Herman the German Friendship Cake

Herman the German Friendship Cake is cropping up here and there – he’s obviously come into fashion again! I was explaining him to people at work today, and one of the ladies says she remembers her mum making him (though he wasn’t called Herman, then) about thirty years ago! I said, wouldn’t it be nice to think that my Herman was a descendent of your mum’s? She kind of looked at me a bit funny. I think people who don’t have sourdough starters don’t really know what to make of the whole business.

Anyway, if you’re not familiar with Herman, he’s a sourdough cake that’s said to have Amish origins. When he comes to your house (assuming you know someone who wants to give you a Herman baby, or like me you’re willing to come out and ask for one to be POSTED to you…), you keep him in a big bowl at room temperature for ten days, stirring often and feeding twice with flour, milk and sugar. When the ten days are up, you use part of him to make a lovely, moist cake, and pass on three parts to other people who would like to make their own Herman. They do the same thing, passing on three parts and baking the fourth, and the people who they pass on to do the same, and so on. Yes, it’s like a chain letter, but much nicer and there’s cake involved.

I had a bit of trouble finding people who were interested in taking a Herman baby (or a Hermanite, as Fee so wonderfully phrased it when she asked for one). I think it sounds like a lot of work, which it isn’t, and I know at least one person said it sounded like mass food poisoning. I tried to explain that this is how bread and cakes were risen, before we had commercial yeast or baking powder. I think I just came across as a bit of a smart arse… But it’s true! People also seemed afraid of killing Herman, which is in fact very difficult to do unless you completely ignore the instructions that come with him – yes, he comes with a list of very clear instructions. The main one is ‘do not put me in the fridge!’, though you can freeze portions of starter for later use, if you like.

I took a photo of Herman every day, while I had him. They all look more or less the same, but you can see a bit of rise and fall and rise again in how bubbly he looks – on the last couple of days he was really active, very keen to get baking if you ask me.

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As I mentioned, I saw that my friend Miss T had a Herman in her house, and cheekily asked her on Facebook if she would send one my way from her home in West Chiltington to mine in Glasgow. I’m glad to report that Herman made it safely all that way, having been sealed up in a tub and wrapped in a padded envelope. I would like to thank Miss T for passing him on to me, and I have done my bit in the Karmic chain by posting him a little further up the road, to Fee in Perthshire.

Apart from the part where you have a house guest for ten days (Louie was glad of the company), you get to make some lovely cake at the end of it. In fact, you can proceed directly to making the cake without growing and feeding your starter, if you prefer. My instructions for Herman came with lots of different variations, and I made two of them, with a little adjustment to each. What I didn’t do was get great pictures of the cakes, so we shall have to make do with what we have.

Firstly I made a spicy triple ginger loaf, as follows:

  • portion of Herman the German friendship cake
  • 150g self raising flour
  • 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • pinch of salt
  • 60g dark brown sugar
  • 1 1/2 tsp ground ginger
  • 60g chopped crystallised ginger
  • 1 tsp ginger extract
  • 150g agave syrup
  • 1 medium egg
  • 1 heaped tbsp sour cream
  • 150ml milk
  • 60g butter, softened

Simply put all of those ingredients in a big bowl and mix until combined. The batter will be very loose.

Pour into a greased and floured loaf tin and bake at 170C for 40 minutes, until a wooden skewer comes out clean. Allow to cool in tin for half an hour, then carefully remove and finish cooling on rack for several hours before slicing.

The second loaf I made was double chocolate and cranberry. I definitely don’t do things by halves. This recipe was of my own devising and was very much put together on the spot. Luckily I took notes:

  • one portion Herman the German friendship cake starter
  • 150g self raising flour
  • 60g unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 100g golden caster sugar
  • pinch of salt
  • 100g white chocolate chips
  • 60g craisins (dried cranberries)
  • 60g butter
  • 150ml milk
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract

Again, combine all the ingredients in a big bowl until mixed with no streaks of white. This is a more standard cake mix, the kind that drops off your spoon in big splodges when you lift it out of the bowl.

Scrape into a greased and floured loaf tin, and bake at 170C, uncovered for 35 minutes and then covered for a further 20, or until a wooden skewer comes out clean from the middle. For this cake, it’s best to cool it completely in the tin for several hours or overnight, before turning out and slicing. Don’t try to slice it while it’s still warm. I’m serious about this.


Both of these cakes were highly praised and thoroughly enjoyed – people came round to the idea of Herman more when there was moist, full of flavour cake in evidence. I was initially worried that the ginger cake would be too gingery but it wasn’t at all – in fact, it could have stood a little big more heat without being over the top. Perhaps a splash of ginger beer or wine in place of some of the milk? Quadruple ginger cake, now we’re talking. The double chocolate and cranberry cake was chocolatey without being dense or too rich, and very soft – this is why you need to wait until it cools before you slice it. I was too eager and ended up with a bit of a mess on my hands. I soon cleaned it up by eating almost every last crumb that fell by the wayside – it was a good chocolate cake.

