In our house, holiday season hits when all things gingerbread emerge from the oven. I blame my childhood and a mom with a tooth for finely-aged fruitcakes and all desserts molasses-based and warmly-spiced. The headiness of gingerbread is the harbinger of Christmastime.
Through the years, I’ve amassed a steady repertoire of gingerbread recipes. This Melissa Clark recipe from the New York Times was a longtime standby, but last year I realized it uses too much sugar (for my preferences), which in turn masks the cranberry that should pop against a sweetly spiced cake.
I began the quest for my ultimate gingerbread.
This ultimate gingerbread is moist, tender-crumbed, soaringly high and springy, a bit sticky, and rich with molasses and spice. In my efforts to build a perfect recipe, I went through several and compared many traditional versions, eventually landing a hybridized recipe that resembles most closely this excellent Joy the Baker gingerbread. My version nixes the frosting in favour of a sticky cranberry layer, further refines the sweeteners and spices used and modifies the baking approach.
Having made it a couple times now, I will proclaim this gingerbread a Christmastime keeper. It meets all above criteria and keeps improving as it ages. Make it now for dessert tonight or breakfast tomorrow or a dinner party this weekend.
Orange-Scented Upside-Down Sticky Cranberry Gingerbread
Makes one towering (about 2.5-inches high) 9-inch round cake
For the cranberry caramel layer
- 1 12-oz (3 cup) bag fresh or frozen cranberries
- 2 Tbsp unsalted butter
- 4 Tbsp medium brown sugar
- 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
- pinch fine sea salt
For the cake
- 2.25 cups all-purpose flour
- 2.5 tsp ground ginger
- 1 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1/4 tsp ground cloves
- 2 tsp baking soda
- 1/2 tsp fine sea salt
- 3/4 cup + 2 Tbsp vegetable or other neutral oil
- 3/4 cup granulated white sugar
- zest of one large orange
- 2 large eggs
- 1/2 cup blackstrap molasses (learn about the different types of molasses)
- 1/4 cup agave syrup, golden syrup or other neutral liquid sweetener
- 3/4 c hot (not boiling) water
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
Prepare a 9-inch round springform pan, by buttering it and lining bottom with parchment paper.
Prepare the sugar*: in a large bowl, combine granulated sugar and orange zest, pressing the zest into the sugar to fragrance it and release the oils.
Prepare the cranberry layer: in a small saucepan, bring butter and brown sugar to a rolling boil. Remove from heat, add salt and cinnamon and spread into bottom of prepared pan. Arrange cranberries over caramel in one layer.
Prepare the dry ingredients: in a medium bowl, whisk together flour, spices, baking soda and salt.
Prepare the wet ingredients: to your sugar/zest bowl, add oil and eggs and whisk until thick and pale. Stir in the molasses and agave syrup.
Add dry ingredients to wet, stirring well to combine.
Gently add the hot water** to the batter until fully incorporated and silky smooth. Your batter will seem quite loose, but worry not!
Gently pour batter over the cranberry layer, taking care not to disturb the berries.
Bake cake on centre oven rack and check after 45 minutes or so. The top should be springy and a toothpick inserted at several places should come out clean. My cakes typically took about 50 minutes total to bake.
Allow cake to cool completely. Run a knife around the outside and remove the springform. Invert onto a serving platter cranberry-side up, remove the parchment layer and serve.
This cake is excellent on day one, but only continues to develop in flavour and texture. I love it most on day three. It will keep, tightly wrapped in a cool space, for about a week. Pieces freeze well, wrapped in clingfilm and foil, and can be defrosted for later enjoyment.
*I picked up this technique for citrus zest years ago. In short, whenever you’re using zest in a recipe that calls for sugar, take the time to work the zest into the sugar. It releases the essential oils and maximizes the aroma.
**From my research, adding hot water to a cake right before baking is an unusual technique central to many traditional gingerbread recipes. While I was unable to locate where this started or why, from my trials, it seems to help activate the baking soda and produce a springy, tender-crumbed, high-profile cake.