Makes one 9-inch-square cake

Early cookbooks, published and unpublished alike, provide numerous recipes for soft gingerbread cake and crisp gingerbread cookies. Although we have no gingerbread recipes directly associated with Martha Washington, the spicy treat doubtless was enjoyed in the Washington household. In March 1759, for instance, an invoice for forty-nine pounds of “Cenemont [cinnamon] Gingerbread” arrived at Mount Vernon, billed to the estate of Martha’s first husband, Daniel Parke Custis, who had died two years earlier. Her new husband, George Washington, promptly paid the bill. References to subsequent purchases of gingerbread over the years are documented as well.

Gingerbread recipes are found in several relatives’ manuscripts, from those in the Custis family’s Booke of Cookery, which may date back to the late seventeenth century, up to the mid-nineteenth-century recipes compiled by Martha Washington’s great-granddaughter Mary Ann Randolph Custis Lee (Mrs. Robert E. Lee) that are today in the collection of the Virginia Historical Society, Richmond.

One of the better-known family-connected gingerbread recipes is attributed to George Washington’s mother, Mary Ball Washington, who is said to have served it to the Marquis de Lafayette when he visited her in Fredericksburg toward the end of her life; it came to be called Lafayette Gingerbread, in honor of the beloved French general. That recipe calls for orange juice and orange zest, ingredients that are substituted for the lemon used in Eliza Leslie’s recipe, from which the one here is adapted.

This gingerbread is delicious on its own, but it can also be served with orange-scented Fairy Butter spread on top.

View Recipe for Fairy Butter



1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons packed dark brown sugar
1 cup molasses
Scant 2 3/4 cups sifted all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
2 large eggs, plus 2 large egg whites, lightly beaten
1/4 cup fresh orange juice
1 tablespoon freshly grated orange zest
Fairy Butter for serving (optional)


  1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Butter a 9-inch-square cake pan.

  2. In the bowl of an electric mixer, or in a large bowl beating by hand, combine the butter and brown sugar and beat until light and fluffy. Add the molasses, and continue to beat until well combined.

  3. Sift the flour with the ginger, cinnamon, cloves, and allspice.

  4. Alternately add the eggs and flour to the butter mixture, beating very well after each addition.

  5. Add the orange juice and zest, and continue beating for several minutes until the batter is smooth and light.

  6. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 35 to 45 minutes, or until a wooden skewer inserted in the center comes out clean. Set the cake on a rack to cool completely in the pan before slicing.

  7. Serve squares of the cake spread with Fairy Butter, if desired.
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