I have fond memories of my mother’s two-layered Ginger Sponge cake. It was one of the cakes she included in her Saturday morning baking and slices of which ended up in my school lunchbox the next week. Another cake my mother often made was a Kentish Cake, which I’ve written about previously (May 21, 2016).
Recently, I went looking for my mother’s Ginger Sponge recipe. I found a handwritten copy in one of her recipe notebooks. As you can see, it’s a recipe for a large cake – too large for the two small sandwich cake tins I own. “The recipe looks good, but I’ll have to halve the ingredients,” I concluded.
In the meantime, I decided to look for a ginger cake recipe in my mother’s 1934 Cookery Book. Believe it or not, in the CAKES section, I found 10 ginger cake recipes: seven for gingerbread (including “soft” gingerbread) and three for ginger cakes (Ginger Cake, Ginger Sandwich, Ginger Sponge)!
Gingerbread, despite its name, is not a bread. You may be surprised to learn that “gingerbread” refers to all baked sweet foods that are flavoured with ginger and other spices (such as nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon) and sweetened with honey, sugar, syrup or molasses.
Gingerbreads range from soft, moist cakes (such as the Ginger Sponge) to firm, crunchy ginger biscuits. In-between these two extremes are soft crumbly biscuits such as Germany’s famous Lebkuchen and soft to medium figurine biscuits called “gingerbread men”.
Apparently, gingerbread men date from the time of Queen Elizabeth I, who served these sweet spicy figurines to foreign dignitaries. Today, gingerbread men and their equivalents are popular at Christmastime. In 2015, I took the following photograph of gingerbread snowmen on sale at the Christmas markets in Nuremberg, Germany.
You may be familiar with the children’s story The Gingerbread Man (originally “The Gingerbread Boy”). It’s about a runaway gingerbread man who outruns all his pursuers, except the wily fox. The story was first published in the United States of America in 1875. In modern retellings of the story, the gingerbread man keeps boasting as he gathers more and more pursuers: “Run, run, as fast as you can. You can’t catch me – I’m the gingerbread man!”
At Christmastime my daughter and grandchildren like to make a gingerbread house. Often, they purchase a “kit house” that they construct by “gluing” precooked gingerbread pieces together with icing. Not that they find it easy to make the house stand up!
According to food historians, gingerbread houses were popularized by bakers in Europe in the 1800s after the Brothers Grimm published Hansel and Gretel in 1812. In this tale, a brother and sister lost in a forest discover a house made of gingerbread and other sweet delights. Being hungry, they begin to eat. The only problem is that the house belongs to a wicked witch!
Ginger comes from a flowering plant (Zingiber officinale), which thrives in tropical and sub-tropical areas with high rainfall and warm, humid conditions. The ginger we use in cooking comes from the plant’s rhizomes, underground horizontal stems, commonly called creeping rootstalks or simply rootstalks.
Ginger originated in the islands of Southeast Asia, and from there it spread throughout the Indo-Pacific region. It was one of the first spices exported from Asia to Europe. Today, ginger is cultivated in many parts of the world, including Australia, with India the world’s leading producer of ginger (2.8 million tonnes, or 32% of the world total in 2018).
Most of Australia’s ginger is grown in the Sunshine Coast and Wide Bay-Burnett regions of Queensland. The largest and best-known producer is Buderim Ginger, located on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. The commercial operation was established in the 1940s, when five Buderim farmers formed The Buderim Ginger Grower’s Cooperative Association Limited, and since then it’s gone from strength to strength.
Ginger in cookery
Ginger is available in four forms: green, ground, preserved, and crystallised. All four are suitable for use in cookery.
#1. Green ginger: The fresh rootstalks (rhizomes) of the ginger plant.
Green ginger is light brown on the outside and pale yellow on the inside. To taste, green ginger is slightly peppery and sweet. When cut, it has a strong, tangy aroma.
Green ginger is used mainly in savoury dishes. Grated green ginger (or green ginger paste) is an essential ingredient of many Indian curries. My friend Mohamed used green ginger paste in his Lamb Biryani (March 3, 2016). Green ginger is used in making jams and sauces. Tony’s recipe for Mango Chutney (January 18, 2016) includes finely chopped green ginger, a key ingredient of the resulting sweet but spicy sauce.
#2. Ground ginger: Dried rhizomes, finely ground.
Ground ginger has a fine texture and is light tan in colour. It’s the form commonly used as a flavouring in gingerbread and ginger drinks (such as ginger beer, ginger ale). The flavour of ground ginger is described as spicy, warm and slightly sweet. The Ginger Sponge recipe featured in this blog post lists ground ginger as an ingredient. You can substitute green ginger for ground ginger at a ratio of six to one, although the flavours of fresh and dried ginger are a little different.
#3. Preserved ginger: Cleaned, peeled rhizomes are cooked in a sugar syrup, then sealed with some of the syrup.
#4. Crystallised ginger: Treated as for preserved ginger, but cooked longer, then drained and rolled in sugar.
Crystallised and preserved ginger are interchangeable in recipes. If the recipe does not require sugar, rinse the sugar coating from the crystallised ginger before use when substituting it for preserved ginger.
Crystallised ginger is one of the special ingredients of my Chocolate Slice (December 23, 2020) and an optional ingredient of Health Slice (May 20, 2019) and Fail-Me-Never Steamed Pudding (August 3, 2016).
An old-fashioned Ginger Sponge recipe
Australian home cooks have had access to ginger cake recipes since the early 1900s. If you search for “Ginger Cake” on Trove, you’ll find lots of recipes, dating from about 1910. Most use ground ginger, although a few use chopped preserved or crystallised ginger as ingredients. Clearly, gingerbread was promoted as a good choice for home cooks. Remember, there were 10 recipes for gingerbread and ginger cakes in my mother’s 1934 Cookery Book!
To make my ginger cake, I used the Ginger Sponge recipe from the 1934 Cookery Book. It is identical to my mother’s handwritten recipe, but half the size. The result? Well, put simply, I’ll be making this cake again.
I commend this old-fashioned Ginger Sponge recipe to you. Why?
- The ingredients are readily available.
- The recipe is easy to follow.
- The result is a mild spicy, exceptionally light gingerbread.
- The lemon icing adds a little extra “bite”, a counterbalance to the sweetness of the cake.
- While the cake is delicious when first made, it keeps well, for several days.
- It’s a layered cake, so it looks professional and inviting.
If, like me, you love the flavour of ginger, why not give this old-fashioned Ginger Sponge recipe a try? I don’t think you will be disappointed.
½ cup sugar
1 tablespoon butter
½ cup golden syrup
½ cup milk
1½ cups self-raising flour
1 dessertspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
4-6 large tablespoons icing sugar
1 dessertspoon soft butter
fresh lemon juice (as required)
- Cream butter and sugar.
- Add eggs and beat well.
- Add the golden syrup and mix.
- Sift the flour and spices and add alternatively with the milk.
- Spread the mixture evenly into two sandwich tins.
- Bake in a quick oven (200 degrees Celsius, or 180 degrees Celsius fan-forced).
- When cool, join the two layers with the prepared icing.
- To finish, dust the top of the cake with sifted icing sugar.