Moravian sugar cake first came to me in a moment of great sadness. One evening during my nightly dicking-around-on-the-internet time, I discovered that I live within a two-hour drive of a wolf sanctuary, and that said wolf sanctuary is open to the public. Except on Fridays. That’s something that’s made quite clear on the website, which I didn’t read all that closely as I was figuring out how to command the respect of a pack of wolves. That is how one Friday I found myself in Lititz, Pennsylvania, with a broken heart, and when I have a broken heart, I mend it with carbs.
Lititz is a town with a Main Street, and oh, what a picture perfect Main Street it is. There’s a bookstore, a music shop, a kombucha parlor, two cozy tea rooms, a pottery studio, a craft market, a town history museum, and, just a bit down the road from all that hullabaloo, the central figure of this small town, a monolithic church upon which the town was founded in 1756: Lititz Moravian Congregation. I knew little about the Moravians at the time, but I did know they make excellent cookies. I made my way to the church’s gift shop (yes, it has a gift shop) in hopes of scoring a few dozen. (I was very sad about the wolves.)
Alas, there were none. But I stayed in the shop perusing the shelves of hand-dipped beeswax candles and handmade Moravian stars, because I didn’t want to disappoint the woman running the shop. If Lititz is a Norman Rockwell painting, then she was the ideal Norman Rockwell grandmother. It’s hard to keep to yourself in the presence of a woman who you wish would take you home to tuck you under a quilt and gently stroke your hair while singing sweet lullabies. I may not be smart enough to know how to check the business hours of a wolf sanctuary, but I am smart enough to know that when you spot a perfect grandma in the wild, you need to sit your butt down for some good ol’ fashioned chitchat and enjoy every moment.
What I thought would be a quick in and out turned into a leisurely hour of us keeping company. She taught me about the Moravians: where they came from, what they believe, and, most importantly to my particular interests, why the practitioners of a religion most people know nothing about are famous for their baking. She explained that Moravians are one of the world’s oldest Protestant denominations, tracing their roots back to 15th-century Bohemia. Missionaries began coming to America in the 1700s, building successful settlements in North Carolina and Pennsylvania, where the majority of Moravians still live and worship. When I asked why, after two centuries, Moravians weren’t found all across the country, she hit me with a fact I never expected to hear about religion: when they preach their beliefs, their goal is not to convert people into Moravians. Instead, they just want to make sure everyone knows God loves them, that they should try to be good people, and that everyone should take care of each other and generally have a great time. If you want to become a Moravian, great! If not, just go forth and live a godly life and don’t be a jerk to people. And, no matter what you believe about God or religion, the Moravians want everyone to know that they are always welcome to come to church to participate in one of their most sacred traditions: the lovefeast, which, in a nutshell, is when you go to church to eat cake.
The ritual of the lovefeast can be traced back to the agape ritual of the earliest Christians, who enjoyed getting together after Pentecost for a little nosh to celebrate their shared faith in a time when, in some places, Christians needed to hide their identities so as not to be murdered by pagans. By the fourth century the ritual had all but disappeared, but the Moravians decided to pick things back up in 1727. A lovefeast can be held at any time and is open to anyone who wants to join. Songs are sung, friends are made, and everyone gets to eat a little something special. There are no rules as to what food should be served, but it must be something that can be easily piled in a basket and passed around the pews; in Lititz, it’s often squares of a dimpled yeast cake drenched in butter and cinnamon sugar. There was no lovefeast on the day I was in Lititz, and though the woman and I were entirely aware of the wondrous moment of human connection between us, we had no cake to celebrate with. She did, however, have a small slip of paper printed with her favorite recipe, which she slipped into my hand before I left, with the instruction that this is a cake that is meant to be shared with everyone who will take a piece. It’s easy to make new friends when cake is involved.
When I returned home I decided to take a stab at the cake, but realized I was missing a critical piece of information: I had never actually tasted Moravian cake before. A recipe can only give you so much information, so while I knew, based on the ingredients, that whatever came out of the oven would be delicious, I knew little else. Should the cake be short or tall? Should the crumb be spongy or compact? Should the dominant flavor come from the base or the topping? I sought clarification on the internet, where I discovered dozens of recipes that all called for the same ingredients and had slight variations in their processes. An image search showed me hundreds of cakes that were all obviously related, but none of them looked exactly the same. I realized that what I had been blessed with was one of my favorite types of recipes: the kind that every person could tinker with to make their very own. Every Moravian family has its own special way of sharing love with their community. So instead of obsessing over research, I chose to play around with the gift I was given, guided by nothing but my personal quest to bake a cake that would make me smile so that I could share those good feelings with others. And now we have reached the point where I get to share those good feelings with you.
