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Take a step back in time with a classic holiday treat! Soft and chewy, thick, and warmly-spiced, these simple and delicious old-fashioned Williamsburg Gingerbread Cookies, or Ginger Cakes, have been loved for generations. Pack a tin to share with neighbors, serve them for dessert with a cup of cocoa, mulled cider, or hot tea, or let the kids decorate the soft gingerbread cookies with festive icing and sprinkles!

Side shot of a stack of soft gingerbread cookies tied with a string

How to Make Gingerbread Cookies | 1-Minute Video

Square image of a tin of old fashioned gingerbread cookies.

Williamsburg Ginger Cakes

One bite from these gingerbread cookies brings back so many memories from my childhood! As a life-long Virginian, I’ve spent quite a bit of time in Williamsburg, and it’s still one of my absolute favorite parts of our state. If you want a real treat, visit Colonial Williamsburg during the holidays — it’s a truly magical place!

An annual holiday visit to Williamsburg was a family tradition in our home, since it was one of my grandmother’s favorite seasonal activities. In addition to the beautiful Christmas decorations, the music, and the festive spirit, I still remember looking forward to the delicious Peanut Soup at the King’s Arms Tavern, the Queen’s Cake, and the old-fashioned ginger cakes from the Raleigh Tavern Bakery. Oh, that gingerbread is such a treat!

Dipping an old fashioned Williamsburg gingerbread cookie in a Santa mug.

Even as adults, if my brother and I are ever in Colonial Williamsburg, we make a point to stop in the Raleigh Tavern to buy a bag of soft gingerbread cookies to go. There’s nothing better than the aroma of the freshly-baked treats wafting through the kitchen — with a mug of warm cider on the side!

Process shot showing how to make gingerbread cookies.

Taste and Texture of Raleigh Tavern Gingerbread Cakes

The taste and texture of the classic cookies are truly unique. They’re warmly spiced with a strong molasses flavor, but they’re not overly sweet and the texture is a perfect cross between a cookie and a cake. They’re soft (not crispy like some gingerbread cookies), and they’re thick, chewy, and “cakey.” In my opinion, they’re holiday dessert perfection.

Hands holding a mug and stack of gingerbread cookies.

While there is plenty of molasses flavor in this cookie recipe, the spices are mild. These are not “spicy” cookies. Instead, they contain just very subtle notes of ginger, nutmeg, and cinnamon. If you prefer a stronger flavor, you can increase the ginger to 1 tablespoon, add ½ teaspoon of cloves, and ¼ teaspoon of allspice — the cookies just won’t taste quite like the authentic Williamsburg gingerbread.

Rolling out gingerbread cookie dough.

Ingredients for Gingerbread Cookies

This is a quick overview of the ingredients that you’ll need for a batch of soft gingerbread cookies. As always, specific measurements and complete cooking instructions are included in the printable recipe box at the bottom of the post.

  • White sugar: for just the right amount of sweetness.
  • Ginger, nutmeg, and cinnamon: warm spices that give the cookies that classic holiday taste.
  • Baking soda: a leavening agent that gives the cookies just a little bit of “lift” and puff.
  • Salt: to balance the sweetness.
  • Butter: for flavor, moisture, and soft, chewy cookies. I prefer salted butter, so if you use unsalted butter, I recommend adding a little bit more salt to the dough.
  • Evaporated milk: adds moisture to the batter. It’s thicker and creamier than milk, but you can probably substitute with heavy cream in a pinch.
  • Molasses: a classic ingredient in these old-fashioned ginger cakes. The molasses adds sweetness, moisture, deep flavor, and helps the cookies stay soft and chewy.
  • All-purpose flour: the base of the cookie dough. Sift the flour first so that you don’t have any lumps or dry pockets in the cookies.
Cutting out soft gingerbread cookies.

How to Make the Colonial Williamsburg Ginger Cake Recipe

This recipe will show you how to make homemade gingerbread cookies — just like you’d find in Colonial Williamsburg. I did some research online and ultimately adapted the Raleigh Tavern Bakery’s original recipe, so you know these authentic cookies are the “real deal.” The end result instantly sends me back to my childhood!

  1. Whisk together sugar, ground ginger, ground nutmeg, and ground cinnamon, salt, and baking soda in a large bowl.
  2. Add softened butter, evaporated milk, and molasses. Start on low speed with an electric mixer, and then gradually increase to medium speed or medium-high speed until the dry ingredients are creamed together with the butter.
  3. Gradually mix in the flour until a stiff dough forms.
  4. Roll out the dough on a well floured surface with a floured rolling pin (there’s no need to chill the dough first!).
  5. Cut into shapes and arrange on baking sheets lined with parchment paper or silicone mats.
  6. Bake in a 375°F preheated oven for 10-12 minutes. Cool on a wire rack, then package to store or enjoy immediately!
Side shot of Williamsburg ginger cakes on a table with hot cocoa.
Side shot of soft gingerbread cookie dipped in a mug.

