Moravian Sugar Cake

Moravian Sugar Cake4

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

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Moravian Sugar Cake
Makes one 8×2-inch round cake. Adapted from Garden & Gun’s recipe.

Ingredients:
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
1 egg
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

Instructions: 

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.

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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. 😉

Zwetschgendatschi or German Plum Cake

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I first heard of Zwetschgendatschi when NPR did a Found Recipes piece on pastry chef and author Gesine Bullock-Prado (also the sister of Sandra Bullock). Bullock’s father was American, but her mother Helga was a German opera singer. She talks about how difficult it was for her to make this cake after her mother died. It was powerful to read this, and I have seen something similar while collaborating with ladies on this blog about their own family recipes: Sometimes sharing is easy for them, they’re excited to share, and excited to talk about their family dish, but sometimes it’s very difficult. Memories are baked into food and can bring up surprising emotions if you’re not ready for them.

This particular dish, Zwetschgendatschi, is sometimes called “Summer Cake.” The cake is traditionally made with Damson plums, which are tiny, dark purple, oblong plums that only ripen for a few weeks a year around August. This plum is slightly more tart than most plums you will find in the grocery store.

When made in sheet cake form, it is more pie or tart than cake. An alternate version calls for a yeast dough with no streusel on top. Whichever recipe is used can give you a good idea where someone is from in Germany. In parts of Central Germany it is known as Quetschekuche, while in the western region it’s known as Prummetaat, and in Bavaria or Austria it is more often known as Zwetschgendatschi. The people in Augsburg, in Bavaria, claim to be the creators of the recipe. The city’s nickname is “Datschiburg” in reference to the cake, and the arrangement of the plums on top of the cake are said to resemble the pine cone on the city’s coat of arms. Their version uses a shortbread crust, which is what I used here.

Zwetschgenkuchen

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Zwetschgendatschi
Makes one 8″ tart. Slight variation on this recipe from NPR.

Ingredients:
For crust:
1 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup cornstarch
1/4 cup, plus 1 tbsp sugar
1/2 tsp salt
3/4 cup unsalted butter, cubed and very cold (1 1/2 sticks)

For filling:
1 egg yolk
1 tbsp whole milk
1 tsp vanilla extract
About 10-14 small-to-medium plums (Damson, or Italian Prune Plums)

For topping:
1/8 tsp nutmeg
1/4 tsp cinnamon
1 tbsp sugar

Instructions:

Whisk together the egg yolk, whole milk, and vanilla. Set aside.

In a food processor, or large bowl, combine the flour, cornstarch, sugar, and salt. If using a food processor, add the butter to the bowl and process until the butter pieces are a bit smaller than pea-sized. If using a bowl, cut the butter into the flour mixture. Add the egg yolk mixture slowly. Process or mix with your hands until the mixture just begins to stick together. It will still appear crumbly.

Pour out the mixture onto a lightly floured surface. Pull the mixture together, kneading until all the dry parts are combined. Form into a disc, wrap in plastic, and refrigerate for 30-45 minutes.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Remove the pits from the plums, and quarter. Set aside.

Using your fingertips, press the dough into a 8-inch tart pan. Reserve a golf ball sized portion of the dough to sprinkle over the top.

Arrange the plum quarters over the top of the tart. Crumble the remaining dough and sprinkle over the top.

Mix together the nutmeg, cinnamon, and sugar. Sprinkle mixture evenly over the top of the plums.

Bake for 35-45 minutes, until the plums are very tender.

Allow to cool completely and then enjoy!

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This cake can be made with other varieties of plums, but make sure they are not overly ripe, which would make them very sweet and too juicy. Italian prune plums are a good alternative to Damson plums, if you can find them. (Prune plums are what I used for this recipe.) I relied on the recipe given by NPR, but I did find a recipe in a newspaper from the 1980’s that suggested adding a little nutmeg and cinnamon to your sugar mixture to sprinkle over the top, and that seemed like a heck of an idea. While it looks a little oozy in the photos above, that does not do it justice. The smooth, buttery shortbread crust holds up wonderfully against the juicy fruit.

I hate to tell you this, but summer is almost over. Now is the time for summer cake! Do it for the season.

One final thought: It always seems strange to be writing about food with everything happening in the world. I’m baking and researching history as a way to work through and try to understand what’s going on in our country, and how I can help. I’m mad, and appalled, and disappointed. We owe so much to the diversity that built this nation. Every recipe that I feature on this site is influenced by countries and peoples from around the world. I have said before that I wish to generally keep politics off this food history blog–it’s supposed to be fun and delicious, you know. However, humanity is not political, and this argument is not about liberals or conservatives, it’s about our fellow humans. We are all equal. It seems elementary to say but, it turns out, some people still don’t understand the concept. If you don’t agree, I don’t expect any of my posts about border-crossing recipes to make any sense to you. For everyone else: Let’s bake together.