I promise this is a proper cake, not a bread, though it uses elements of bread and cake baking. It has a full flavor and mild tartness from the sourdough, but the crumb and sweetness of cake. It's full of whole grain, but is not dense or gummy. Laced with cinnamon-sugar walnuts, this is the perfect thing to accompany of cup of coffee/tea and a good book.
I was inspired by a bit of history from Zingerman's Bakehouse, where they mentioned cakes were yeasted and sour cream was commonly used instead of milk before chemical leavening and refrigeration were all the rage. As much as I love the convenience of modern life, I went full on DIY and made a naturally leavened cake. While I was re-inventing the wheel, I used sourdough starter instead of sour cream to bring the tang to this cake.
The cake uses a common technique in bread baking: a preferment. The preferment lends robust rising power (and good flavor), which is important for the cake to rise in a timely manner once all the butter, sugar, and eggs are added. It also has the added bonus of giving the microbes a head start in fermenting the whole grain flour and not just the sugar added later, releasing more nutrients for us. Be sure your starter is freshly fed and active; I’ve seen other cakes use discard starter primarily for flavor, but we need that rising power here too. As insurance, a little bit of osmotolerant yeast is added later on in the cake.
A note on hydration and flours: I use fresh milled flour for this cake, aiming for a 50/50 blend of low and high gluten grains. I’ve used 25% Sonora wheat, 25% Einkorn, and 50% hard white wheat, or subbed 25% spelt instead of Sonora, with good results. But following this exact blend is not necessary, it’s more important to get the right consistency. There’s a lot of variation between grains and their ability to absorb liquid. This is where bread making intuition comes into play. Depending on the type of flour used and the hydration of your starter, you may have to tweak the amount of liquid added to the preferment. It should be full hydrated (no dry flour), but firm. Experiment with different grains, have fun with it! It’s not necessary to mill your own flour for this cake, but it is designed for whole grain flours. —Stephanie B.
- Prep time 16 hours
- Cook time 45 minutes
- Serves 8-10
whole grain flour
active starter (132g, but I don't weigh this anymore).
milk (any fat percentage)
- Final Cake
walnut pieces, toasted is ideal
brown sugar, light or dark
All of preferment
white sugar (1c)
kosher salt (or 1/2tsp table salt)
osmotolerant instant yeast, such as SAF Gold
large eggs, straight from fridge or at room temperature
- Mix milk and cream together. Add flour and starter to a medium bowl, and pour about 2/3 of the dairy in (I eyeball it here). Mix until you fully hydrate the flour, or add more liquid as needed to do so. The preferment should be evenly mixed, fully hydrated, but firm and not sticky. Depending on the hydration of your starter and your flour, you may have to use a little more or less liquid than I've listed.
- Cover and let ferment. If making cake that day, it can be at room temperature for a few hours (about 3 hours for me), until it’s risen a little. Since it’s so firm, it won’t rise much, and should not double. If making later, cover and refrigerate for about a work day or overnight. If making the cake later, the preferment can be made the morning of, and the cake finished in the evening. You can also make the preferment the evening before you make the cake, and finish the cake the next day.
- Final Cake
- If you’re like me and always forget to take ingredients out of the fridge to warm, toast the walnuts while you’re waiting to take the chill off the preferment and butter. Preheat oven to 250F, spread the walnut pieces on a baking sheet, and bake until fragrant, about 10min. Remove from heat and turn off oven. Let nuts cool. If you’re on top of your mise en place, disregard this step.
- Oil or butter a 12 cup bundt pan, set aside
- Mix nuts, brown sugar, cinnamon and cocoa powder in a small bowl, set aside.
- Put preferment and sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer. Sprinkle in salt and yeast. With the paddle attachment, mix on medium-low to incorporate. Mix will be dry and sandy at first, but then come together around the paddle. This should only take a minute or 2.
- With mixer running, add eggs one at a time, letting each one mix in before adding the next. Add the vanilla with the last egg.
- Add the butter in a few additions, letting each incorporate before adding more. This doesn’t have to be very precise, 3-4 additions of butter is what I do.
- Mix until the batter is smooth and evenly mixed, that is sufficient. Using a rubber spatula, scrape from the bottom once or twice to ensure the batter is evenly mixed. The crumb structure comes from fermentation, not from creaming the ingredients, so don't over mix. The cake batter should be smooth and scoopable (not pourable), similar to a muffin batter or maybe a little thicker.
- Scoop about 1/3 of the batter into a prepared bundt pan and smooth it into an even layer. Sprinkle ½ of the nut spice mix on top. Scoop another 1/3 of batter on top of the nuts, smoothing it with the spatula (and maybe your fingers) to cover the nuts. Sprinkle the rest of the nut spice mix. Scoop the rest of the batter into the pan and smooth it out. The pan should be a little over half full.
- Cover the pan and let the batter rise until about 1 ½ inches from the top of the pan. This will vary based on how warm your space is, but in my kitchen, this normally takes about 2 ½ -3 hours.
- Preheat the oven to 350F for about 20 minutes.
- Bake cake, uncovered, until it reaches an internal temperature of 200F, or until a toothpick comes out with only a few crumbs if you don't have a thermometer, which is in about 45 minutes in my oven. Avoid opening the oven door for the first 30 minutes of baking. The cake does not have much oven spring, and should only rise to the top of the pan. The visible part of the cake will get a golden color, and will form a crust (I know I said this cake is not bready, and it’s not, trust me). This will soften and become tender once the cake is turned out of the pan.
- Once the cake is done, remove from oven and let cool in the pan for 10 -15 minutes. Try not to forget about it because sugar from the nut mix could stick to the pan if it cools too much.
- Turn the cake out of pan, and let cool completely.
- Slice and serve for breakfast, dessert, or a quick bite with coffee or tea!