When the perfume of gingerbread floats through the air, and you catch a first glimpse of gingerbread men and houses, you know that holiday season is here for real. Gingerbread, in some form, has been a European holiday staple since medieval days, when using prized spices meant that it was a very special time of year.
When you talk flavor-packed treats, gingerbread still rules — and once you add the power of cocoa and the bravura of a red cake with cream cheese frosting, you have holiday gold.
Red Velvet + Gingerbread Spices = One Amazing Cake
There are more recipes for gingerbread than cooks, seemingly, but many of the recipes contain a wee bit of cocoa powder. By the time of the American Revolution, cocoa drinks were all the rage for the elite, so the addition of cocoa to old recipes that were meant to be extra special makes sense. Cocoa also added a depth of flavor and a hint of je ne sais qua in the background that paired with spices wonderfully.
Red velvet cake is a cocoa-flavored layer cake, with distinctly red, burnished layers, thanks to food coloring (or occasionally beets) that is traditionally frosted with cream cheese or an American buttercream frosting.
I decided to put it all together. Gingerbread, made my favorite way, with grated fresh ginger root, made a memorable pairing with plentiful amounts of cocoa, topped off with a not-exactly-mild-mannered cream cheese frosting.
Here's the bottom line: This cake looks great and tastes amazing. It's a holiday-worthy project. If I was only bringing one dessert, one cake, to a holiday dinner party, this would be it. It's a real showstopper.
Make It Ahead
This cake can be made in stages, in advance, and put together the day you serve it: The cake layers can be made up to a week in advance as long as they are well-wrapped in plastic and then foil and frozen. Defrost completely before putting the cake together. The frosting can also be made in advance up to one day in advance, covered well and refrigerated. It can be made the day before and brought back to room temperature before putting the cake together.
Gingerbread Red Velvet Cake
For the cake:
1/4 cup warm water
1/4 cup unsweetened natural cocoa powder
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper
1/4 teaspoon fine salt
2 sticks (8 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 3/4 cups packed dark brown sugar
4 large eggs
1/4 cup molasses
2 teaspoons vanilla extract or vanilla bean paste
3 to 3 1/2 tablespoons peeled and grated fresh ginger (from a 3-inch piece)
1 cup buttermilk
2 (1-ounce) bottles red food coloring or 1 teaspoon red food paste
For the cream cheese frosting:
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
8 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
Scant 1 tablespoon peeled and grated fresh ginger (from a 1-inch piece)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract or vanilla bean paste
4 cups powdered sugar
2 to 4 tablespoons heavy cream, light cream, or half-and-half
Make the cake: Arrange 2 racks to divide the oven into thirds and heat to 350°F. Spray 2 (9-inch) round cake pans with cooking spray and line the bottom with parchment paper rounds; set aside.
Combine the water and cocoa in a small bowl and whisk or stir to dissolve; set aside.
Sift the flour, baking soda, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, white pepper, and salt onto a sheet of parchment paper or into a bowl; set aside.
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, or in a large bowl with an electric hand mixer, beat the butter and sugar on medium to medium-high speed until lighter in color and fluffy, 5 to 6 minutes.
Stop the mixer and scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl. Beat in the eggs one at a time, beating after each addition, until fully incorporated.
Add half the flour mixture and beat to fully combine. Add the cocoa mixture, molasses, vanilla, and ginger and beat to fully incorporate. Scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl as needed. Add the buttermilk and red food coloring and mix until incorporated. Add the remaining flour mixture and mix to just combine. Add more coloring if necessary until the batter is a bright red color.
Divide the batter evenly between the prepared pans, smoothing the tops with an offset spatula or the back of a spoon.
Bake for 15 minutes. Rotate the cake pans between racks and from front to back. Bake until a tester inserted into the center of each cake comes out clean and the cakes have begun to pull away from the cake pans, 15 to 20 minutes more.
Place the pans on a cooling rack and let cool for 8 to 10 minutes. Flip the cakes out onto the cooling rack, flip again so they are right-side up, and cool completely, about 45 minutes. Meanwhile, make the frosting.
Make the frosting: Wash and dry the mixer bowl and paddle or large bowl and electric hand mixer. Beat the butter and cream cheese in the bowl on medium speed until fully combined. Add the ginger and vanilla and beat well. Add the powdered sugar 1 cup at a time, starting at medium-low speed and gradually increasing the speed to high with each addition, mixing until each addition is fully incorporated.
Add the cream, 1 tablespoon at a time, beating after each addition, until all the ingredients are completely incorporated. Increase the speed to high and beat until the frosting is fluffy and easily spreadable, 1 to 2 minutes. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate until the cakes are completely cool. Remove the frosting from the refrigerator about 10 minutes before frosting the cake.
Frost the cake: Place one of the cakes on a cake plate or a cardboard cake circle set on a cake plate. Tuck 4 pieces of parchment paper underneath the edges of the cake to catch any mess.
If the cake is uneven and not the same height all around (it is likely that it will have domed a bit in the center), trim it with a long, serrated knife to even it out. Repeat with the second cake layer and set the second layer aside. (Save the trimmings and crumbs for cake pops or another recipe.)
Scoop about 1/3 cup of the frosting onto the top of the cake and gently spread it with an offset spatula or butter knife so that it covers the surface in a smooth layer, making sure not to tear the cake. Scoop another 1/2 cup frosting on top of the smoothed frosting and gently spread it across the surface.
Place the second cake layer, top-side down, onto the frosting layer. Gently spread a thin layer of frosting around the side of the cake. This is a "crumb coat" and it will keep the crumbs tamped down. Scoop about 1/2 cup of frosting over the top and smooth into a thin layer to hold the crumbs down.
Scoop about 1 cup of the frosting over the sides and smooth it with an offset spatula. Scoop about 1/2 cup of the frosting onto the top and smooth it over the surface. Smooth any additional frosting over the cake, or pipe it decoratively using a piping bag. Remove the parchment paper from under the cake before serving.
- Frosting tips: To learn how the pros frost a layer cake, check out these tips for frosting a cake.
- Make ahead: The cake layers can be baked up to 1 week in advance. Wrap well in plastic wrap, then aluminum foil, then freeze. Defrost before frosting.
- Storage: Wrapped in plastic, this cake will keep up to 3 days in the refrigerator, but the cake itself is best served the day it is baked or defrosted.