How to Decorate Soft Gingerbread Cookies

The classic Williamsburg gingerbread cakes are large, round cookies without any icing or other decorations. That said, the thick, chewy cookies do make a great base for traditional Christmas frostings and decorations! If you (or your kids) prefer soft gingerbread cookies with icing, then I suggest preparing a batch of royal icing and getting creative! There’s no wrong way to do it, so throw on some red and green sprinkles and have fun. If you cut the cookies into gingerbread man shapes, then a simple white piping around the edges, a smiling face, and some buttons down the front are a perfect touch.

Hands gifting a tin of the best gingerbread cookies.

Soft Gingerbread Man Cookies

If you’d like to cut-out traditional gingerbread man shapes using this recipe, I recommend a couple of tweaks to really help the cookies hold their shape in the oven (such as wrapping the dough in plastic wrap and chilling before cutting). You can find the full recipe, instructions, and tips for the gingerbread men here.

Soft gingerbread man cookies in a cookie tin with fun decorations and icing

How to Store Gingerbread Cookies

Store the cookies in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 1 week.  

To bake the cookies in advance, allow them to cool completely, wrap tightly, and freeze for up to 2 months. Thaw on the counter at room temperature.

Side shot of a Santa mug with gingerbread cookies.

Tips for the Best Gingerbread Cookie Recipe

  • Allow the butter to soften at room temperature. I leave the butter on the counter overnight before I plan to make the dough. This helps the butter mix into the other ingredients easily.
  • Don’t be shy with the flour. Keep your work surface very well floured to prevent the dough from sticking to the board when rolling and cutting. It’s also helpful to flour the cookie cutter before each use.
  • Roll the dough thicker than other typical cut-out cookies. I like about ½-inch thick dough, which yields thick, soft, chewy cookies (rather than thin, crispy cookies).
  • You can re-roll the dough scraps as many times as necessary in order to use all of the dough.
  • Do not overbake the cookies or they will become hard and crisp. To maintain the soft, chewy, cake-like texture, remove them from the oven while they’re still soft.
  • Decorate these cookies with royal icing and sprinkles for a festive touch.
  • I use a round biscuit cutter that measures 2 ½ inches in diameter to make large cookies — just like you find at the Raleigh Tavern Bakery in Williamsburg!
Stack of Williamsburg ginger cakes on top of a Santa mug.

More Classic Christmas Cookies to Try

Square close up shot of williamsburg gingerbread cookies

Old-Fashioned Williamsburg Gingerbread Cookies

5 from 20 votes
Prep: 30 minutes
Cook: 10 minutes
Total: 40 minutes
Servings 30 large cookies
Calories 195 kcal
Take a step back in time with a classic holiday treat! These simple and delicious old-fashioned Williamsburg Gingerbread Cookies (or "ginger cakes") have been loved for generations — and you will soon discover why!

Ingredients
  

  • 1 cup white sugar
  • 2 tsp ginger
  • 1 tsp nutmeg
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 ½ tsp baking soda
  • 1 cup (2 sticks) salted butter, softened at room temperature
  • ½ cup evaporated milk
  • 1 cup molasses
  • 4 cups all-purpose flour, sifted (plus additional 1 -1 ½ cups of flour, as needed, to form a workable dough)

Instructions

  • Preheat oven to 375°F (190°C). Line baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone mats. Set aside.
  • In a large bowl, whisk together sugar, ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon, salt, and baking soda.
  • Add softened butter, evaporated milk, and molasses. With an electric mixer, start on the lowest speed so that the liquid doesn’t splash out of the bowl. Gradually increase the speed until the butter and sugar are creamed together and completely smooth.
  • With the mixer on low speed, gradually add 4 cups of flour (one cup at a time), mixing until the flour is incorporated.
  • The dough should be stiff enough to handle without sticking to your fingers, so if it’s still too wet and sticky, add additional flour (½ cup at a time), just until a fairly stiff dough comes together.
  • When the dough is smooth, roll it out to ½-inch thickness on a very well-floured surface.
  • Use a 2 ½-inch round biscuit cutter (or other cookie cutter) to cut the dough into round shapes. Continue to add as much flour as necessary to the dough, the rolling pin, and the cookie cutters to prevent the dough from sticking. Place shapes onto prepared baking sheets.
  • Bake for 10-12 minutes, or until slightly golden brown but still soft. Make sure that you don't bake them for too long or they will become hard and crispy. To maintain the soft, chewy, cake-like texture, pull them out of the often while they're still soft and let them firm up slightly while they cool.
  • Allow the cookies to cool on the baking sheet for a few minutes before transferring them to a wire rack to cool completely.

