How They Made It: Sourdough Spice Cake on Fraser’s Ridge
As we transition from Scotland to America in Outlander Season 4, it seems appropriate to create a recipe that could be found on Fraser’s Ridge. In this “How They Made It,” we take a look at sourdough spice cake.
Autumn is a season of transitions. The heat of summer cools to the eventual cold of winter (here in New England the trees put on a show of color the likes of which I still marvel at, California girl that I am), kids go back to school (or some head there for the first time), and pumpkin spice lattes start popping up at your local coffee shops. For Outlander Season 4, we’re transitioning from Scotland to America, and trading Lallybroch for Fraser’s Ridge as the new home for Jamie and Claire. I won’t give away any spoilers on characters we haven’t met on the show yet, except to say that there will be a new chef from whom I can draw inspiration. One treat I know she’d make is Sourdough Spice Cake, a misleadingly-named sweet tea bread flavored with the same baking spices that are featured in pumpkin pie (or your pumpkin spice latte).
What came before baking soda?
One question that I had regarding baking in the 18th century was about leavening. Here in modern times, many baked goods are leavened with baking soda or baking powder (called chemical leavening agents in culinary circles). Commercial baking soda didn’t appear until the mid-19thcentury, though, so what would our yet-to-be-named chef on Fraser’s Ridge have used to leaven her cakes and cookies? According to Publicism’s Baking Cakes in Early America, pound cakes, molasses cakes, gingerbreads and the like were probably first leavened “with yeast cultures brought with the settlers from Europe or made from the foamy barm skimmed from fermented beverages like beer,” and…
…it was not until the wood ash leavening called potash was produced by burning cleared trees … that American gingerbread benefited from this leavening and became soft and more cake-like in texture. Potash, or pearlash as it was known, was an alkali and a forerunner of baking soda. When combined in a gingerbread batter with sour milk or molasses, which were both acidic, it produced carbon dioxide bubbles that helped raise the cake in the oven.
Remember my post about sourdough bread? In that case, the dough was leavened with the wild yeast that was cultivated and nurtured in the sourdough starter. Cooks would take a small portion of the mixture to create the fresh bread dough, then “feed” the remaining starter with flour and water so that they’d have it ready for the next day. As noted above, a cook could also use the starter to make cakes — the sweetener and other flavorings in the batter masked the tang of the sourdough starter itself. When potash was added along with the starter, our more familiar lighter cakes and tea breads started to appear in Colonial kitchens. The things you learn on the Interweb!
Sourdough in cake? Really?
If, like me, you don’t make sourdough bread everyday but you still have to feed your starter, you need to find a use for the unfed starter you remove before feeding the remaining mixture (called the discard). I refuse to throw the discard away, so I searched for various recipes that I can adapt (basically replacing some of the flour & water in a recipe with the amount in the starter). I’ve seen chocolate cakes, coffee cakes, even chocolate chip cookie bars use sourdough starter in the batter. One recipe I happened upon is for Sourdough Spice Cake, and boy am I glad I did! It’s an adaptation from Sourdough Banana Cake. Instead of using ripe bananas, I omitted them and doubled the amount of yogurt/sour cream in the mix. Don’t be put off by the fact it has sourdough starter in it…you don’t taste it! This sweet bread is loaded with all the spicy fall flavors, and is moist and soft. And another thing…sugar would have been a luxury in the Colonies, so our unnamed chef might have used it sparingly or not at all, instead sweetening her cakes with honey or molasses. The recipe below calls that to mind by using brown sugar. Maybe not as authentic, but darn close and darn good!
Sourdough Spice Cake
Adapted from C Mom Cook
- 1 cup (8 oz, 236 ml) unfed sourdough starter, at room temperature (See Note below)
- 1 egg, at room temperature
- 1/4 cup (1.5 oz, 47g) vegetable oil
- 1/2 cup (4 oz, 118 ml) plain yogurt (regular or Greek) or sour cream
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1-1/2 cups (192 g, 6 3/4 oz) all-purpose flour
- 1/2 cup (3.5 oz, 100 g) sugar
- 1/2 cup (4.2 oz, 120 g) brown sugar
- 2 tsp baking soda
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1/2 tsp ground cloves
- 1/4 tsp ground ginger
- 1/8 tsp ground nutmeg
- Preheat oven to 350°F and generously spray a 9-inch x 5-inch sized loaf pan with baking spray.
- In a medium sized mixing bowl, combine the sourdough starter, oil, yogurt or sour cream, egg and vanilla. Mix together until everything is fully combined.
- In a (separate) large mixing bowl, whisk together flour, both sugars, baking soda, salt, and spices.
- Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients and stir until just combined.
- Pour the batter into the prepared loaf pan and bake for 45-60 minutes, or until a cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean.
- Allow the cake to cool in the pan (on a cooling rack) for about 10 minutes, then turn the cake out onto the rack itself and allow it to cool completely.
- You can substitute 4 oz of flour (a scant cup) and 4 oz warm water (1/2 cup, 118 ml) for the 1 cup of unfed sourdough starter. If desired, increase salt to 1 tsp.
- This recipe can make 6 small loaves, 1 large & 2 small loaves (depending on the dimensions of your loaf pan), or 12 full-size muffins. Adjust the baking time as needed; just make sure the cake tester comes out clean.
- This cake keeps well on the counter for several days, or you can wrap it in plastic wrap and freeze for longer term storage.
I have written on my own blog, Scotch & Scones, about other uses for unfed sourdough starter like sourdough pretzels and sourdough bagels. I’ve also made sourdough bannocks, biscuits, and pizza dough with unfed starter. If it’s got flour & water in it, I’ll try it! Do you have clever ways you use unfed sourdough starter? Please share them!
I’m sure Jamie and Claire would have enjoyed this Sourdough Spice Cake on a crisp North Carolina evening, perhaps while sipping a wee dram. As for me, you’ll find me munching on some while staring at the leaves changing outside my window and counting the days until Droughtlander is over!
How do you commemorate the coming of autumn in your area? Any special traditions or activities?
Discovering Outlander after Season 1 first aired, Tammy quickly went down the rabbit-hole on social media and podcasts and found a world of like-minded fans who not only tolerated her obsession, but encouraged the madness! She combined her Outlander-inspired interest for scotch whisky with her continuing passion for baking and storytelling in her blog, Scotch & Scones…Explorations in a glass and in the oven. Joining the staff of Outlander Cast as the resident baker has brought Tammy full circle, from a podcast fan to a contributing writer. You can follow her on Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest at @scotch_scones, and find her on Facebook at @scotchandsconesblog.