Moravian Sugar Cake
- 1 (about 1/2 lb) Russet potato peeled and cubed
- 3/4 cup milk heated to 110 degrees
- 1 1/2 teaspoons regular yeast
- 1/3 cup sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 4 tablespoons butter melted and cooled
- 1 egg
- 2 1/2 cups flour
- 6 tablespoons COLD unsalted butter
- 1 cup light brown sugar
- 1-2 tablespoons ground cinnamon
- Boil the potato until tender. Rice or mash. Stir milk and yeast together until yeast is dissolved in the bowl of a stand mixer. Add the sugar, warm potato, salt, butter, egg, flour, and yeast mixture and, using a dough hook, mix until a smooth, slightly sticky dough forms. Place dough in a large, buttered bowl and cover with a tea towel.
- Allow to rise in a warm spot for about 45 minutes or until doubled in bulk.
- Butter a 9x13 inch baking pan and punch the dough into the pan. Cover and allow to rise, about 45 minutes. Preheat oven to 375. In a small bowl, use a fork, your hands, or a pastry cutter to cut the cold butter into the sugar and cinnamon for the topping until it looks sort of like wet sand.
- Press shallow dimples in the dough, sprinkle with sugar mixture in an even layer over the cake.
- Bake 20 minutes or until the topping is bubbly and browned. Cool in pan for 20 minutes prior to serving.
You know I can’t resist a regional recipe. Apparently, this cake is very popular in Winston-Salem, NC but I first came across it in Lititz, PA where we go to pick up the pretzels we like. There is a food hall next to a little park and we got to talking to an older couple there (this was in the before times) and they said they drive up to get it every year. To be honest, I don’t really like any of the food in that food hall but I tucked that little nugget away. When I did my research I found that it is a cake that is popular with Czech immigrants who were members of the Moravian church who had mostly settled around the Piedmont area of North Carolina and then near Bethlehem, PA. I’ve never been to either of these areas but I know you can find it in Lititz which still has a Moravian church congregation and even a little gift shop selling Moravian items like the famous star ornaments.
There doesn’t seem to be a huge amount of info about why the immigrants came up with this particular cake as it doesn’t exactly match up with any cakes from the Czech areas they had left. If I had to guess, I bet they used potatoes to feed their starter for bread and then decided to make a cake using the same starter but enriched with milk and butter. Make do with what you have, right?
Some recipes I found called for making multiple smaller cakes or used instant potato flakes but I found I got the best, fluffiest results from using a real potato and a 9×13 inch pan. It really is an easy, forgiving dough. It is a bit sticky but you aren’t handling it much–just make sure that the dough is able to easily pull away from the bottom of the mixing bowl before the first rise. We used very dark cinnamon and ended up with a dark-looking cake–if you are using a lighter variety your cake might look a little paler. The cake when it comes out is very soft and has a pale bottom crust but it should be perfect at 20 minutes. Resist poking at it.
Really, if you have ever made focaccia bread, you will ace this. The method is very similar and at the end, instead of savory bread, you get a lightly sweet, fluffy cinnamon and butter-drenched cake. I’ve heard it is best served warm but room temperature works too. Since it is a yeast-based cake I do think it is best the day it’s made and the day after. After that, it starts to dry out. Slices make a nice alternative to cookies if you are gifting your neighbors!