My life is all about banging things out, getting things done, moving fast—but sometimes a detour from the fast lane can be a good thing. Years ago, I was on my way home from a road trip to the Canadian Maritimes when I was forced off the highway by some epic construction. We ended up on a wandering road that took us through a charming series of dying industrial towns. There wasn’t much to see…and definitely nothing to eat. But then, in Fall River, Massachusetts, right at the border of Rhode Island, we stumbled across culinary gold: an old gas station converted into a root beer stand. The owner, a retired A&W Root Beer guy, was behind the counter; all he served was root beer in frosted glasses. Our root beer came with a long lecture about chilling the glass, not the root beer itself (as that kills the taste). We sat at a broken-down old picnic table and sipped. I’m all about root beer, and that roadside glassful was the best I ever tasted.

This recipe is my stab at bringing that taste to cake—because the only thing better than root beer is root beer plus cake. There’s a mad-scientist component to this recipe: when you whisk the baking soda into the molasses and root beer, there’s going to be some crazy bubbling up going on, straight out of sci-fi. Don’t worry: it’s completely normal.

–Andrew Carmellini

*Where do I get sassafras?

This root beer cake contains sugar and spice and everything nice, yes, but it also has its share of sass—as in, sassafras. Sassafras is as essential to this cake as it is to root beer, lending its rich earthiness to each. If your local health food store (or witch doctor) doesn’t keep a stash of the twiggy root on hand, you can find it fairly easily online at Kalustyan’s in Manhattan as well as from other, less niche online purveyors such as (who else?) Amazon. And don’t forget to wear your sassy pants when baking this sassafras cake.

A cut root beer cake on a pewter platter with a slice on a decorative plate in front.

Root Beer Cake

4.60 / 5 votes
Root beer cake is like a regular spice cake but so much better. Root beer, ginger, star anise, cardamom, and actual sassafras lend it intrigue and warmth. If you’ve never had it before, it’s time.
David Leite
Servings8 servings
Calories612 kcal
Prep Time45 minutes
Cook Time1 hour
Total Time1 hour 45 minutes


For the spice cake

  • Butter, for the pan
  • 1 1/2 cups plus 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
  • One (12-ounce) bottle root beer
  • 1/2 cup molasses
  • 1/2 teaspoon plus 1/8 teaspoon baking soda
  • 3/4 cup dark brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 3 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon granulated sugar
  • One (1-inch) piece ginger, peeled and grated on a microplane or on the finest side of a box grater (this should yield about 1 teaspoon)
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 3/4 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 1/4 teaspoons ground star anise
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cardamom
  • 1/2 whole nutmeg, freshly grated, or 2 teaspoons finely ground nutmeg
  • Finely grated zest of 2 lemons, preferably organic
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

For the root beer glaze

  • 3/4 cup heavy cream
  • 1 tablespoon sassafras bark or 1/2 teaspoon sassafras extract
  • 2 cups confectioners’ sugar
  • Pinch ground star anise, (you may just have to grind your own from whole star anise)
  • Pinch ground cardamom
  • 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/4 whole nutmeg, grated, or about 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • Freshly grated zest of 1/2 lemon, preferably organic


Make the spice cake

  • Preheat the oven to 350°F (176°C). Adjust the oven rack to the middle position.
  • Butter the bottom and sides of a 10-inch cake pan. Cut a piece of parchment paper so it fits snugly in the pan. Butter the parchment. Shake 1 tablespoon of the flour into the cake pan and tilt it around so it sticks to the buttered parchment. Tap out any excess flour that doesn’t stick to the parchment or to the sides of the pan.
  • Pour the root beer and molasses into a deep pot and bring the mixture to a boil over high heat. (Make sure there’s some meaningful space between the liquid and the top of the pot. You need those high sides because the baking soda will froth up quite a lot and you don’t want it to spill over.) 
  • Pull the pot off the heat and carefully whisk in the baking soda. Immediately place the pot in the fridge to cool down a little.
  • While the root beer mixture is cooling, whisk the dark brown sugar, vegetable oil, granulated sugar, ginger, and vanilla extract together in a large bowl. The mixture will seem a little chunky at this point. Crack the egg into the bowl and whisk well until a thick paste forms. (The egg is what makes everything come together smoothly.)
  • In a smaller bowl, combine the flour with the baking powder, star anise, and cardamom. Grate in the nutmeg and lemon zest, add the salt and pepper, and whisk until everything is thoroughly combined.
  • Take the root beer mixture out of the fridge. Pour 1/3 of the flour mixture into another large bowl. Pour in 1/3 of the root beer mixture and then 1/3 of the sugar paste. Slowly whisk everything together and then add another 1/3 of the flour, another 1/3 of the root beer, and so forth, until everything is combined. (The mixture doesn’t need to be completely and smoothly combined until the last of the wet and dry mixtures are in the bowl.) You should have a very wet, almost liquid-like batter.
  • Pour the batter into the cake pan and place the pan on a rimmed baking sheet to catch any drips and splashes. Bake the cake for 45 minutes without opening the oven at all (the cake will sink if you disturb it while it’s baking). Check to see if the cake is high and dark brown with a little bit of spring-back when you touch it (but not too much, as it’s a very moist cake). If it’s not quite ready, rotate the pan and put it back in the oven for another 5 minutes before checking it again. The whole baking process shouldn’t take longer than 55 minutes, even in a slow oven.

