Let me introduce you to one of my favorite cakes yet – dark forest gingerbread cake! It’s loosely inspired by the folktale Hansel and Gretel, which I recently had to re-read for one of my classes. Once I had the concept of a gingerbread cake in mind, I ran with it. I went to town with the brown sugar and molasses in the batter, added a brown sugar caramel buttercream (also known as penuche frosting), and included a variety of warm spices, including nutmeg, cinnamon, cardamom, and ground ginger.
This brings me to a common question: what’s the difference between ground ginger and sky ginger?
Anyways, this cake, like most spice cakes, is incredibly moist, making it ideal for a 1- or 2-layer cake. I wouldn’t stack more than 2 layers because the cake is so dense that the upper layers would crush the lower layers. It’s also very rich, which lets it shine with only a thin layer of frosting (definitely to @ most other cakes). I won’t go on my full tangent about the amount of frosting in grocery store cakes, but I will say this – if a cake is well-made, you won’t want a half-inch-thick layer of frosting. I think the cake, not the frosting, should be the star of the show.
The frosting on this cake requires a bit of explanation. It’s called penuche frosting, which is just buttercream made with caramelized brown sugar. You’ll boil the brown sugar with some milk and butter to produce a lovely soft caramel that you can mix with more butter and powdered sugar to achieve a buttercream consistency. The brown sugar turns it a light tan color, so if you’re not into that, feel free to add food coloring.
Alternatively, you can stop after the caramel step (that is, not turn it into buttercream) and use it as a caramel drip over the sides of the cake.
My boyfriend almost cried of joy when he tried this gingerbread cake, claiming that nothing else in life will ever be as good as it (100% true and shared with his permission). Just like gingerbread or gingersnaps, the cake is sweet, spicy, and complex. The frosting, made from mostly butter and brown sugar, tastes like eternal life and a responsible American coronavirus response. Putting the two together results in perhaps the perfect winter holiday cake, which is very timely, seeing as it’s July. If you like gingerbread or ginger-flavored desserts in general, you definitely need to make this cake.
Dark Forest Gingerbread Cake with Brown Sugar Frosting
- 12 tbsp (170 g) unsalted butter room temperature
- 300 g dark brown sugar
- 1 tbsp (15 g) pure vanilla extract
- 225 g molasses
- 3 large eggs
- 3 g salt
- ½ tsp (3 g) baking soda
- 1 ½ tsp (6 g) baking powder
- 375 g all-purpose flour
- 120 g warm water
- 210 g buttermilk
- 1 tsp cardamom
- 2 tsp cinnamon
- 1 tsp ground ginger
- ½ tsp nutmeg
- 110 g unsalted butter
- 225 g brown sugar light or dark
- 1 tsp pure vanilla extract
- 60 g whole milk
- Pinch of salt
- 8 tbsp (113 g) unsalted butter room temperature
- 3 cups (341 g) powdered sugar
- Food coloring (brown, green, and red)
- Berries and chopped nuts
- Prepare: Preheat the oven to 350º F/180º C. Prepare two 8″ round cake pans by coating with butter and dusting with flour.
- Wet Ingredients: Cream together the butter and brown sugar until thick and fluffy. Beat in the vanilla, molasses, and eggs.
- Dry Ingredients: In a separate bowl, whisk together the dry ingredients. In a third bowl, stir together the water and buttermilk. Add ⅓ of the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients, beat to combine, then add ⅓ of the buttermilk mixture and beat to combine. Continue alternating until everything is combined and smooth.
- Bake: Pour half the batter into each cake pan and bake for 40 minutes or until a skewer inserted into the middle of the cakes comes out clean. Remove from the oven and let cool in the pans for about 15 minutes, then remove from the pans and let cool fully.
- Make the Caramel: While the cakes bake, add the butter, brown sugar, vanilla, milk, and salt to a small saucepan. Heat uncovered over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the mixture comes to a gentle boil. Boil for 1-2 minutes, stirring constantly, until the mixture thickens slightly. Remove from the heat and let cool to room temperature.
- Make the Frosting: Using a stand mixer, beat the butter until smooth. Add the penuche caramel and beat until fully combined. Add the powdered sugar ½ cup at a time, mixing fully after each addition.
- Assemble the Cake: Stack the cooled cakes with a layer of penuche frosting in between. Add a dollop of frosting on top, then use an offset spatula or butter knife to smooth it down the sides. Use a straight edge to neaten the top and sides of the cake. If desired, decorate with chopped nuts, berries, and colored frosting. I used a small round tip for the berries, a small leaf tip for the leaves, and an offset spatula for the branches. Refrigerate until cold, then slice and serve.