I think I might have crossed some kind of invisible line with you last time. As always when I post a recipe there is the slightly anxious wait until the first ‘like’ button is pushed, or the first comment is made. Once that happens I tend to switch off the computer and get on with cooking dinner, or herding hens away from tender edibles, or both simultaneously. Which is hilarious, I tell you.
This time, with the mackerel and rhubarb recipe, my wait was longer, and indeed sweatier (that was ‘sweater’, but I just discovered a dropped ‘i’). As I chopped veg, Maccabees blasting through the speakers, I found myself sidling over to the lonely computer, looking for the little plus sign on the dashboard that lets me know someone has at least read the title and thought, ‘Hmm, that’s alright, I’ll click the like button. Put her out of her misery.’ I don’t know how long I waited, but I think we were actually eating dinner before one of you kind souls triggered the all-important plus sign. Thank you. You saved a grown woman from getting another frown line.
So enough with the weird stuff for right now. Let us have cake. Still with rhubarb – because it’s seasonal and scrummy – but with sugar, cardamom, flour and all those other nice things. And it will make your house smell amazing. Unlike mackerel.
So, to the Friendship Cake, a Herman the German Friendship Cake – which I notice is always capitalised, so I shan’t break with this tradition. Most of you will have heard of This Cake even if you don’t know quite what it is, been given the ‘starter’ or even tasted a wedge. I must confess I had not heard of it until I was listening to my favourite morning radio programme, BBC Radio 4’s “Woman’s Hour.” Sometime in April, as I was tootling up to Fife for a cancer nutrition workshop, boot heaving with vegan whatnots for our lunch, I caught the segment about Herman Friendship Cake. Jenni Murray’s trailer tidbit caught my attention: “Is the friendship cake a comfort or a curse?” A cake as curse: How was I not going to stick around for a discussion like that?
I found from Sharmini Selvarajah’s Woman’s Hour segment that This Cake is a sweet version of a traditional sourdough bread starter. And it does indeed attract quite strong views. Not for its taste -which is uncontroversially lovely, but for the sharing bit. I’m truncating the whole story here but basically you make a mother, or starter, tend to its every need for nine days, then you make the cake with a one-quarter portion, while simultaneously racking your brain to see who might take the other three shares. Then you do it all again, ad infinitum.
Some careworn-sounding interviewees said they would have run a mile had they known that the woman bearing down on them with a takeaway carton was in fact offering them yet one more living thing to feed and keep alive. A seething, slightly whiffy batter baby from which to beget cakes for years to come. But later, looking on the Internet, I saw that This Cake attracts much more admiration than opprobrium. Trawling around I saw a great looking gluten-free, egg-free, dairy-free (!) Herman Friendship Cake from the very funny Pig in the Kitchen, as well as enough variations to make me think that I would bravely take the requisite takeaway carton of goo should it be offered/thrust.
And weirdly, two weeks later, having forgotten about the whole programme, Miss R came home with a plastic pot filled to the brim with pongy, bubbly science project. I was delighted! Actually I was slightly disappointed not to get a takeaway carton – love ‘em. Anyway, a school chum had given Miss R a small sliver of Said Cake the previous day, with Miss R expressing delight at its texture and taste. I can now imagine her ecstatic mother cart-wheeling around the kitchen at the thought of a willing taker for her starter. No emotional blackmail! No money changing hands! No offering to dog walk as payment! I jest, of course. She probably just smiled to herself and thought, “sucker.”
My Herman starter came with two pages of strict instructions, the most startling of which was “You CANNOT put me in the fridge or I will die. If I stop bubbling, I am dead.” The caps and boldface type is Herman’s, not mine, btw. My hyper-active and freewheeling brain baulks at strict instructions but I do like a challenge. So I decided Herman could stay, if only for Miss R’s sake. She has no siblings you see.
And so, conveniently forgetting the Massacre of 2009, when I accidentally-on-purpose killed my sourdough bread starter, I have now been keeping The Starter on the go for over six weeks. From it I have made a number of different cakes for self, friends and workshops. They have all been incredibly delicious, and now that I have had It awhile I have become more bold in my experimentation. This recipe is probably my least outré version and none the worse for its simplicity. I am somewhat lucky I suppose in that I have not yet needed to give a portion away, but that time is fast approaching.
So, who wants some starter? I’m really good with dogs…
Have you had a Herman starter? What was your reaction to receiving it? If you have/had one, what did you make with it? Have you had trouble giving your starter away? What is your best, most fool-proof tactic for giving it away? So many questions… Please let me/us know your Herman Experiences. I love Herman!
It is somewhat debatable whether giving away starter for this cake is a mark of friendship or desperation. But there is no denying that the resulting cake, baked from a carefully nurtured ‘mother’ mix, is moist, light and incredibly tasty. It is also a cake not done much in the UK; we tend to go for sponge cakes and whisked cakes rather than a bung it all in a bowl type cake, as this is. There are many variations around – see Mumsnet for ideas. This is my seasonal spin, with complementary cardamom. And here is a link to the original (-ish) Herman the German Friendship cake recipethat’s had UK cake bakers in a tizzy ever since. You will need to look at it for the starter recipe and its keeping instructions. I know the above pre-recipe chat was a bit jokey but this is really a great starter and recipe, so do give it a go. I just hope you have lots of friends!
Here is my adapted version of the Herman the German Friendship Cake. It is supposed to have a melted butter and brown sugar topping, but we like it without this extra step. To be honest, the keeping quality is better without the topping. Starter and original cake recipe is on the above link. I bet this would be great with a ‘plain’ sourdough starter if you already have one of those bubbling away somewhere warm.
One portion of starter mix (see above link)
250g (9 oz) spelt flour (not the really rough stuff)
50g ((2 oz) barley flour (or 300g of spelt or plain flour if lower fibre required)
2 heaped tsp aluminium-free baking powder
200g (7 oz) unrefined sugar or coconut palm sugar
½ tsp salt
150ml (5 oz) rapeseed oil
1 tsp vanilla powder/paste or 2 tsp real vanilla extract
1 scant tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp ground cardamom
½ tsp ground ginger
1 apple, shredded or cut into small chunks (peel it if you need lower fibre)
250g (9 oz) trimmed rhubarb, cut into small pieces (about 1 cm)
150g (5 ½ oz) raisins or equivalent weight rhubarb (leave out raisins for lower fibre diets)
2 tbsp brown sugar, optional topping
Mix the dry and wet (including the starter) ingredients separately. With a large wooden spoon or sturdy spatula fold the dry mix into the wet, add the apple, rhubarb and raisins (if using), then pour it all into a steep-sided, buttered and lined square cake tin. Gently even the top with a wet spoon and sprinkle over brown sugar, if using. Bake at 180C/350F for 45 minutes, then cover loosely with foil and continue baking at 170C for a further 20 minutes or so. Some of you might have a done cake at 45 minutes but I never have, and neither do any of the others I have read about. Your Herman Cake is done when a poked in skewer comes out clean. Let the cake cool in the tin then cut into 16 pieces. Herman freezes well and is nice on his own or warmed and served with all the other usual cakey companions. Coffee is a must.