This is a cake that should come with a warning: Only proceed if you love molasses. If you do love molasses and its dark, bitter sweetness, then proceed immediately, and with haste. This cake is dark, fudgy, damp and rich. It's like a chocolate cake for people who don't like chocolate.
I am one of those people who loves molasses even more than chocolate — I love how it balances sugar sweetness with bitterness and a cascade of funky sour notes. And yet I never feel that molasses desserts really show off what it can do. Most molasses baked goods (including my favorite molasses cookies) are really just spice desserts darkened up with molasses. What would happen if I put molasses front and center?
And so this cake was born. It's the love child of a few different spice and gingerbread cakes that I like, but with the molasses dialed way up. There are still spices here, but they blend demurely into the background. The texture of this cake is dense, but not heavy. It's rich and a little wet in the crumb, almost fudge-like.
It is saved from being overly rich, however, with that little edge of bitterness that comes at the the end of every bite, sending you back for another. It's like my favorite beers in that way — sweet at the first taste, finishing with a lingering aroma of bitterness.
If this sounds good to you, please try it and let me know what you think. This is my go-to cake for the 2011 holidays; it's easy to whip up (no mixer required) and reliable.
One last note, an essential one: The frosting is an integral part of this cake. I developed the cake to go with the frosting, and vice versa. The frosting is not too sweet, but it is very creamy, and this lightens the unrelenting darkness of the cake. Eaten together they are simply irresistible.
So, there you have it, molasses-lovers. A dark, intense molasses cake. Just don't say I didn't warn you.
Note on molasses: If you want the very dark, nearly black cake seen here, use unsulphured blackstrap molasses. Lighter molasses varieties will still work fine in this cake, but it won't be as dark or have any many bitter notes. If you want a lighter spice cake, then use regular molasses.
Heat the oven to 350°F. Lightly butter or grease a 10-inch springform cake pan.
Place the chunks of butter in a 2-quart saucepan set over medium heat. Pour in the molasses and whisk in the brown sugar and white sugar. Whisk as the butter melts. When the butter has melted and is completely liquid, and the sugar has dissolved and is no longer grainy, give it a final stir and turn off the heat. Set the pan aside to cool. (The molasses will look slightly separated from the melted fat; they won't be smoothly combined.)
Use a clean dry whisk to combine the flour, salt, baking soda, ginger, cinnamon and espresso powder in a large bowl. (The espresso powder is optional; it will lend one more dimension of flavor to your cake.)
Whisk the vanilla, eggs, and milk into the saucepan with the molasses and melted butter. When it is completely combined, pour this liquid slowly into the bowl of dry ingredients. Whisk thoroughly to combine, making sure there are no lumps.
Pour the thick batter into the prepared springform pan. Bake at 350°F for 45 to 50 minutes or until a tester inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean. Let cool for 20 or 30 minutes, then run a thin, flexible knife around the inside of the pan to help the cakes edges release. Remove the cake from the pan and let it cool completely on a cooling rack before icing.
Loaf Variation: You can also bake this cake in a loaf pan. Instead of using a springform pan, use two 8.5"Wx4.5"Dx2.75"H loaf pans, well-greased. Bake at 350°F for 45 to 55 minutes or until a knife comes out clean.