Moravian Sugar Cake

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.

In non-pandemic times, the faithful would gather here before sunrise for Easter worship.

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.

The cake is light, airy, sweet and buttery. And that topping, oh my! You can see how deeply the brown sugar melts into the dimpled dough. This is what Easter tastes like to me.

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

Ingredients

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

Topping

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*

*Notes

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.

Instructions

  1. 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.
  2. Transfer potato-yeast mixture to a large mixing bowl. Add milk, sugar and egg, stirring to blend completely.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Add softened butter, a tablespoon at a time, kneading to fully incorporate each addition before adding more.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.

Want to make this recipe?


Vanilla

When I set out to develop a recipe to properly acknowledge our nation’s birthday, my instinct was to make something that looked like the flag, because isn’t that what everyone does on the 4th of July?

For my culinary tribute to America, I decided instead to focus on the flavors that make a food distinctly “American.” But a funny thing happened during my research into America’s top flavors—the story behind our No. 1 flavor overran everything else on my mind. It’s a tale that involves other countries, explorers and a 12-year-old Black slave whose scientific discovery is still used in the production of vanilla today.

Here’s the short version:

In the early 1800s, Spanish explorers visiting Mexico returned home with some of the orchid plants used to produce vanilla. Back home, they were disappointed to find the plants never developed the long, slender pods that give us the vanilla bean. It was a pollination problem, and European bees couldn’t solve it.

But Edmond, a 12-year old slave in the French colony of Réunion, not far from Madagascar, figured out a way to intervene in the pollination process—sort of a botanical IVF, if you will—and the rest is history. His process of pollinating by hand, by the way, is still used in vanilla production today.

Like so much of what we love in America, vanilla came from somewhere else. And by way of someone whose contribution far outweighs the recognition he received for it. For much of Edmond’s life, he wasn’t even allowed to have a last name. At the end of the post, check out the link to a more thorough telling of Edmond’s story. 

By the way, how ironic is it that a flavor often used to describe anything plain, bland or uninteresting is the most enduring ingredient in American culinary history? I do so love vanilla, and I am grateful to Edmond Albius, who finally received a last name when his owner also gave him freedom and full credit for the discovery. In honor of Edmond, I’m highlighting the familiar warm, floral notes of vanilla—our country’s top flavor—in a bourbon cocktail. A splash of extract will step in with the cocktail bitters, and America’s No. 2 flavor will make an important appearance as well, in the form of a black pepper simple syrup.

Let’s do this.

Ingredients

2 oz. bourbon

0.5 oz. black pepper simple syrup* (recipe in notes below)

1/8 tsp. real vanilla extract

3 drops bitters of choice* (see notes for suggestions)

Combine ingredients in a cocktail mixing glass, add ice and stir for 20 seconds until the glass looks frosty. Strain over a giant ice cube into a double old-fashioned glass.


Vanilla-Black Pepper Old Fashioned

 *Notes

Simple syrup is exactly what it says—simple. The base is equal parts water and sugar, and you can take it anywhere you like from there by infusing it with other flavors.

1 cup filtered water

1 cup cane sugar

2 tsp. whole black peppercorns

2 tsp. cracked black peppercorns (I used a mortar and pestle, but the coarse setting on a pepper mill would work just as well)

Combine water and sugar over medium heat and bring to a light boil. Add peppercorns and turn off heat. Stir to be sure sugar is completely dissolved, and let the mixture cool completely before straining, then refrigerate in a sealed jar.

My husband and I have different taste, so I tried the drink with two different bitters varieties; chocolate for him and 18-21 “Havana & Hide” for me. Use any bitters you like. They don’t stand out much, but serve more to accentuate what’s already good about the drink. You can even skip the bitters and let the vanilla shine brighter.

If you’re a food history junkie like me, you’ll appreciate this article, which delves further into the inspiring story of Edmond Albius, the boy botanist whose legacy became the most prolific flavor of our nation’s entire history.

Cheers to you, Edmond. Thank you for flavoring our world.