I decided that my Moravian cake would be thin, as I’ve already got plenty of recipes for thick, fat slabs of yeasted coffee cake and didn’t need yet another version. It wouldn’t be dense, either. This cake is actually quite floppy when it comes out of the oven and needs to be cut with scissors rather than with a knife. It firms up as it cools, but I love cutting myself a square when it’s still hot and eating it just as I would a fresh slice of pizza. This makes so much cake that it always has a Day Two in my house, and by then, it’s firmly set up much like an average coffee cake. Moravian cake was not meant to be average, and it has a second act that is quite possibly better than its original state: each side is griddled in a hot pan, the bottoms becoming a beautiful buttery toast, the tops becoming crackling, bruleed caramel.
Much like love itself, this cake seems easy, but has so many ways to surprise you. There’s much magic to be found in this cake, especially when it’s shared. It can create new friendships and memories that you’ll hold dear. It can strengthen the bonds you have with the ones you love, who will be reminded that you’re the person who gives them delicious cake and therefore should be treated kindly. And maybe—just maybe—this is the cake that will, at long last, earn you the respect of a pack of wolves.
- 1 cup milk
- 1 cup potatoes, peeled and chopped into small pieces
- 1/4 cup shortening
- 1 stick butter
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 2 eggs
- 1 1/2 tsp. vanilla
- 3 1/4 cups flour
- 1 package (2 1/4 tsp.) instant yeast
- 6 Tbsp. (3/4 stick) cold butter
- 2/3 cup brown sugar
- 1 Tbsp. cinnamon
- 1/2 tsp. salt
Pour one cup of milk into a 2-cup (or larger) liquid measuring cup. Add potatoes to the milk until the liquid rises to the 2 cup line. Add the potato, milk, and shortening to a saucepan, bring it to a boil, then lower heat to a simmer and cook until the potatoes can be very easily smooshed with a fork. Transfer to the bowl of a stand mixer with the paddle attachment; add the butter and sugar and mix on medium-low until the butter is mostly melted. Add the eggs and vanilla, mix for about 30 seconds, then add the flour and instant yeast. Turn the mixer up to high and beat for about 6 minutes until the dough is shaggy, shiny, and pulling away from the sides of the bowl.
Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and put it in a warm place to proof—in my tiny kitchen, I like putting the bowl in the oven and turning the light on. Let it double in size, which, depending on the temperature in your kitchen, could take anywhere between 1-2 hours. Just keep checking on it, and it’ll tell you when it’s done.
Line an 11 x 17 baking sheet with two long sheets of aluminum foil, making sure there’s at least 2 inches of overhang (so that no cinnamon sugar bubbles onto your oven floor while the cake is baking). Lightly grease the foil with butter or cooking spray, then plop the dough onto it and begin patting it out to cover the entire pan. It will be quite sticky, so keep wetting your hands every so often and shaking them off, which will put an end to that business. There’s a strong chance that, while stretching the dough, you will think there is no way you will be able to make it cover the entire pan, but I swear to you it is possible! The dough will end up being very thin, so don’t second guess yourself. If you truly, honestly find you cannot do it, just spread it out the best you can and don’t worry about it—this is something that takes a bit of practice, so it’s okay to not get it 100% perfect the first time you make this. No matter what shape your cake is, pat it out with your palms to make it as even as possible, then cover it again with plastic and put it somewhere warm to rise for an hour.
Once the cake has risen a second time, preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Quarter the butter lengthwise, then cut it in 1/4-inch intervals to make tiny little butter squares. Put them in a bowl with the brown sugar, cinnamon, and salt, and toss well. Put sugar-coated butter cubes all over the cake, spaced about 1 inch apart, and push them down until they touch the bottom of the pan. Once you’ve run out of room, rub the remaining butter and sugar together, heating it in the microwave for 10 seconds or so if needed, until it becomes the texture of sand. Cover the entire cake with the sugar and bake for 40-45 minutes until the sugar is melted and a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake pulls out clean.
Fight the urge to tear into the cake for at least 10 minutes. At this stage, you can cut it into rectangles using kitchen scissors and serve hot, or let it cool to room temperature. Or, if you really want to get crazy with things, melt about half a tablespoon of butter in a nonstick pan and griddle the cake, sugar side up, for about a minute. Flip the cake over and cook for 30-60 seconds so that the sugar turns into crackly caramel, and serve immediately.