The Sticky Gingerbread of My Dreams

I began this exploration with a question. “What is the difference between sticky and regular gingerbread?” Put another way, “What makes sticky gingerbread, well, sticky?”

Fresh Ginger, Peeled & Chopped

A couple of rounds of baking later, I had identified the differences. Namely, sticky gingerbread starts with a fluid, molasses-heavy batter, which, if not over baked, creates a beautifully moist cake, which if wrapped and refrigerated for a day or two and then brought back to room temperature, has a dense, chewy, somewhat sticky texture.

Heating Molasses, Butter, Sugar, Gingerbeer & Secret Ingredient

Additionally, bakers frequently douse this cake with a syrupy, decidedly sticky sauce, accompany it with a lush custard sauce, or both. So one way or another, sticky is an apt description.

Sifting Flour, Baking Powder & Spices

But then, while I was testing a few traditional gingerbread formulas, another question arose. Why do most gingerbread recipes call for dissolving baking soda in hot water or other liquid prior to adding to the batter? After all, this practice activates and dissipates the gas in the baking soda, rendering it useless as a leavener in the batter.

Mixing Gingerbread Liquid & Dry Ingredientss

I am not a food chemist, but here are some of the reasons my research uncovered:

  • One explanation claims that the baking soda is added to neutralize the acids in the batter, in addition to adding tenderness. This makes sense when you consider that the leavening must be balanced to achieve a neutral pH. Molasses and brown sugar are very acidic, thus the baking soda neutralizes this acidity, allowing the baking powder, which in itself is balanced, to do the actual leavening.
  • When baking soda is added to hot liquid, gas releases that changes the pH of the recipe and darkens the color of the batter (especially when cocoa is part of the batter).
  • Hot water loosens the gluten strands in the flour, creating a lighter textured gingerbread.
  • Warming the eggs prior to baking the gingerbread allows them to expand to their utmost in the oven.

Gingerbread Cake Hot from the Oven

All of these explanations seem plausible, but the proof is in the pudding, as the saying goes. All I know for sure is that I followed the time-honored dictate of adding baking soda to the hot liquid ingredients and the process works.

This is the BEST gingerbread I have EVER tasted. I’ve tested dozens of gingerbread recipes over the years and THIS is IT. It’s also as easy as cake making gets. No mixer, no beating, no aerating butter with sugar.

Sticky Triple Gingerbread

The classic method for making gingerbread involves melting butter with molasses, liquid of some type, and sugar, adding baking soda, and then incorporating liquid ingredients into dry ingredients. It’s that simple.

Sticky Triple Gingerbread with Cinnamon Bay Leaf Caramel Sauce & Cream Cheese Crema

Surprisingly, the ingredients that take this gingerbread over the top were sitting in the fridge, staring at me each time I opened the door. And all the while, I kept asking myself, “How can I increase the moisture level of this cake, as well as the intensity, while keeping the various flavor notes in perfect balance?

Here are the secret ingredients:

Secret Ingredients: Apple Butter and Ginger Beer

Sticky Triple Gingerbread

…with Cinnamon Caramel Sauce, Cream Cheese Crema & Chocolate Gravel

The difference between regular gingerbread and sticky gingerbread is the moisture level of the baked cake. Sticky gingerbread should be very moist–as in don’t overbake it. I kick up the flavor intensity a notch or two for my sticky gingerbread–thus a triple hit of ginger beer, powdered ginger, and a whopping quantity of fresh ginger. You are unlikely to discern it, but the apple butter provides fruity acidity (which balances the bitter acidity of the molaasses beautifully) and flavor intensity, as well as tenderness and moist crumb. It makes a world of difference in this gingerbread. As for the pepper, you can of course leave it out, especially for the kids, but I love the way the heat builds on the palate with each bite.

NOTE   You will notice the decidedly wet batter and may even worry as you pour it into the pan. Never fear! Your gingerbread will turn out beautifully.

NOTE   I like this gingerbread to stand tall and proud on the plate, thus use an 8- by 8-inch baking pan. However, if you don’t have this size, a 9- by 9-inch pan will also work.

2 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour (9 ounces)
1 tablespoon unsweetened natural-process cocoa
1½ teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1½ teaspoons freshly ground white pepper, optional but wonderful
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground allspice
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
½ teaspoon fine sea salt

1 cup unsulphured molasses
1 cup non-alcoholic ginger beer (or ginger ale) (I LOVE this one)
1 cup apple butter, room temperature (I like this one)
¾ cup unsalted butter, soft room temperature (1½ sticks)
scant ½ cup (2 ounces) peeled, finely grated or pureed fresh ginger (a microplane or spice grinder makes quick work of this)

1½ teaspoons baking soda

2 large eggs
1 cup packed dark brown sugar
1½ teaspoons vanilla extract


light dusting of powdered sugar
softly whipped, lightly sweetened cream
Cream Cheese Crèma (recipe below)
Cinnamon Bay Leaf Caramel Sauce (recipe below)
Chocolate, Gingersnap, & Toffee Gravel (recipe below)

