Gingerbread Cake

Full of warming spices like ginger and cinnamon, this gingerbread cake recipe is perfect for the holidays. Serve topped with whipped cream for an extra-festive treat.

hot water gingerbread
Photo: Andrea Mathis
Active Time:
10 mins
Total Time:
45 mins

Why Gingerbread Reminds Me of Malcolm X

Gingerbread has long been a part of baking traditions. The first references to it appear in ancient Egypt and Greece, where it was used for ritual purposes. In Europe, gingerbread probably arrived with the Crusaders, who brought back ginger and other aromatics from the Middle East. It was popular in northern Europe and was thought to ease digestion. In the English-speaking world, Queen Elizabeth I of England was one of the first people to serve it, and Shakespeare references it in Love's Labour's Lost.

The first American references to gingerbread appear in recipes from the first printed American cookbook: Amelia Simmons' American Cookery. One of them presents a different form of gingerbread that's more like a ginger cake because it was made with molasses, a byproduct of sugar cane production that was cheaper than sugar and produced a softer crumb. This secondary form of gingerbread is the one I remember from my childhood. My mother would bake a pan of it every year during the holiday season.

As they make the publicity rounds, it is customary for cookbook authors to bring a taste of something from the book for their various interviewers. In 1995, when I published A Kwanzaa Keepsake, I included a recipe for this type of gingerbread. While making the rounds for the book, I decided to bring some gingerbread. One of the people who interviewed me was the late Betty Shabazz, Malcolm X's widow. Imagine my surprise when she was charmed by the gingerbread and told me that it had been one of Malcolm X's favorite sweets. She had baked it for him often. Since that moment, I cannot eat the spicy cake without thinking of him.

Upon hearing of the death of Malcolm X's youngest daughter, Malikah, I thought back to my brief moment with her mother. When I baked my annual pan of gingerbread that year, I thought of them and hoped they were all together at peace, perhaps feasting on some gingerbread.

raw ginger bread batter in a 8x8 glass baking dish
Andrea Mathis

This essay is part of the series "Diaspora Dining: Foods of the African Diaspora." In this monthly column with essays and recipes by Jessica B. Harris, Ph.D., we explore the rich culinary traditions of the African diaspora. Harris is a culinary historian and the author of 13 books related to the African diaspora, including Vintage Postcards from the African World (University Press of Mississippi), My Soul Looks Back (Scribner) and High on the Hog (Bloomsbury USA), on which the Netflix documentary series High on the Hog is based. She is the 2020 recipient of the James Beard Lifetime Achievement Award. For more from Harris on EatingWell, see Migration Meals: How African American Food Transformed the Taste of America and her Juneteenth Celebration Menu. Follow her on Instagram @drjessicabharris.


  • ½ tablespoon cold unsalted butter plus 4 tablespoons melted, divided

  • 1 cup dark molasses

  • ½ cup boiling water

  • 2 ¼ cups all-purpose flour

  • 1 teaspoon baking soda

  • 1 ½ teaspoons ground ginger

  • ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon

  • ½ teaspoon salt

  • ¼ cup packed dark brown sugar


  1. Preheat oven to 350℉. Grease an 8-inch square baking pan with ½ tablespoon butter.

  2. Pour molasses into a medium bowl and add boiling water. Add flour, baking soda, ginger, cinnamon and salt and stir to combine. Add the remaining 4 tablespoons melted butter and brown sugar; beat well using an electric mixer or manually, about 3 to 4 minutes.

  3. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 35 minutes. Cut into 9 squares and serve topped with whipped cream, if desired.

To make ahead:

Refrigerate cake in an airtight container for 5 to 7 days.

Nutrition Facts (per serving)

275 Calories
6g Fat
54g Carbs
3g Protein
Nutrition Facts
Servings Per Recipe 9
Calories 275
% Daily Value *
Total Carbohydrate 54g 20%
Dietary Fiber 1g 4%
Total Sugars 30g
Protein 3g 6%
Total Fat 6g 8%
Saturated Fat 4g 20%
Cholesterol 15mg 5%
Vitamin A 178IU 4%
Sodium 334mg 15%
Potassium 715mg 15%

Nutrition information is calculated by a registered dietitian using an ingredient database but should be considered an estimate.

* Daily Values (DVs) are the recommended amounts of nutrients to consume each day. Percent Daily Value (%DV) found on nutrition labels tells you how much a serving of a particular food or recipe contributes to each of those total recommended amounts. Per the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the daily value is based on a standard 2,000 calorie diet. Depending on your calorie needs or if you have a health condition, you may need more or less of particular nutrients. (For example, it’s recommended that people following a heart-healthy diet eat less sodium on a daily basis compared to those following a standard diet.)

(-) Information is not currently available for this nutrient. If you are following a special diet for medical reasons, be sure to consult with your primary care provider or a registered dietitian to better understand your personal nutrition needs.

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