I recently made this cake for a friend’s birthday celebration. I was torn on what to make and had tossed around the ideas of perhaps red velvet or maybe caramel — that is until I took the first bite of a gingerbread spice chocolate bar by Theo. The flavors of chocolate with nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, and more… Simple yet delicious.
I decided to make a play on those flavors with this cake (and kick it up a notch). I started with a relatively healthy cake recipe — applesauce instead of butter, and half whole wheat flour for a bit more substance and texture (I’d say it’s pretty low-fat alone; with the buttercream? Not so much...)
To make the cake a bit more “mature,” I wanted to some stout (a natural partner to molasses) to make the gingerbread rich and moist, but didn’t have any — an amber ale stepped in. A slight drizzle of Grand Marnier was trickled into the buttercream frosting to compliment the spiciness of the gingerbread. Topping it off, I candied some tangerine and orange peels to enhance and draw out the orange flavor of the liqueur.
For the candied citrus peels:
Cut the tops and bottoms off of the tangerines and oranges and, using a sharp paring knife, peel off the skin and pith, ensuring not to cut into the flesh of the fruit. Reserve the fruit flesh for another recipe. (Or just eat and enjoy!) Cut the peel into strips about ¼-inch thick.
Put the peels in a saucepan with cold water to cover and bring to a boil over high heat. Then pour off the water. Repeat twice. Remove the peels from the pan.
Whisk the sugar with 1 cup water. Combine the peels and the sugar water, bring to a simmer, and cook for 8-9 minutes, until a candy thermometer reads 230-234 degrees, and the sugar is at the soft thread stage. Add the peels and simmer gently, reducing the heat to retain a simmer. Cook until the peels become translucent, about 45 minutes. Do not stir the peels. If need be, swirl the pan. Drain the peels and save the syrup for other uses.
Pour the extra sugar in a bowl and add the peels; toss to coat. Dry the peels on a rack, for 4-5 hours. Then return the peels to the sugar for storage.
For the cake:
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour two 6-inch round cake pans and knock out excess flour.
Bring ale and molasses to a boil in a saucepan and then remove from the heat. Whisk in the chocolate chips and baking soda, and then cool to room temperature.
Meanwhile, whisk together flours, baking powder, spices, and salt in a medium bowl. In a mixer, beat together applesauce, sugar, and egg at medium speed until creamy, about 1 minute.
In 3 batches, beginning and ending with the flour mixture, alternately beat in flour mixture and molasses mixture with applesauce at low speed until smooth. Pour batter into the pans, rap pans sharply on counter to eliminate air bubbles, and smooth the tops.
Bake the cake in the middle oven until testers come out clean with just a few moist crumbs adhering, about 30 minutes. Cool cakes in pan on a rack for 5 minutes. Turn out onto rack and cool completely.
For the frosting:
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, combine the confectioners’ sugar, butter, milk, and Grand Marnier on low speed. Increase the speed to medium and whisk until its smooth, with a spreadable consistency.
To assemble the cake, first make sure it has completely cooled (or the frosting will melt!).
Take one layer (to be the bottom) and cut off the rounded top so that it is perfectly flat. Using a flat icing spatula, take a glob of the frosting and spread it relatively thinly (but thickly enough to secure the top layer) on the cut layer (this will sit cut-side up). With the second layer, again cut off the rounded top. Invert the layer on top of the frosted layer. Cover the cake with a thin layer of frosting, ensuring not to pull off the crumbs.
Put the cake in the fridge for the frosting to harden. 15-30 minutes later, repeat with a second layer of frosting. Utilize the candied citrus peels for décor.