real life test kitchen: a gingerbread cake disaster


Last weekend, I thought I’d get in the festive spirit by baking up some gingerbread cake, something I’d never done before. I had visions of a deliciously spicy, moist, hearty cake whose cheer I could spread among friends. Since I had recently bought a big bottle of black strap molasses (a great source of potassium for expecting ladies like me), this recipe for Black Sticky Gingerbread, from 101 Cookbooks seemed like the perfect one. It seemed simple enough: First you combine butter, a touch of water, molasses, dark brown sugar and some flavored honey over low heat. (I may have made my first mistake here, because it said to do this in a “non reactive” pan. What is that? All my pans are stainless steel, so that’s what I used.) After that is blended, you let it cool while sifting together flour, baking soda, a pinch of salt, ginger, cinnamon, all-spice and cloves. When the molasses mixture is just slightly warm, add in eggs, and fold in dry ingredients. Finally, add in 1 tablespoon of grated fresh ginger. The recipe said to bake it for an hour and fifteen minutes up to an hour and hour and half. Well, maybe something’s wonky with our oven, because even though I took it out on the early side, I sadly discovered it was burnt a bit on top and bottom. This gave the cake a really weird bitter taste that was not nice at all. Plus, it wasn’t so much “sticky” as dense and dry. The next day it was only more so. It may make a pretty picture, but honestly, we couldn’t eat it and I certainly wouldn’t share with friends. Also, it wasn’t gingery enough. I like it spicy! Maybe I’ll try again this weekend? Something that’s more loafy than cakey? If you have any holiday cake or bread recipes to share, please let me know! — Angela M.

From our partners

I haven’t made this recipe in years, but I seem to recall that it was good when I did make it.

The Best Ever Vegetarian Cookbook
Nicola Graimes

1/2 cup light brown sugar
6 tablespoons soft margarine (I used butter)
1/4 cup golden syrup or light corn syrup
1/4 cup molasses
7 tablespoons low-fat milk
1 egg, beaten
1 1/2 cups flour
1/2 cup chickpea (gram) flour
pinch of salt
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
Makes a 2-pound loaf

1. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. Lightly grease and line a 13x4x4-inch loaf pan. Place the sugar, margarine, syrup and molasses in a saucepan and heat gently until melted and blended, stirring occasionally.

2. Remove the pan from the heat, let cool slightly, then mix in the milk and egg.

3. Mix the flours, salt, spices and baking powder in a large bowl.

4. Make a well in the center, pour in the liquid mixture and beat well.

5. Pour the mixture into the prepared pan and bake for 1-1 1/2 hours, until firm to the touch and lightly browned.

6. Allow to cool in the pan for a few minutes, then turn out onto a wire rack to cool completely. Store it in an airtight container or wrapped in foil.

Fold 2 ounces finely chopped preserved ginger into the raw cake mixture, if desired. Add 1-2 teaspoons extra ground ginger for a more pronounced flavor.

I need a good gingerbread recipe myself, actually, and I don’t have too much advice to give. I wonder if maybe the temp. of the warm mixture wasn’t quite right when you stirred in the eggs? I don’t know, I’m not a big baker so I don’t quite get a lot of the chemistry.

As to non-reactive pans, I know aluminum is highly reactive so at least you didn’t use that. But The bitter taste could have been from the blackstrap molasses. I wonder if they planned on lighter molasses in the recipe, blackstrap is really intense and quite bitter. (I love it–try molasses milk! Just pretend you’re making chocolate milk, only with molasses. Mmmmm.)


The author of the blog post you link to mentions a “burnt-caramel-esque crust that forms on the top of the cake” — is that what you are calling the burnt part? Maybe it’s supposed to do that? You also list honey twice here, but it’s in the recipe only once — maybe that’s a typo, but if you added it twice to the recipe, could that have changed something?

Angela M.

Hmmm… It didn’t really seem carmel-esque to me, and the bottom had a burnt flavor and crispiness as well. (The honey double mention was a typo — fixed now!). Perhaps the cake turned out as it should, and it just wasn’t what I had hoped for…

There is a gingerbread recipe in my early 80s Better Homes and Garden cookbook. I don’t have the recipe handy. I have been on a buttermilk kick lately (not for drinking, but just for baking) and I found this recipe:

I will have to try that very soon.


Stainless steel pans are non-reactive (cast iron and non-anodized aluminum are what they want you to avoid here) but substituting blackstrap molasses when a recipe calls for regular can definitely up the bitterness.

Angela M.

The recipe definitely called for Blackstrap molasses.


A-ha! Then Tasha’s clue–that the recipe uses the euphemism “burnt-caramel-esque crust”–means that it’s intentional! Maybe the recipe’s just (dare I say it) a stinker.

I always use the Joy of Cooking Gingerbread recipe, IMHO it’s a perfect blend of sweet and spicy and we thought it got better by the day.


I adore gingerbread, but I have learned to avoid all gingerbread recipes that ask for blackstrap molasses. It is VERY dark and intense and, as you have learned, bitter. There’s a reason why “black” is in the name of the recipe. Consider that a warning. There are obviously a few people out in the world who love that flavor (my grandfather was one of them), but it’s too much for most people.

By favorite gingerbread recipe comes from the fine folks at Cooks Illustrated. It’s fast, easy, and delicious.

