Good gingerbread is dark and moist, with an intriguing hint of bitterness and a peppery finish. Usually it’s a rustic square cake or maybe even an attractive Bundt, but it’s never quite sophisticated enough to serve as the centerpiece holiday dessert.
We wanted to transform homey gingerbread into a stately layer cake. The problem? Traditional recipes are too moist to be stacked four layers high. We knew we could fix the excess moisture problem by cutting back on the molasses or coffee in our recipe or adding a bit more flour. But both strategies would lighten the color and dull the flavor.
Instead, we added a conventional cake ingredient that’s unconventional in gingerbread: cocoa powder. Cocoa contains a high proportion of absorbent starch; just 1/4 cup of it soaked up the cake’s excess moisture, so the crumb was no longer objectionably sticky. The cocoa also deepened the color and flavor of our gingerbread without making the cake taste chocolaty. As a bonus, it diluted some of the gluten, making the cake’s crumb more tender.
Sprinkling chopped crystallized ginger over the top of the cake completed the holiday gingerbread revamp. Use a 2-cup liquid measuring cup to portion the cake batter. Do not use blackstrap molasses here as it is too bitter.
GINGERBREAD LAYER CAKE
Start to finish: 3 hour 30 minutes
1 3/4 cups (8 3/4 ounces) all-purpose flour
1/4 cup (3/4 ounce) unsweetened cocoa powder
2 tablespoons ground ginger
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 cup brewed coffee
3/4 cup molasses
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 1/2 cups (10 1/2 ounces) sugar
3/4 cup vegetable oil
3 large eggs, lightly beaten
2 tablespoons finely grated fresh ginger
5 cups frosting
1/4 cup chopped crystallized ginger (optional)
Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour two 8-inch round cake pans and line pans with parchment paper. Whisk flour, cocoa, ground ginger, baking powder, cinnamon, salt, pepper, and cayenne together in large bowl. Whisk coffee, molasses, and baking soda in second large bowl until combined. Add sugar, oil, eggs, and fresh ginger to coffee mixture and whisk until smooth.
Whisk coffee mixture into flour mixture until smooth. Pour 1 1/3 cups batter into each prepared pan. Bake until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean, 12 to 14 minutes. Let cakes cool in pans on wire rack for 10 minutes. Remove cakes from pan, discarding parchment, and let cool completely on rack, about 2 hours. Wipe pans clean with paper towels. Let pans cool completely, regrease and reflour pans, and line with fresh parchment. Repeat process with remaining batter.
Line edges of cake platter with 4 strips of parchment to keep platter clean. Place 1 cake layer on platter. Spread 3/4 cup frosting evenly over top, right to edge of cake. Repeat with 2 more cake layers, pressing lightly to adhere and spreading 3/4 cup frosting evenly over each layer. Top with remaining cake layer and spread remaining frosting evenly over top and sides of cake. Garnish top of cake with crystallized ginger, if using. Refrigerate until frosting is set, about 30 minutes, before serving. (Cake can be refrigerated for up to two days; bring to room temperature before serving.)