Video

Notes

  • Allow the butter to soften at room temperature. I leave the butter on the counter overnight before I plan to make the dough. This helps the butter mix into the other ingredients easily.
  • Don’t be shy with the flour. Keep your work surface very well floured to prevent the dough from sticking to the board when rolling and cutting. It’s also helpful to flour the cookie cutter before each use.
  • Roll the dough thicker than other typical cut-out cookies. I like about ½-inch thick dough, which yields thick, soft, chewy cookies (rather than thin, crispy cookies).
  • You can re-roll the dough scraps as many times as necessary in order to use all of the dough.
  • Do not overbake the cookies or they will become hard and crisp. To maintain the soft, chewy, cake-like texture, remove them from the oven while they’re still soft.
  • Decorate these cookies with royal icing and sprinkles for a festive touch.
  • I use a round biscuit cutter that measures 2 ½ inches in diameter to make large cookies — just like you find at the Raleigh Tavern Bakery in Williamsburg!
  • Recipe adapted from MakingHistoryNow.com

Nutrition

Serving: 1large cookieCalories: 195kcalCarbohydrates: 32gProtein: 3gFat: 7gSaturated Fat: 4gPolyunsaturated Fat: 1gMonounsaturated Fat: 2gTrans Fat: 1gCholesterol: 18mgSodium: 195mgPotassium: 203mgFiber: 1gSugar: 16gVitamin A: 200IUVitamin C: 1mgCalcium: 40mgIron: 2mg
Keyword: Christmas cookies, Colonial Williamsburg Ginger Cake Recipe, ginger cakes, gingerbread cookies, Williamsburg Gingerbread Cookie Recipe
Course: Cookies, Dessert
Cuisine: Southern
Author: Blair Lonergan

This recipe was originally published in 2017. The photos were updated in December, 2021.

blair

Hey, I’m Blair!

Welcome to my farmhouse kitchen in the foothills of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. Inspired by local traditions and seasonal fare, you’ll find plenty of easy, comforting recipes that bring your family together around the table. It’s down-home, country-style cooking!

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Comments

  1. 5 stars
    Hi!
    This is to let you know that the subscribe button on this page isn’t working. I tried it twice and no luck.
    Best regards
    Susanne

    1. Thank you for letting me know, Susanne! I’m not sure why it wasn’t working. I just tested it again and it seems fine. I’ll have others take a look, though!

  2. Hi Blair,
    I was wondering about the molasses. Dark Brer Rabbit? Blackstrap? Our family considers King Syrup molasses (it really confused a friend who I shared a Recipe for Vanilla pie with…I meant King and she bought Black strap)
    Thank you, I’ll wait to hear back but I can’t wait to try these
    Merry Christmas,
    Deb

    1. Hi, Deb! I always use Grandma’s brand molasses, which is unsulfured, sun-ripened sugarcane molasses. Here’s a link to their page: https://grandmasmolasses.com/product/original-molasses/

      Basically, any regular unsulfured molasses will work. I’m not familiar with the King Syrup brand, but you definitely don’t want to use black strap molasses in this recipe.

      Hope you enjoy!

    1. Hi, Paula! Blackstrap molasses has a very different consistency and a very different taste than regular unsulfured molasses, so it doesn’t act the same in baking. Blackstrap molasses is not nearly as sweet (about 45% sugar as opposed to 70% sugar of regular molasses), it’s much saltier than regular molasses, and it has a much more bitter taste. Blackstrap molasses is also much thicker than regular molasses, and has a lower moisture content. As a result, the texture and flavor of the cookies will be very different if you use blackstrap molasses.

  3. 5 stars
    I am going to have to try your recipe. I was just in Williamsburg over the weekend and bought six to bring home. My daughter and I did eat one in the car because it was fresh and hot. Love those cakes.

    1. That’s awesome! Williamsburg is so pretty at this time of year. Hope you enjoy the homemade version, too! 🙂

  4. Blaire, We are heading to Williamsburg soon. Remembered your post about the ginger cookies. We are planning on a trip to the Tavern to get some. Is there anything off the beaten path that you recommend we see, do or eat while visiting Williamsburg? Thank you!
    Sallie

    1. That’s so fun, Sallie! We’ll be there in November for my son’s soccer tournament, and I’m already looking forward to the ginger cookies! 🙂

      I don’t have too many recommendations outside the norm. It’s fun to make dinner reservations at one of the taverns in the historic part, if you can. We also enjoyed Jamestown when we did that with the kids a few years ago. The “college delly” is a popular local spot with the students, and a good place to grab lunch. We also like to pick up sandwiches at the Cheese Shop, which is right on the main street in the historic section. There’s a candy store next door that the boys love. For dinner, if you don’t go to one of the historic taverns, The Trellis is another good option (although maybe it has closed now?!).

      If you have history buffs in your family, they might enjoy a visit to Yorktown battlefield. My kids liked walking around there when we took them a couple of years ago.

      Hope you have a wonderful trip!