This moist gingerbread cake with brown butter cream cheese frosting is super simple to make. Decorated with a few sparkling sugared cranberries, it is a festive holiday cake that the whole family will love.
For the last few years, my in-laws, Phil, and I have had an early-December tradition of picking up a Christmas tree at a nearby stand and bringing it home on foot. This is no small feat, since we are talking about an 8-foot tree and a couple of long blocks, on a busy city sidewalk.
After we get the tree home, we spend the rest of the day decorating it, sharing a meal and generally enjoying being together.
The other thing that makes this tradition extra-special is that we celebrate my father-in-law’s birthday right after the tree-trimming. Every year I make a cake, and this year’s was this beautiful gingerbread cake with brown butter cream cheese frosting. The cake is moist and perfectly spiced with all the warm flavors of the holidays. The frosting is really something special though. If you’ve never had brown butter, it is one food trend that is not overrated at all. It adds a delicious, rich, nutty flavor to tangy cream cheese frosting.
Having kids is great for building traditions. Now that Jack is here, I have no doubt that we’ll be doing this for many more years to come. This Christmas is also extra-special since this is Jack’s third, and he is just starting to participate in the holiday fun. Like a typical two-year-old, he likes Santa in theory – and from a distance – but not so much in real life. Still, he’s got the holiday spirit and he’s bringing it out in all of us too!
It was my first time frosting a cake in this trendy “naked” style. I was impressed with how pretty it turned out (and how easy it was!). I followed these tips from Tessa Huff of Style Sweet CA, which I found super helpful. Her beautiful book, Layered, is on my Christmas list :).
The most important step, I’d say, is to use a “frosting dam” by piping a border between the layers. This prevents gaps between the layers when you frost the sides. Of course the style is meant to be rustic, so some gaps and unevenness are fine.
After frosting, I decorated the gingerbread cake with a few sugared cranberries. These turned out to be a delicious crunchy, sweet-and-tart addition. I followed these instructions from Everyday Annie and they were perfect.
If you are called upon to make a celebration cake, in between all your other holiday baking, give this easy, beautiful gingerbread cake a try. (OH, and if you’re called upon to make a birthday cake at any other time of year, it should be this unbelievable Chocolate Caramel Cake :))
Gingerbread Layer Cake with Brown Butter Cream Cheese Frosting
- 3/4 cup unsalted butter, softened
- 1 cup packed light brown sugar
- 3/4 cup molasses
- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- 3 large eggs at room temperature
- 2 3/4 cup all-purpose flour
- 2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
- 3 teaspoons ground ginger
- 3 teaspoons ground cinnamon
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 3/4 cup milk (whole or 2%)
- 1/4 cup water
Brown Butter Cream Cheese Frosting
- 3/4 cup unsalted butter
- 8 oz cream cheese (one package)
- 1/3 cup packed light brown sugar
- 2 cups confectioner's sugar, sifted or whisked vigourously
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Grease 3 8-inch cake pans, and line the bottoms with circles of parchment paper.
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream together the butter and brown sugar for a good 4-5 minutes, until light and fluffy.
Pour in the molasses and vanilla extract and mix on medium speed, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed, until well combined. Add the eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each addition, and scraping down as needed.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, spices, and salt.
In a liquid measuring cup, combine the milk and water.
Add half of the dry ingredients to the butter and sugar mixture and mix on medium-low speed until just combined. Add the milk and water mixture, continuing to mix. Add the remaining flour mixture and mix just until no more flour is visible. Remove the bowl from the stand mixer and give it a good stir with a rubber spatula to make sure no flour remains on the bottom.
Divide the batter evenly between the cake pans. I used a scale for this, since the sides would be naked, and I really wanted to make sure the layers were of equal height. They will also bake more evenly this way. Rap the pans down on the counter to settle the batter.
Bake layers in the preheated oven for 22-27 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Allow to cool in the pans for about 5 minutes. Run knife along the sides to make sure they will not stick and unmold the layers onto a cooling rack. Cool completely before frosting.
Brown Butter Cream Cheese Frosting
Melt the butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Keep cooking, swirling the pan frequently until the foam begins to subside, brown bits start collecting on the bottom, and the butter starts to smell nutty. Keep a close eye on it, as it can burn quickly.
Transfer the brown butter to a bowl and let sit for a few minutes to cool. Transfer the bowl to the fridge or freezer for 15 minutes or so, until just set. If the butter hardens too much, it will not blend well, and will leave lumps in the frosting. If it is too hard you take it out of the fridge or freezer, let sit again a room temperature for a few minutes to soften.
Carefully scrape the butter from the bowl, leaving the brown residue at the bottom. Transfer to butter to a stand mixer, fitted with the paddle attachment. Add the brown sugar and cream cream cheese, and mix on medium-high speed for 5-6 minutes, scraping down the sides as needed until well blended,
Gradually beat in the confectioner's sugar and mix on medium high speed for an additional 4-5 minutes until fluffy and no lumps remain.
To assemble the cake
My cake layers did not really dome much, so I didn't bother to trim the tops, but if yours do, I would go ahead and use a serrated knife to trim the tops a little to create flat layers. Wrap the layers in plastic wrap and chill for 15 minutes.
Put one cake layer down on a platter. Using a pastry bag fitted with a 1/2 inch round piping tip, pipe a circle around the edges of the layer, staying about 1/4 inch inside the layer to allow for spreading when stacked. Fill the circle with about a 1/2 cup of frosting and spread into an even layer.
Add a second cake layer on top and follow the same procedure as above.
Add the final cake layer on top, upside-down this time, to create a flat top. Frost the top, using about a half cup of frosting. Using a palette knife, use the remaining frosting from the piping bag and bowl to frost the sides roughly, leaving plenty of bare spots, for a rustic look.
Decorate with sugared cranberries if desired.