melted butter, then add all-purpose and whole wheat flours, followed by buttermilk. Once combined, shut off mixer and fold batter once or twice from the bottom up with a flexible spatula, then scrape into prepared pan.
Bake until cake is puffed and firm (though crust will retain a light impression when pressed with a fingertip), about 32 minutes. Cool in pan until firm, then slice into squares with a knife. If desired, top with swirls of cream cheese frosting or whipped Greek yogurt.
Stand mixer, flexible spatula, 9- by 13-inch anodized aluminum cake pan
If you don’t have whole wheat flour on hand, feel free to use an equal amount of all-purpose flour instead; the cake won’t be quite as flavorful and tender, but it’ll be close enough in a pinch.
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