As we ease into 2024 I am simplifying my life and making a delicious, uncomplicated gingerbread snack cake. The holidays are all about showstopper desserts and fanciful decorating. Now it’s a time to relax and slip into something comfy to recuperate from all the visiting relatives.
I’ve been tinkering with this gingerbread snack cake since 1996. It was on the menu at Backstage at Bravo!, the first fine-dining restaurant I worked in after leaving culinary school. We used to bake big batches of this cake and then break it into pieces to soak for bread pudding. It was always a big seller in the cold of the Minnesota winter with the warm spices and served with a scoop of cinnamon ice cream. I always loved the cake for its comfort food simplicity. Serve it with ice cream, a dollop of whipped cream or even yogurt for breakfast.
The original cake was made with shortening, Crisco to be exact, lots of sugar, eggs, and a mild dose of spice. In the updated recipe below I made substitutions in an attempt to make the cake more delicious by today’s standards and to create a vegan and/or gluten-free version. In the recipe I explain the substitutions I played around with and which ones worked best. The recipe has all of my final choices reflected but I thought I would take you through my process of getting to there.
Fat: Most shortenings contain palm oil, which is banned in Europe and many other parts of the world, so I tried the cake with other fats to replace the shortening. In the end, I chose coconut oil, which produces a similar texture, is vegan, and is more globally available. Do I like the texture better with Crisco, yes, but sometimes we make choices for health, our own and/or the planet’s. When made with liquid oil (sunflower, olive, vegetable, etc.), the cake was a little too dense and oily, but still good.
I also tried the cake with butter (obviously, not vegan) and found it a bit stodgier, but delicious. Since butter has some water content, it changes the texture of baked goods that call for a pure fat, like shortening. By clarifying or browning the butter (removing the water and whey – done by boiling the butter) you can get closer to the texture I was looking for in the cake, but it is not vegan.
Flour: I worked in restaurants for decades and had never heard the word celiac or gluten-free until my first bread book, Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day, came out in 2007. As soon as it hit the bookstores I started to get requests for gluten-free bread recipes. It was a crash course on how to use flours that don’t have gluten and at the time, there were no readily available flour blends that could recreate a bread I was willing to eat. Thankfully, things have changed in that regard and there are many excellent choices. King Arthur Baking Company, Bob’s Red Mill, Cup4Cup, and Better Batter are the gluten-free flour blends I’ve used with great success. Along with gluten, some people have other sensitivities to corn or other ingredients, so be sure to read the labels and make sure you can tolerate the flour and binders used in the blend. I used Better Batter for the testing of the gluten-free version of this snack cake.
Eggs: As I was writing Gluten-free Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day*, I also became aware that many folks have sensitivities to eggs. I experimented with egg substitutes like Ener-G* (a product that dates back to my childhood) and flaxseed slurry. They both worked really well when the recipe called for 2 or less eggs. Beyond that things got a little dense and weird. For this cake, I went with the ground flax slurry and it was great.
Sugar & Spice: I reduced the amount of sugar, but there is still a sizable amount. I tried to recreate the cake I love so much with honey or maple syrup and it was way too heavy and cloying. My philosophy on cake is to make it using the ingredients that make you feel good and happy, just don’t eat the whole thing. I switched from mild molasses to blackstrap for more intensity of flavor and I upped the spices to give it more attitude. They are a brilliant combination with the blueberries. A little zip of heat from candied ginger was the final touch.
Fruit: I love the blueberries in this cake with the ginger, it’s a really classic combination of flavors. Other berries get a little lost in the ginger but blueberries pop. I did make it with cranberries and that was terrific. You can also use other fruit that’s in season, just chop it up and distribute as you do the blueberries. I think peaches and ginger are a great combo.
Gingerbread Snack Cake Substitutions
- The original recipe called for Crisco shortening. It’s an ingredient that was in heavy use at the time but has fallen out of favor due to its environmental impacts, so I updated the recipe with coconut oil.
- I went so far as to make a version that is also vegan and/or gluten-free, substituting the flour, egg, and buttermilk, and I really enjoyed it. See the recipe for the alternatives.
- You can make this same cake with other berries (cranberries are tart and wonderful with this batter). If you use something sweeter, you may want to reduce the sugar by a couple of tablespoons.
- I use blackstrap molasses for the intensity of flavor and the color. If all you have is mild molasses, you will want to reduce the sugar by a couple of tablespoons.
- 2 cups (240g) all-purpose flour* see note for gluten-free alternative
- 2 tsp ground ginger
- 1 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1 tsp baking soda
- 1 tsp kosher salt
- 1/2 cup (112g) coconut oil (plus more for pan)
- 1 1/4 cups (250g) sugar
- 3 Tbsp (60g) blackstrap molasses
- 1 egg** see note for vegan alternative
- 1 cup (237g) buttermilk** see note for vegan alternative
- 1 3/4 cups (200g) blueberries fresh or frozen
- 1 Tbsp finely chopped candied ginger (optional)
- 1/4 cup (50g) raw, Demerara or crystal sugar for pan and top
- Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease a 7 x 9 1/2 -inch (or 8-inch square) pan and coat with raw sugar.
- In a medium bowl whisk together the flour, spices, baking soda, and salt.
- In a large bowl, using a handheld mixer on low speed, combine the coconut oil, sugar, and molasses. Turn speed to medium high and beat for about a minute or until fluffy.
- Add the egg and continue mixing until incorporated.
- Add 1/3 of the flour mixture and mix on low speed until just blended. Add ½ the buttermilk and continue mixing until just blended. Repeat with another 1/3 flour, remaining buttermilk and then finish with the remaining flour.
- Use a rubber spatula to gently (and quickly) fold in 1 ½ cups of the blueberries and candied ginger. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and spread evenly. Sprinkle remaining blueberries and raw sugar over the top.
- Bake in the center of the oven for about 35-45 minutes (45-50 minutes if you used frozen berries) or until a tester comes out with moist crumbs, don’t over bake.
- Serve warm or at room temperature.
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