We are only a few days from Easter, and the promise of new life is everywhere—from the blossoming daffodils and buds on the trees, to the cheerful song of so many birds outside my open window. I am nervously awaiting my first dose of COVID vaccine tomorrow and feeling an odd sense of disbelief that we are finally seeing real light at the end of this pandemic tunnel. Easter feels even more special this year, and I cannot stop myself from baking up something delicious and, in these parts, so appropriate for Easter.
Last weekend, my husband and I took our dog for a stroll through one of the oldest parts of our city, where it always feels like Easter to me. Old Salem is a precious gem in the apron pocket of our downtown; amid all the tall, modern buildings—including the old R.J. Reynolds Tobacco headquarters, which was the prototype for New York’s Empire State Building—you’ll find this quaint and humble community, established in the late 1700s by the Moravians, Protestant refugees from what is now the Czech Republic. Only a few steps from the bustling noise of downtown, a visit to Old Salem is like stepping back in time 250 years.
Beyond the cobbled streets, brick-lined sidewalks and meticulously restored houses, shops and tour buildings, you’ll arrive at Home Moravian Church and the gated entrance to God’s Acre, the final resting place of the people who founded this community so long ago.
It is here, in God’s Acre, that thousands of residents of all religions gather on Easter morning for what is believed to be the oldest sunrise service in the U.S. Under non-pandemic circumstances, you’d find yourself among the throng, shuffling along behind the brass choir and witnessing the beauty of the sun rising in the east above this expansive graveyard. This year, as last, the observance is limited to a livestream event, complete with the usual music and liturgy—and all are welcome to join virtually. Rise and shine—this Easter service begins at 6:15 a.m. Eastern. The weather is expected to be chilly, but beautiful.
At Easter, everyone around here is a little bit Moravian, and though there will be no crowd gathered at sunrise, we can still enjoy this delightful sugar cake, a favorite Easter tradition. And I hope this recipe will help you enjoy it as well, wherever you live and whatever you believe.
Moravian sugar cake is a specialty of this local culture—it is sort of a mashup of streusel coffee cake and buttery brioche bread, and thick with the sweetness of brown sugar and warm cinnamon spice. I have enjoyed this treat since my arrival in Winston-Salem 33 years ago, but until recently, had only purchased the mass-produced version of it that is usually so popular at Christmas. Little did I know that it is easy to make at home, and so much better! Mashed potatoes lend a unique softness to this yeasted cake, and the technique of pressing fingers into the dough (as you would when making focaccia) is what coaxes the buttery brown sugar-cinnamon mixture to form deep, pillowy pockets.
In addition to the generous crust of sweetness on top of the cake, the dough itself is rather heavy on sugar, which gives the yeast a real run for its money—under most conditions, yeast does not thrive in such a sweet dough, but, as you’ll soon see, the potatoes help in that regard as well. Come along, let’s make some!
Adapted from P. Allen Smith’s Moravian Sugar Cake
This recipe makes two 8 x 8″ cakes
2 1/4 tsp. instant dry yeast (one standard envelope)
3/4 cup mashed russet potato, boiled without salt and cooled to room temperature
3/4 cup whole milk, scalded and cooled to room temperature
1 egg, room temperature
2/3 cup cane sugar
3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour* + 1/2 cup whole wheat pastry flour (see notes for tips)
1 tsp. salt
6 Tbsp. unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
3/4 cup brown sugar, packed
2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp. pie spice, optional
3 Tbsp. unsalted butter and 3 Tbsp. salted butter, cold*
My guide recipe called for 3 to 4 cups of flour, which is a very wide range. If you measure the flour properly; that is, following the “fluff, sprinkle and level” method, you will use almost exactly 4 cups total. I measured out the full amount and added it gradually as suggested, and ended up with about a tablespoon left over. Also, I never, ever use only white flour in a recipe, but if you do not have the whole wheat pastry flour, feel free to use the total amount in all-purpose flour.
As with most baking recipes, a little bit of salt plays up the important flavors of the food, so I used equal parts salted and unsalted butter in the topping.
- Combine mashed potatoes (they should be somewhat wet) and yeast in a small bowl. Cover and let stand at room temperature for about 2 hours. The sugar in the dough will make the yeast work extra hard for moisture, so the mingling with the potatoes gives it a leg up before that part of the recipe begins.
- Transfer potato-yeast mixture to a large mixing bowl. Add milk, sugar and egg, stirring to blend completely.
- Measure out the total amount of flour, and scoop about 1/2 cup, leaving 3 1/2 cups in the bowl. Add salt to the larger bowl. You may not need the full amount of reserve flour, but you want to have the total of salt in the recipe.
- Add flour to mixing bowl, 1/2 cup at a time, blending thoroughly after each addition. The ideal dough will be even consistency and tacky, but not too sticky. Dough should pull away from the sides of the mixing bowl while kneading.
- Add softened butter, a tablespoon at a time, kneading to fully incorporate each addition before adding more.
- With lightly oiled hands, divide total dough between two buttered, 8 x 8” baking dishes, such as Pyrex or metal cake pan. Spread dough evenly to the edges of each pan. Cover loosely with plastic and rest cakes at least 90 minutes, until cakes are nice and puffy.
- Preheat oven to 350° F. Combine brown sugar, cinnamon and pie spice. Cut in cold butter to evenly distribute through the sugar mixture. You can use a pastry blender, a fork or a few pulses in the food processor.
- With lightly oiled hands, gently press your knuckles into the cake dough. Follow a random pattern, with plenty of indentations, but also plenty of high spots. The goal is to create deep pockets for the butter-sugar mixture to sink into, without deflating the entire cake surface.
- Scatter the butter-brown sugar mixture evenly over the cakes. The sugar mixture does not need to be pressed into the indentations; it will find its own way during baking.
- Bake cakes for about 30 minutes, rotating the pans halfway through for even baking. Cool cakes in the pan several minutes before cutting. Enjoy warm or at room temperature.
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