It has always been a tradition in my family to wake up early on Christmas morning and open stockings together over a big breakfast before we involved extended family. It was a quiet thing, comfortable and full of love. This year was my first year not being with my family on Christmas morning, but I wasn’t going to let that stop me from having my traditional Christmas brunch. Not even if it meant going over my usual meal budget of 100 kuai per person, or even having too much food leftover.
With just me and Walker, a breakfast of pancakes would have sufficed, but what’s the fun in that?
Instead I made a veritable feast, one that we snacked on all day. I will tell you about eachmorsel, as I get caught up with my backlog of Christmas cooking, but as a teaser, I will tell you that I made Moravian Sugar Cake, Sausage Rolls, Crustless Cajun Crab Mini-Quiches, Creamed Spinach, Hash Browns and Eggnog Cupcakes. I was cooking for days ahead of time, which made it so easy the morning of when all we wanted to do was sip our hot chocolate and open our gifts instead of being in the kitchen all morning. I can’t wait to share them with you, but rather than risk putting you into a food coma just from reading about all of it, I’m going to spread out the recipes.
First, the Moravian Sugar Cake.
Walker and I grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina, which is close to Winston Salem. Every year, my grandfather would drive to Winston Salem to a special bakery to pick up that year’s Sugar Cakes. They are a potato based cake, topped with cinnamon and brown sugar and served as a type of coffee cake, and my grandfather would deliver them to his friends as gifts for the holiday season.
One year, I was going to babysit and the child’s mother was finishing up a batch of Sugar Cake when I arrived. I practically begged her for the recipe, and while I was reading Harry Potter aloud to her eight year old, she quickly scrawled down the recipe. This was years and years ago and several moves ago, and I have since misplaced her recipe. I searched all over for the right proportion of ingredients and ended up trying three different recipes. The first was too crumbly, the second too dense, and the third was just right.
This recipe found at Epicurious was closest, but I did change the ingredients around to match what I remembered from my long-gone recipe.
- 1 russet (baking) potato (about 1/2 pound)
- 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons warm water
- 1 envelope (about 2 1/2 teaspoons) active dry yeast
- 1/2 cup granulated sugar plus one tbsp
- 3/4 stick (6 tablespoons) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
- 1 large egg
- 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
- 2 1/2 to 3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
- Another 3/4 stick (6 tablespoons) cold unsalted butter, cut into very small pats
- 3/4 cup firm packed brown sugar – half dark, half light
- 2 teaspoons cinnamon
- A pinch fresh ground nutmeg
The only differences are the sugars and the nutmeg. I increased the white sugar so that I could proof the yeast properly. Buying yeast in Beijing was always very difficult for me – 3 packets for about $7 – and I do love to bake, so every time someone would come visit they would bring me several packets of yeast. I keep it in a sealed zip lock bag but even so, I’ve never been able to get my yeast to proof properly without a little sugar added to its water. And my original recipe was very clear that the dark brown sugar is just oh-so-decadent but it too intense to pile onto the cake by itself. The slightest grinding of nutmeg over the top also came from my memory of the original recipe, and it adds a deeper complexity to the cake.
In a small saucepan combine the potato, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces, with enough water to cover it by 1 inch and simmer it, covered, for 10 to 15 minutes, or until it is very tender. Drain the potato well, force it through a ricer into a bowl, and stir in 2 tablespoons of the water. In a small bowl proof the yeast in the remaining 1/2 cup water for 5 minutes, or until the mixture is foamy. In a large bowl stir together well the yeast mixture, the mashed potato, the sugar, the butter, the egg, and the salt, add 2 1/2 cups of the flour, and stir the dough until it is combined well. Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and knead it for 8 to 10 minutes, adding as much of the remaining 1/2 cup flour as is necessary to form a smooth and elastic dough. Transfer the dough to a buttered large bowl, turning it to coat it with the butter, let it rise, covered with plastic wrap, in a warm place for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, or until it is double in bulk, and punch it down. The dough may be made 1 day in advance and kept covered and chilled. Bring the dough to room temperature before continuing with the recipe.
Preheat the oven to 400°F. Press the dough evenly in a buttered 13- by 9-inch baking pan and let it rise, covered with a kitchen towel, in a warm place for 30 to 45 minutes, or until it is puffed. Make indentations all over the top of the dough with your thumb and scatter the butter over the dough. In a small bowl stir together the brown sugar and the cinnamon and sprinkle the mixture evenly over the dough. Bake the cake in the middle of the oven for 20 to 25 minutes, or until it is dark brown and cooked through. Let the cake cool for 5 minutes and cut it into squares.
The best part about these cakes? You can make them ahead of time, freeze them in ziploc bags, on top of tin foil, and reheat it whenever you want!
This version of a Moravian Sugar Cake made two North Carolinians very happy on Christmas morning. And it also made the puppy happy, because she got to lick the plate. And in the spirit of my grandfather, I gave a Sugar Cake to my coworker and her family here in Shanghai.