These women know how to make Moravian sugar cakes

aweigl@newsobserver.comNovember 19, 2013 

Purchase or make your own Moravian sugar cake.

ANDREA WEIGL — aweigl@newsobserver.com

  • Want to buy Moravian Sugar Cake?

    The Raleigh Moravian Church holds its annual Candle Tea from 2-6 p.m. Dec. 7.

    The event is free and open to the public. It includes musical performances by area high school choral groups and demonstrations of traditional crafts, including Moravian beeswax candles, Moravian cookies and Moravian stars. The candles and other crafts also are available for sale.

    Moravian coffee and Moravian sugar cake are also served during the event. The cakes, which cost $6 each, are also available for purchase until supplies last.

    The church is at 1816 Ridge Road. Info: 919-787-4034 or

    raleighmoravian.org.

Editor's note: This story gave the wrong last name for a Cary resident who is a charter member of the Raleigh Moravian Church. Her name is Shirley Fishel, not Shirley Bishop.

The ladies of the Raleigh Moravian Church have been making sugar cakes for so long that they know exactly how much dough to spread into a pan (11 ounces) and how long the cakes take to bake in the church ovens (19 minutes).

Over two days last week, more than a dozen women – in two teams, the early mixing crew and the later spreading crew – gathered in the church’s kitchen and fellowship hall for the annual making of the sugar cakes. All told, the women made about 670 cakes, which will be sold or served Dec. 7 at the church’s annual Candle Tea, an open house for this Christian group known as much for its baked goods as its beliefs.

Moravians are known for their spiced cookies, as thin as card-stock paper, and their sugar cakes. The cakes, which appear at Easter and Christmas, are made with a yeast dough (instant mashed potatoes are a key ingredient), covered with a thick layer of brown sugar, doused with melted butter, and baked until puffy and golden with a crunchy, sugary crust.

Church members started the Candle Tea in 1958 as a way to introduce themselves to the Raleigh community. It snowed that first year and not many people from outside the church attended. “That was probably a good thing, because we didn’t know what we were doing,” said Erd Venable, a charter member of the church who helped with the inaugural Candle Tea.

The women have gotten more experience over the years. They used to only be able to produce about 200 cakes and for many years did all the baking at the home of a church member who happened to have a double oven. After the church’s kitchen was remodeled in 2002 and commercial convection ovens were installed, they were able to triple production. Now their only challenge is freezer space.

“We beg, borrow and steal space at home,” explained Anne Frazier, 71, of Cary, a key organizer of the sugar cake making.

Now, the women have their sugar cake system down pat. Six women gather in the morning to mix the dough. They stir together instant mashed potatoes, hot water and vegetable shortening until the shortening melts. That is added to the dry ingredients and a few beaten eggs. The women use their hands to mix the dough, which is like a thick pancake batter and not the kneaded dough called for in many old-fashioned recipes. They know it’s ready when the dough goes from glossy to a matte-like finish.

“The old cooks would say, ‘Heavens no! This is not the way you do it,’” explained Mae Marshall, 82, of Raleigh, who has been baking these cakes for the church since 1960. But Marshall knows what she’s doing, having shown the ropes to many of these volunteer bakers.

Once the dough has risen, the spreading crew takes over. They portion the dough into square foil pans, sprinkle it with cinnamon, top it with a thick layer of brown sugar and let it rise again. Finally, they poke holes in it with their fingers, drench it with melted butter and bake for the requisite 19 minutes.

There’s only one potential downside to knowing how to make Moravian sugar cakes. Once people know you make them, they may expect one at the holidays. Shirley Fishel, 88, another charter member of the Raleigh Moravian Church, lives at the Glenaire retirement community in Cary. One year, she posted a sign-up sheet in the lobby with an offer to bake sugar cakes for the residents who could not attend the Candle Tea.

A few hours later, Fishel returned to collect her mail and had to take down the sign-up sheet. It already had 115 names on it.

It didn’t faze Fishel. She said, “I’ve been making them for 50 years so it’s not that much trouble.”

Moravian Sugar Cake Adapted from “Raleigh Moravian Church Cookbook,” 2003. 1 cup instant mashed potatoes 1 cup hot water 3/4 cup vegetable shortening or butter, cut into small pieces 7/8 cup granulated sugar 2 tablespoons dry yeast 2 teaspoons salt 4 cups all-purpose flour, or more if necessary 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg 2 slightly beaten eggs Cinnamon Brown sugar About 3 sticks melted butter

MIX mashed potatoes, hot water, butter or shortening and sugar in a medium bowl. The mixture should be warm. Set aside.

COMBINE yeast, salt, flour and nutmeg in a large bowl. Add potato mixture to the flour. Mix with hands until fully combined. Add eggs. Continue mixing by hand until dough resembles heavy muffin batter. When mixing, the dough should go from glossy to a matte-like finish. If it does not have the right texture, you can add up to one more cup of flour. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise until doubled, about 30 minutes to an hour.

PUNCH down dough and spread into four 9-inch greased square aluminum foil pans. Sprinkle dough with cinnamon. Spread a 1/4-inch to 1/3-inch layer of brown sugar on top of each cake. Let rise again, about 30 minutes to 1 hour.

HEAT oven to 375 degrees. Use fingers to poke about 12 holes in each pan of dough. Pour melted butter into each hole in the dough. If using a convection oven, bake cakes for 20 minutes. If not using a convection oven, place cakes on the oven’s bottom rack for 10 minutes and then move them onto the top rack for final 10 minutes. Serve cake immediately or let cool, place each cake in a zip-top freezer bag. Cakes can be defrosted and reheated later.

Yield: 4 cakes

Weigl: 919-829-4848 or aweigl@newsobserver.com; Twitter: @andreaweigl

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