American Classics

Lost classic desserts from our wide and varied past.

American Classics: Moravian Sugar Cake

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[Photograph: Alexandra Penfold]

If you've ever visited Bethlehem, PA, chances are good that your visit might have included a stopover at The Moravian Bookshop. Known as "the world's oldest bookstore" on account of being in continual operation since 1745, this thriving independent bookstore also includes a quaint gift shop and cafe where they sell Moravian Sugar Cake.

Oh, Moravian Sugar Cake—you're not the prettiest cake in the bakery case, in fact, let's be blunt: you're a bit of a plain Jane. But if cakes could score points on personality, you're a solid ten.

The Moravians are a Christian religious minority that traces their founding back to Moravia and Bohemia in the present day Czech Republic. Persecution brought the Moravians to Germany then to the United States in colonial days. Their church is a multinational one, but to this day the German influence is strong in the traditions like their hearty, simple food.

Unlike your typical "New York-style" coffee cake, the cinnamon-sugar crumb topping is inside the cake rather than on top. After an overnight rise, you roll out the dough to fit your baking dish then let it rise in the pan until it puffs up. Then comes the fun. Using your index finger you poke holes in the surface of the cake at even intervals. You swirl your finger to widen the hole then fill it with a simple butter, brown sugar, and cinnamon crumb. The yeasty and slightly sour cake is nicely complemented by the pockets of pure buttery cinnamon-sugar goodness.

While Moravian Sugar Cake is a traditional Easter breakfast, the fluffy and sweet coffee cake is always in season. The secret to this cake's lightness is the addition of mashed potatoes. Yes, you read that right: mashed potatoes (before you let any potential skepticism keep you from your cake, let me present exhibit A: Potato Doughnuts a.k.a some of the best cake doughnuts I've had in my life). The mashed spuds add a light fluffiness to the cake and no one will ever guess that there are potatoes in the batter. Best enjoyed the day it's made, this cake is one to savor right out of the oven.

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Moravian Sugar Cake »

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About the author: Alexandra Penfold is mild-mannered children's book editor by day, food ninja by night. Never one to skip dessert she's the Brownie half of Blondie & Brownie and a Midtown Lunch contributor. You can follow her on Twitter at @blondiebrownie.

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