GINGERBREAD – serves 8

2 1/4 cups sifted (11 1/4 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting pan
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1 teaspoon Dutch-processed cocoa
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled to room temperature
3/4 cup mild or light molasses
3/4 cup (5 1/4 ounces) sugar
1 large egg
1/2 cup buttermilk
1/2 cup milk

1. Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 350F. Grease bottom and sides of 11″ by 7″ baking pan; dust with flour, tapping out any excess.
2. Whisk together flour, ginger, cocoa, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, allspice, baking soda, and salt in medium bowl.
3. Beat butter, molasses, and sugar in large bowl with electric mixer on medium speed until combined. Beat in egg until incorporated. Gradually add buttermilk and milk until combined. Add dry ingredients and beat until smooth, about 1 minute, scraping down sides of bowl as needed (Do not overmix). Scrape batter into prepared pan.
4. Bake until top springs back when lightly touched & edges pull away from pan, about 40 minutes. Set pan on wire rack and cool for at least 10 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature. (Gingerbread can be wrapped in plastic, then foil, and refrigerated up to 5 days).

Note: For a stronger ginger flavor, replace the ground ginger with 3 tablespoons grated fresh ginger and 3 tablespoons minced crystallized ginger. If you don’t own an 11″ by 7″ pan, you can bake the batter in a 9″ square pan.


Like Lyn, I use the Joy of Cooking recipe. Easy, basic. If you want more spice, it’s pretty easy to up the amount of ginger (or add fresh in addition to the ground!

Hmm. I’ll have to give this a try again (it has been a while), but I remember it being the best gingerbread cake I’d ever tasted by a long shot. I actually included it on my site as part of a write-up about Regan Daley’s amazing In the Sweet Kitchen – a fantastic baking book…I’ll see if I run into any of your problems (Angela, did you use any substitutions by any chance?)


I have the best gingerbread recipe, I make it all the time, it’s incredibly easy and moist, doesn’t need frosting. My husband and I ate an entire pan of it last weekend. It’s in my 1961 Betty Crocker New Picture Cookbook (my favorite) and even in there it says it’s an old recipe, that it was “known as ‘Fort Atkinson Gingerbread’ in the popular old Gold Medal cookbook that was a treasure trove for brides in the 1870s.” You need to make sure to use “robust” molasses, I use the Grandma’s brand with the green label.

1/2 cup butter
2 tbsp sugar
1 egg
1 cup dark molasses
1 cup boiling water
2 1/4 cups all purpose flour
1 tsp soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp cinnamon

Heat oven to 325F. Grease and flour square pan 9″x9″, or 9″ ring mold. Mix butter, sugar and egg thoroughly. Blend in molasses and water. Stir together dry ingredients; blend in. Beat until smooth. Pour into pan. Bake 45 to 50 minutes.


if you want something more “bready” and don’t think the pumpkin season is over, this is wonderful bread. I got it from Bon Appetit a few years ago.

Cranberry-walnut pumpkin bread

Makes 1 loaf.

2 cups all purpose flour
2 teaspoons pumpkin pie spice
1 teaspoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar
2 large eggs
1 cup canned pure pumpkin
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2/3 cup buttermilk
1/2 cup dried sweetened cranberries
1/2 cup coarsely chopped walnuts

Preheat oven to 350°F. Butter 9 1/4×5 1/4×3-inch loaf pan. Line bottom and 2 long sides with waxed paper. Whisk flour, pumpkin pie spice, baking powder, salt, and baking soda in medium bowl to blend. Using electric mixer, beat butter in large bowl until fluffy. Gradually add 1 cup sugar, beating until blended. Beat in eggs, 1 at a time. Beat in pumpkin, then vanilla. Beat in dry ingredients alternately with buttermilk in 2 additions each. Fold in cranberries and nuts. Transfer batter to pan. Sprinkle with 1 tablespoon sugar.

Bake bread until tester inserted into center comes out clean, about 1 hour 10 minutes. Cool bread in pan on rack 15 minutes. Cut around bread at short ends to loosen from pan. Turn bread out onto rack; peel off waxed paper. Cool bread completely. (Can be made 2 days ahead. Wrap and store at room temperature.)

Pencils–That Betty Crocker is one of my favorites, partly because of the recipes, and partly because of the drawings.


Joan A–I LOVE the drawings! My mom got this cookbook when she married, so I grew up with it. It wasn’t until I was older that I appreciated just how fabulous the midcentury drawings really are. I wish Betty Crocker would publish a facsimile edition, as they’ve done with other vintage cookbooks. Considering how much these go for on eBay and other auction sites ($80+) I’m sure it would sell some copies. And then I could retire my beat-up one from active cooking. Which I didn’t pay $80 for, but $3 in a Louisiana junk shop.

Hi Angela,

I tested the gingerbread cake recipe again last night (I take it pretty seriously if someone says they have trouble with something I’ve said worked) – it turned out really nicely – moist, flavorful, etc. I baked it for about an hour and ten minutes in my oven. If I make it again, I might shave off another five minutes – but every oven has its quirks. As far as the bitterness you experienced – I like to use Wholesome Sweeteners Organic Molasses – it is an unsulphered blackstrap molasses that is delicious straight out of the bottle -it lends a nice depth to the cake. Maybe the brand you used just tastes extra harsh, does it taste good when you try it straight?

I’m thinking about throwing the recipe back out to my readers sometime over the holidays (as a post from the archives) – see if any of them have been using it over the past couple years. See what their experience has been.

Sorry you had trouble with a recipe I highlighted on my site. Warmest regards and happy holidays, -Heidi

shelterrific » Blog Archive » real life test kitchen: cocoa fudge cookies

[…] last week’s gingerbread cake disaster, I decided to satisfy my baking itch with something a little simpler this weekend: cocoa fudge […]

Angela M.

Thanks for the personal response Heidi. You’re right — the problems I had with the recipe could be a combo of our oven, the molasses, and just personal taste. Let us know what your readers say if you post it again!

shelterrific » Blog Archive » kitchen disasters: my cake flop

[…] with a cake-baking catastrophe. Last December, Angela told us all about her troubles with gingerbread. So, now it’s your turn to spill (pun intended) your kitchen disaster story. Go on, get it off […]