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?


Banana Bread with Dark Chocolate and Ginger

When Meghan Markle sits down with Oprah this weekend for a “tell-all” interview about what it was like joining—and then separating from—the royal life, I doubt she will be spilling the tea in a way that the British tabloids (and several American news outlets) would have us believe. Frankly, I doubt the interview will be scandalous at all, given that she and Prince Harry (whom I’ve adored since the day he was born) have plenty of reasons to remain close with the rest of the royal family, not the least of which are their adorable son and the new baby that’s on the way. Honestly, can a girl please just have her fairy tale for a minute?

Mark my word, when this interview with Oprah is over, the only things Meghan and Harry will have disclosed is that they love and respect the Queen, and that they have no hard feelings for anyone in the family, and that they have aspirations in life that cannot be fulfilled while living in a royal fishbowl. Oh, and that the British tabloid media is awful—but we already knew that because we all remember the gut-wrenching evening that Princess Diana died while being chased through Paris by the paparazzi. God bless Harry for wanting to protect his wife and family from all that crap.

Here’s another thing Meghan probably won’t spill the tea about: her recipe for banana bread. I clicked on a headline in my news feed recently, intrigued about the idea that Meghan had a “secret surprise” in a banana bread she had shared while on Royal Tour in Australia a couple of years ago. In addition to her previous career as an actress, Meghan had a lifestyle blog before she became engaged to Harry (just one of many things she had to give up), so I knew that she was a maven in the kitchen, and who doesn’t love a fun twist on banana bread? My hopes were dashed, however, when I read that the two “secret” ingredients she uses are chocolate chips and crystallized ginger. Well, I thought, what’s so secret about that?

Look at these two lovebirds! Dark chocolate is packed with antioxidants and ginger is good for digestion. Good for me AND tastes delicious…yes, please!

First of all, this is not Meghan’s recipe—it’s been around a long time, and I’ve actually been making it this way myself since around 2010, when I had picked up a copy of Molly Wizenberg’s bestseller, A Homemade Life. Molly is also a former blogger and past contributor to Bon Appetit magazine (among other things), and she described this recipe in her book as one that she had adapted from the recipe of a friend of a friend. And that’s how recipes go—we hear about or taste something we like, we ask for the recipe, perhaps we tweak it and send it forward to someone else, and then they share it however they choose. Not much is original in the world of food anymore, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t delicious. And this bread is definitely delicious.

My recipe is a take on Molly’s, which is a take on somebody else’s. 🙂

I’ve been craving the combination of dark chocolate and ginger ever since my new foodie friend Dorothy posted a dark chocolate and ginger tart on her own blog at Valentine’s Day. I haven’t made the tart yet, but I cannot find enough words to describe how much I love these two flavors together. The rich but slightly bitter flavor of dark chocolate holds its own against the spicy bite of crystallized ginger, and the two swirl around each other in an exquisite tango across the taste buds. The friendly and familiar background of an otherwise classic banana bread is a great venue for these two flavors to strut their stuff.

My recipe, of course, is slightly altered from Molly’s, which is slightly altered from somebody else’s, and I have no idea how it may be different from Meghan Markle’s because—as with every other single thing in her life since she met Harry—she has not personally shared her recipe. Somebody else spilled her tea. We only know that Meghan’s banana bread includes some form of chocolate and ginger, and that is enough to convince me that she has excellent taste. But we already knew as much, didn’t we?

You can see the generous bits of ginger peeking out of the banana bread. And all that dark chocolate! Mmm.

Ingredients

1 cup all-purpose flour* (see notes for measuring tips)

1 cup whole wheat pastry flour*

2/3 cup organic cane sugar (reserve 1 Tbsp. to sprinkle on top)

3/4 tsp. baking soda

1/2 tsp. salt

1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon

6 Tbsp. unsalted butter, melted and cooled (plus extra butter for greasing pan)

2 large eggs (room temperature)

1 1/2 cups mashed ripe banana* (about 3 large bananas)

1/3 cup Greek yogurt

1 tsp. vanilla extract

3/4 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips or chunks

1/3 cup finely chopped crystallized ginger


*Notes

For proper measuring, follow the “fluff, sprinkle, level” method. Scooping directly into the flour bag or container can result in a dense batter.

Whole wheat pastry flour is softer than regular whole wheat or even white whole wheat. It’s perfect for pie crust, cookies and quick breads, such as this one. If you don’t have it, or if you prefer all white flour, combine for a total of 2 cups all-purpose flour.

When I say “ripe” bananas, I don’t mean a few spots on a golden banana. They get sweeter as they age, and if you prefer, you can peel and mash them in a bowl and leave them to brown and sweeten a couple weeks in the fridge. But please, use ripe bananas.

The older the bananas, the sweeter the flavor. This is how my grandmother taught me (as long as there’s no mold)!

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 350° F, and position rack in center of oven. Grease a 9 x 5” (or equivalent volume) loaf pan generously with butter.
  2. Combine dry ingredients and whisk together in a large bowl.
  3. In a second bowl, lightly beat the eggs with a fork. Add mashed bananas, yogurt, melted butter and vanilla; stir with fork or whisk to fully combine.
  4. Add wet ingredients to dry ingredients and gently fold with a rubber spatula to combine. Easy does it here, just be sure that all flour is incorporated.
  5. Fold in chocolate chunks and ginger bits, being careful not to overmix.
  6. Transfer the batter into the prepared pan and sprinkle the top with reserved sugar.
  7. Bake about 55 minutes (give or take a few) until the loaf is nicely browned and a toothpick comes out clean. The toothpick test may be tricky because of all the chocolate, so you may need to poke in more than one spot.
  8. Cool the loaf in the pan about 5 minutes, then turn out onto cooling rack and cool completely.
The sugar I sprinkled on top of the batter created a delicate, crispy crust on the banana bread.

Want to make this yummy bread?