I usually know that things are going well for me when I start making life harder for myself in the kitchen. Met a deadline? Nothing like making mayonnaise from scratch to balance the scales. Upon finally conquering this year’s tax paperwork, I decided to make peach ice cream—without an ice-cream maker, and about an hour later than I had planned to be in bed. Recently, feeling the need to complicate things after a pleasant weekend with a friend, I started dreaming of a cake leavened not with reliable baking powder but with living, finicky yeast.
For centuries, yeasted cakes weren’t a folly but a fact of life. Cultures around the world have developed their own variations, from Italian pandoro—so generously enriched with butter and eggs that it flushes gold—to babka, which has shape-shifted across kitchens and continents, from a simple brioche-like Polish cake to the baroque chocolate swirls of the babkas favored in modern Jewish-American cooking. In Central Europe, there was gugelhupf, a princely cake with a delicate, sweet crumb and, often, a garnish of almonds. Such “sweet, yeasty, breadlike cakes” were, as Anne Byrn notes in “American Cake,” among the first cakes to be baked by settlers in North America, where they were “leavened with yeast cultures . . . or made from the foamy barm skimmed from fermented beverages like beer.” As yeast consumes the sugars in flour, it releases carbon dioxide, which collects in tiny pockets in the dough. The gas expands upon baking, causing the cake to jump upward. The “hupf” in gugelhupf may be a nod to this yeast-driven “hop.”
Alternative methods for leavening cakes included whisking eggs to a dense foam, laboriously creaming butter and sugar until the batter became lightened with tiny bubbles of air, or using potash—a salt derived from wood ashes that was known to impart an unpleasant smoky aftertaste. But it was baking powder, invented in 1843 by Alfred Bird for the benefit of his dyspeptic, yeast-sensitive wife, which would deal the biggest blow to yeast’s ascendancy. In baking powder, bicarbonate of soda and cream of tartar were combined to create a mixture that caused a powerful chemical lift when it came into contact with moisture. It worked quickly, doing in a moment what it might have taken yeast half a day to achieve. Today, the majority of American cakes are made this way.
The real trouble (and fun) of cooking with yeast is that it has desires of its own—desires which may not align with the ambitions of a baker. It doesn’t do well in the presence of too much sugar or fat (bad news for the making of cakes), or in conditions that are excessively warm or cold. It lives, which means it can also die—which makes cooking with it a matter of some delicacy. The historian and author Lesley Chamberlain once described the abundance of ritual around the baba—a yeasted cake cooked in a tall, cylindrical mold. “Precious pastrycooks declared it needed to rest on an eiderdown before it went in the oven,” she wrote, “after which baking took place in an atmosphere of maternity. Men were forbidden to enter the kitchen and no one was allowed to speak above a whisper.” Delighted at the amount of trouble I had made for myself, I set to work on a yeasted cake of my own.
My first attempt was a version of a poundcake recipe, adapted to suit the idiosyncrasies of a living leavener. Instead of starting by creaming butter and sugar, I first made a sponge—a little flour mixed with milk and some yeast—and left it to ferment before adding the remaining flour, a couple of eggs, sugar, and salt. I kneaded the mixture for a moment to strengthen the dough, then worked in an immodest amount of butter. Then I left it to rise in its bowl, transferred it to a tin, let it rise once more, and baked. The result was something like a poundcake if that poundcake had been wrung through Google Translate. It was a little too dense, tough at its edges, and deflated at the center. I tried again, and again, without success.
“Texture is the most obvious feature which distinguishes cakes from other cereal products,” Alan Davidson wrote in “The Oxford Companion to Food.” I’ve always thought that a cake should be springy but friable: when bitten, it should shower the kind of large, moist crumbs that need to be caught by a waiting napkin. Its bounce sets it apart from cookies, which tend to be brittle, short, or chewy. And I put enriched breads, like brioche, in a separate category altogether: they’re airier, with a capacious honeycomb-like structure that tears instead of crumbling.
But the distinction between bread and cake, as Elizabeth David wrote in “English Bread and Yeast Cookery,” is something of a modern invention, with the “proportions in the old formulas very often producing something between the two.” An English lardy cake, for instance, is a yeast dough marbled with sweetened lard—an ostentatiously weighty confection with bronzed, flaking edges and a cakey belly. Welsh bara brith is made like a cake in many modern recipes—with baking powder in place of the traditional yeast, giving a damp, yielding texture like that of a fruitcake—but aligns itself spiritually with bread, in that it is sliced and buttered to serve. Rather than trying to force my yeast cake into the template of a modern, chemically leavened cake, I decided to revisit the classics—the cake-breads and the bread-cakes that evolved in step with the yeast they use.
I found inspiration in Mimi Sheraton’s “The German Cookbook,” first published in 1965, which offers a small selection of traditional Hefeteig (yeast dough) cakes: streusel-topped coffee cake, butter cake, and even Käsekuchen—cheesecake—with a cream-cheese topping over a yeasted base. I decided to tackle a Bienenstich, or bee-sting cake: two thin layers of enriched dough filled with sweet custard or cream and topped with a caramelized honey-almond brittle. The sticky dough looked like a cake batter—butter-yellow, silky between my fingers—but behaved like a bread dough, stretching out elastic when kneaded and then rising until tender and cloud-like. In the oven, it grew once more—a final, triumphant “hupf.” Once it cooled, I cut it cleanly in half across its middle—the yeast cake slightly firmer and more resilient than the butter cakes I’m used to—and sandwiched the halves with honeyed vanilla cream. A few moments later, dabbing sweet, soft crumbs from an empty plate, I wondered if maybe I hadn’t made life hard enough for myself after all.
Bienenstich: Yeasted Cake with Honey-Almond Brittle and Cream
Adapted from a recipe in “The German Cookbook,” by Mimi Sheraton.
The magic of this cake is that the sweetness—which can be troublesome for yeast if all packed into the cake itself—comes largely from the honey-almond topping and a lightly sweetened cream filling. This leaves the yeast free to lighten the buttery dough to a melting, airy crumb.
For the cake
- 360 g (3 cups) all-purpose flour
- 180 ml (¾ cup) whole or two-per-cent milk
- 1½ tsp. instant yeast
- 2 medium or large eggs
- 75 g (⅓ cup) superfine sugar
- 1½ tsp. vanilla extract
- ¾ tsp. salt
- 140 g (1¼ sticks, or 10 tablespoons) unsalted butter, melted and