Realizing only now that this will be my last post before Thanksgiving. Holy smokes! Then it’s Christmastime! Which, in this house, means fancy at-home steak dinners with wine (our coziest tradition ever before the holidays), lots of Hallmark movies (don’t look at me, Alex is the one who really loves them), and oodles of homemade Chex Mix. Last year, between the two of us, we polished off two large batches in, like, two days. Can we beat that record this year? I believe in us.
In November of 1789, North Carolina became a state, but more than 30 years earlier, a religious group called the Moravians settled in the area that is now Forsyth County. The Moravians were one of the earliest Protestant sects, and some claim it is the earliest Protestant group, formed in the 1400s, in what is today the Czech Republic. They were held to be radical at the time because of beliefs we would consider today to be basic tenets of the Protestant church, such as allowing priests to marry and the disbelief in Purgatory. While the group flourished in the early years, they were forced to flee their country when the devoutly Catholic Hapsburg King Ferdinand II came to power. They first settled in what is the present-day Saxony region of Germany.
Eventually arriving in the new world, the group first attempted to settle in Savannah, Georgia, in 1735, but within five years, the group had broken apart, in part because they were looking for another location for a permanent settlement. One of the group’s main tenets was to proselytize and, after being invited by several Algonquin chiefs in the New York region, the group set up a mission there. However, by 1744, the group was expelled by the local powers. (Side literary/movie note: Chief Chingachgook, a fictional character in James Cooper Fennimore’s Last of the Mohicans, is a Moravian convert during this time, who ends up rejecting the faith at the end of his life.)
The first permanent settlement for the Moravians came on Christmas Eve of 1741, when the mission of Bethlehem was settled in Pennsylvania. A little more than a decade later, a group was sent south, to present-day North Carolina to establish a settlement there, which they did in what is modern-day Winston-Salem, in 1752.
Bethlehem, PA, in the north and Salem, NC, in the south were considered “homes” for the church. The northern and southern “homes” did frequently visit one another, though, and one thing they shared was old-fashioned sugar cake. Moravian sugar cake was similar to German kuchens, or cakes, that were made with a yeasted dough and topped with streusel. It is also a slightly simpler version of what we know as “coffee cake” in the United States today. The real difference to Moravian sugar cake is mashed potatoes. Mashed potatoes are thought to have been used in the dough to help the yeast’s growth. This common-man’s ingredient is balanced against a cinnamon-sugar topping, so it’s sweet but not too sweet. The topping, applied after bakers made deep pockets in the dough with their thumbs, sinks in, making a dimpled and rumpled topping as the cake bakes. It is said that Moravians took their sugar cake so seriously that when a Moravian man went looking for a wife, he looked for one with large thumbs who would be able to make the best sugar cake. (Gross, yes.)
Recipes for Moravian sugar cake appear in the mid-1800s in both Pennsylvanian and North Carolinian newspapers. It is frequently mentioned in early newspapers being served along with coffee for church anniversaries and “love feasts.” Now commonly served for Easter celebrations, it has become a regional favorite, even for those outside of the church.
Moravian Sugar Cake
Makes one 8×2-inch round cake. Adapted from Garden & Gun’s recipe.
For cake: 1 1/4 tsp dry-active yeast
1/4 cup sugar
6 tbsp milk, warm (about 115 degrees)
1/4 cup mashed potatoes
2 tbsp butter, room temperature
1/4 tsp salt
1 1/2 cups flour
For topping: 3 tbsp butter
1/2 cup brown sugar
3/4 tsp cinnamon
In a large bowl, combine the warm milk, yeast, and a tablespoon of sugar. Whisk together and allow to sit and get frothy for about 10 minutes.
Stir in the remaining sugar, as well as the potato, egg, butter, salt. Then add the flour and stir with a wooden spoon until the flour streaks are gone and the dough begins to form a ball.
Pour the dough onto a floured surface and knead until smooth and elastic, about 5 minutes. Place the ball of dough into clean, slightly greased bowl. Cover and allow to rise in a warm place until doubled in size, about 1 1/2 hours.
Grease a round 8×2-inch cake pan. Punch the dough down and press into the greased cake pan. Set aside as you prepare the topping.
Melt the butter and stir in the brown sugar and cinnamon.
Using your thumbs, make deep indentations all over the top of the dough, making sure to not poke all the way through the dough. Pour the butter-brown sugar mixture over the dough and spread evenly over the top.
Cover and allow to rise in a warm place for another 30 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Bake for 15 minutes.
Allow to cool slightly before serving.
I just love this kind of food history. Here is a perfectly innocent-looking cake, that actually serves as a reminder of pre-Revolutionary pioneering, radical European Protestantism, and entrenched US regionalism. Also, you know, it’s just great with coffee. 😉