  1. Coat an 8- by 8-inch metal baking pan lightly with vegetable oil spray and then with flour, tapping out any excess. Reserve.
  2. In a mixing bowl, sift together flour, cocoa, baking powder, ginger, cinnamon, pepper, allspice, cloves, and salt
  3. In a large saucepan, bring molasses, ginger beer, apple butter, and butter to a simmer.
  4. Remove from the heat and whisk in the baking soda. Caution: Mixture will expand in volume.
  5. Stir in grated ginger, and vanilla. Reserve.
  6. In a large mixing bowl, thoroughly whisk eggs, brown sugar, and vanilla.
  7. Slowly whisk liquid ingredients into the egg mixture (to temper the eggs).
  8. Add flour mixture and with a large balloon whisk, whisk for a full minute. Batter will be rather fluid.
  9. With a flexible rubber spatula, scrape the batter into the prepared baking pan.
  10. Bake at 350°F for 35-40 minutes, until top of cake looks set and a skewer inserted into the center comes out with very moist but not gooey crumbs. Do not over bake this cake. Under baking slightly is decidedly better than over baking.
  11. Remove from the oven and let cool on a wire rack. (No, you should not cut and eat the cake while it is still warm. Yes, of course you will. It’s FABULOUS warm from the oven.)
  12. when the cake is cool, cut it into twelve, 2- by 3-inch pieces. Serve with one or more of the optional accompaniments.

Makes one 8- by 8-inch cake; serves 12.

Cream Cheese Crèma

This accompaniment is more interesting and substantial than whipped cream and lighter than frosting. It’s the perfect counter balance for this intensely spicy gingerbread.

6 ounces chilled, premium cream cheese
½ cup chilled heavy cream
¼ cup powdered sugar

1. Using a small hand held mixer and a medium mixing bowl, beat the cream cheese until creamy and smooth.
2. Add the cream and powdered sugar, and beat until softly whipped.
3. Cover and chill until needed.

Makes about 1 cup.

Cinnamon Bay Leaf Caramel Sauce

Although sticky gingerbread is often served with a caramel sauce, I felt it might be gilding the lily. You know, too much cloying sweetness. But although completely decadent, it works.

To avoid the perceptible slight grittiness that powdered cinnamon adds to an otherwise velvety caramel, I infuse the cream with whole cinnamon, vanilla, and bay leaf prior to using the strained cream in the caramel. Don’t be put off by the bay leaf; it adds an evocative flavor note that works very well here.

1 cup heavy cream

5-inch length Mexican cinnamon, broken into pieces
4-inch length vanilla bean, split in half
2 dried bay leaves

1½ cups sugar

¼ cup heavy cream, optional, depending on desired fluidity

  1. In a small saucepan bring 1 cup cream, cinnamon, vanilla bean, and bay leaves to a simmer. Remove from the heat, cover, and let macerate for at least 1 hour. Strain the cream through a fine mesh strainer. Dry and reuse the vanilla bean if desired. Discard the cinnamon and bay leaves. Reserve the cream.
  2. In a large skillet with a light-colored stainless steel interior, add the sugar and set over medium-high heat.
  3. Cook, stirring occasionally with a silicon spatula, for 5 to 8 minutes, until the sugar dissolves.
  4. Increase the heat and boil uncovered until the sugar turns a warm amber hue, about 2-3 minutes, gently swirling the pan to stir the mixture.
  5. Turn off the heat. Stand back to avoid splattering, and then slowly add the strained cream. Simmer over low heat, whisking constantly until the caramel dissolves and the sauce is smooth, about 2-3 minutes.
  6. Serve warm or allow sauce to cool at room temperature. It will thicken as it sits. Store in the fridge and rewarm as needed.

Makes about 1¼ cup.

Chocolate, Gingersnap, & Glazed Pecan Gravel (or Dust)

This easy dessert garnish is the creation and specialty of my good friend and culinary magician, Rosalyn Rourke. She chops Lindt bittersweet, semisweet, and white chocolate bars, crisp shortbread cookies, and sugar-glazed pecans to achieve this heavenly mix. For our use here, I subbed Trader Joe’s Triple Gingersnap Cookies for the shortbread cookies.

You can chop the chocolate gravel to a dust if you like, depending on how you intend to use it. But it’s quite effective here to leave the chocolate chunks on the coarse side and then sprinkle them over the hot caramel. You will be rewarded with luscious melted pools of chocolate in the hot caramel.

BTW, this are great to snack on.

3.5 ounce Lindt Excellence 70% Cocoa Intense Dark chocolate bar
3.5 ounce Lindt Excellence White Coconut chocolate bar
2 ounces Trader Joe’s Triple Ginger Snaps (12 cookies)
1 cup Diamond Brand Glazed Pecans (or homemade)

  1. Break the chocolate bars into manageable size pieces.
  2. Put all ingredients into a processor fitted with the steel knife and pulse to chop, either coarsely or finely. Alternatively, on a cutting surface, chop with a large French knife to desired coarseness.
  3. Seal in a Ziploc bag and store in a cool, dry location until needed.

Makes about 3 cups.

Additional Inspiration

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  1. says

    That was a really great post! I have been trying to find the gingerbread I remember….and what I have found is always too dry and lacks the flavor that made me close my eyes and escape to heaven for a few moments! I will definitely be giving this recipe a try. I especially liked the rationale you provided. Thank you!
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  2. Leah says

    Thanks so much for these recipes! I’ve been on the hunt for a good gingerbread recipe for a long time, but have never been too successful in finding one that everyone in my family liked. Even Martha Stewart’s fell short of my expectations. Yours looks like it has potential and I’m going to give it a try for sure! Happy Holidays to you and yours, Susan!

  3. says

    I MUST remember to pick up some apple butter and ginger beer next time I’m in town, because I’ve been wanting sticky gingerbread forever. No recipe I tried did it- I had actually convinced myself that I’d imagined having sticky gingerbread at some point as a child. It will be mine now!

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