Make the root beer glaze

  • While the cake is baking, in a small pot over medium-high heat, whisk the cream and sassafras and bring it to a boil. As soon as it bubbles, pull the mixture off the heat, pour it into a heatproof glass or ceramic container and place it in the fridge, uncovered, to cool for about 30 minutes. The sassafras flavor will steep into the cream and give it a nice root beer flavor.
  • Meanwhile, in a bowl, combine the confectioners’ sugar, star anise, cardamom, and salt. Grate in the nutmeg and lemon zest, and whisk everything together.
  • Strain the cooled cream through a fine-mesh strainer into a small bowl. Discard the small bits of sassafras.
  • Gently whisk 1/2 cup of the cream into the spice mixture, holding back the last 2 tablespoons to see if you need it. If the mixture seems dry and is not coming together as a glaze, add more cream. Whisk the mixture until you have a shiny, thick liquid.

Finish the cake

  • Let the cake rest in the pan on a wire rack for about 5 minutes. Flip the cake out of the pan onto a cake stand or serving plate and let cool for at least 5 minutes.
  • Use a spoon to spread the glaze thickly on the sorta warm cake. The glaze will melt and drip down the sides as you slather it on. You can serve the cake as soon as it’s cooled to room temperature—but like all spice cakes, it’s even better the day after you make it. Store it loosely covered at room temperature. Originally published October 19, 2012.
American Flavor

Adapted From

American Flavor

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Serving: 1 portionCalories: 612 kcalCarbohydrates: 112 gProtein: 6 gFat: 16 gSaturated Fat: 6 gMonounsaturated Fat: 4 gTrans Fat: 0.05 gCholesterol: 48 mgSodium: 469 mgFiber: 2 gSugar: 76 g

Nutrition information is automatically calculated, so should only be used as an approximation.

Tried this recipe?Mention @leitesculinaria or tag #leitesculinaria!
Recipe © 2011 Andrew Carmellini. Photo © 2011 Quentin Bacon. All rights reserved.

Recipe Testers’ Reviews

This is the most unique spice cake I’ve ever tried. The root beer cake has a full-bodied spice flavor without being overpowering. As I took my first bite, the aromas of root beer and licorice were immediate. While it took a bit of effort to put together, this cake is well worth it.

The instructions are clear and well written. I’d wait longer than 5 minutes after the cake comes out of the oven to pour the glaze on top, though. Much of my glaze pooled around the outside of the cake instead of the top. The glaze itself took about a minute to make.

About David Leite

I count myself lucky to have received three James Beard Awards for my writing as well as for Leite’s Culinaria. My work has also appeared in The New York Times, Martha Stewart Living, Saveur, Bon Appétit, Gourmet, Food & Wine, Yankee, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post, and more.

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  1. Thank you so much for the reply! That is a lovely stand on Wayfair, and I do shop there some, but as a reviewer said, it is huge, 15.75″ across. Please email me if you track down that awesome Root Beer one… Who will eat my cake when my four kids leave for college!? Hey another quick question — any good substitutions for rum in the Thankful Butterscotch Cake? Dying to make it, but, bad experience with rum in college, no longer an appreciated flavor… Thanks in advance — Cheers! : )

    1. We will absolutely let you know if we find something else, Jane. That’s simply the closest we could find. Laughs at your comment about what to do with the cake soon. I have gone to great lengths to find a good home for baked goods. As for the Butterscotch cake, I understand and actually got a twinge and shudder at the mere mention. Must be kindred souls. Try a touch of rum extract or vanilla extract if you’re trying to avoid alcohol. Or you can use cachaca or bourbon, though bourbon will be a bit harsher.

  2. I also LOVE that cake stand!!! Half the reason to make a cake is to admire it on a lovely stand! Let the kids actually eat the cake. No luck with it being a Fish’s Eddy stand. Did you ever track it down, Lori or Renee? Would love to add it to my collection… : )

    1. Jane, I am SO with you on a cake stand being sufficient reason to bake a cake! We weren’t able to track down that particular cake stand and it wasn’t in the credits of the cookbook in which the photo appears. However, our staff was able to track down this quite similar cake stand…

  3. While the cake looks absolutely wonderful, I was wondering if you can tell me where I could get a cake plate like the one displaying the Root Beer cake. Thanks again for all the great recipes.


    1. Ah, Lori, you share my covetousness of lovely cake stands. We didn’t take this photo ourselves but we’ve queried the photographer and the stylist and will let you know when we hear back. In the meantime, anyone else have any lovely sources for old-fashioned, must-have cake plates? One can really never have too many….

      1. Lori, we have yet to hear back from the photographer, although we do know that many of the tabletop items came from Fishs Eddy. We’ve no idea if this cake stand is one of those items, although it is a place to start your search…let us know how you fare!

      2. 5 stars
        Made the cake, it was great. We have no sassafras in Canada, but we do have Watkins Co., which makes root beer extract. So I just added it to the icing sugar and did not cook it. Turned out ok. I love moist, heavy cakes such as this.

        1. Maxine, I remember Watkins from back in the day. Every few months or so the Watkins man would come around and peddle his wares. He was tall and skinny and had these incredibly thick glasses and was nice as can be. Anyways, I love your improvising the recipe and am relieved to hear you liked it as much as we did. And I’m with you, I’m a suck for dense, moist, heavy cakes with some substance.