Thus end my adventures with Herman! If you’re offered a starter yourself, don’t be afraid of taking it and looking after him for a while. You’ll be rewarded with cake and with the knowledge that you’re part of a chain that, in spirit if not in actual factual reality, unites bakers around the country and, indeed, the world. It’s a nice thought. Plus, being able to bake sourdough cake and bread will be a bankable skill come the zombie apocalypse.


About Rock Salt

Seasoning while rocking out since 1983. View all posts by Rock Salt

32 responses to “Herman the German Friendship Cake

  • feehatesrain

    Glad to report my hermanite made it to Perthshire safe and sound.. he is gurgling away happily in the kitchen, looking forward to his first feed tonight!
    Great post as ever πŸ™‚

    • Rock Salt

      I’m so glad he made it, even though he came to me in the post I was worried that he would explode and cause a scene in your office. What did your colleagues think? Mine were a bit dubious…

      • feehatesrain

        also dubious.. our local postie called here at 8.30am to check if I really did need it by 9am special delivery to which the bosses replied no.. he arrived at 10am in one piece.. and everyone was very intrigued! My boss then claimed a hermanite.. so has Caroline and my sis, looking forward to trying the results!

        • Rock Salt

          Goodness – I asked for 11am special delivery, I’m amazed that he was ready so early! I’m glad you have your three takers already. Look forward to seeing what kind of cake you make with him πŸ™‚

  • Miss J

    Both these cakes look awesome and I am looking forward to receiving my Hermanite. I may combine the ginger and chocolate ideas… mmmm…

    • Rock Salt

      I was thinking that at the time, a chocolate and ginger cake would be great. There’s a post on how to make your own crystallised gniger coming up this week, too…

  • ChgoJohn

    This is a great cake. Funny how it re-surfaces every few years, though this is the first I’ve heard it called “Herman.” I’ve baked the cake but never kept the starter going. I’ve got a couple sourdough starters and that’s enough bowls for me to feed. πŸ™‚

  • wendy@chezchloe

    Did you know there is a statue of Herman the German in Detmold Germany? My husband, a professor at the music hochschule is how I came to visit him πŸ™‚
    And I would love a baby Herman. Can they last as long as 6 weeks without being fed?

    • Rock Salt

      I did not know that! That is cool. Herman would definitely not last six weeks at room temperature, I don’t think, but he can be frozen. I think if I tried to post you a Hermanite it really would explode in a sorting office somewhere along the line and we’d both be arrested for yeast terrorism.

  • The Cosy Creative

    Just out of interest, did your Herman cake smell bad, like really strongly of yeast? I know yeast always smell strong but the Herman cake I was given smelt so uninviting I decided to, erm, dispose of him (sorry Herman). Maybe the mixture had just been passed on too much and had got old? Your baked version looks good though I must say πŸ™‚

    • Rock Salt

      No, not at all! He was a little yeasty but mostly just smelled sweet. He won’t have got old – if you think about it, he gets refreshed and mostly replaced each time he’s passed on – but he might have eaten something that didn’t agree with him… My sourdough bread starter doesn’t like buckwheat flour, he smells really acetoney if I add it.

  • The Modern Home Economist

    Wow. This looks so delicious. I think the Cranberry and Chocolate is fantastic!

  • For Bella and Will

    I see Herman has invaded your house too πŸ˜‰ Both your recipes look super and I will most likely have to give them a go next week.
    I have had Herman (and his Hermanites) in our house for 32 days now, I know you are supposed to pass him on but I am so interested in experimenting with my bowl of fermenting magic that I have always kept one part for myself πŸ™‚

    • Rock Salt

      I’d recommend the ginger cake first, it was so soft and fluffy, but full of flavour. My ten days with Herman were plenty – my kitchen isn’t the biggest, so a great big bowl on my worksurface did cramp my style a little πŸ˜‰

  • susartandfood

    Cake – I try not to make it because I keep find myself revisiting.

  • Choc Chip Uru

    I love Herman coming back in german form – wouldn’t mind a slice of him for breakfast πŸ˜€

    Choc Chip Uru

  • Bam's Kitchen

    Thanks so much for sharing this recipe as it reminds me of my childhood as we used to have this all the time. Thanks for the inspiration. BAM

  • Just A Smidgen

    I’ve never heard of a Herman cake with starter.. I thought starter was only for bread? I’ll have to try one of these starters one day!! I’m falling behind!!

  • Elisabeth

    I remember my grandma making loads of these when I was little, she used to do more of an apple cake with a lovely crumbly streuselish topping… awesome to see people are still doing this.

    • Rock Salt

      I love the idea of this cake having been around for so long, and that it brings back happy memories for people. It’s a nice thought, that chain of cake and friendship going back all those years πŸ™‚

  • kel

    do you think you can use carrots in herman like a carrot cake?

    • Rock Salt

      Yes I do – I think you can make him into any kind of cake at all! If you can figure out how much flour, water and sugar is in your starter you can subtract those amounts from your favourite carrot cake recipe and go ahead as normal.

  • Georgie

    My neighbour gave me a portion of herman friendship cake. I followed instructions, cooked him and it was divine. I passed on 3 other portions to my local school and the kids are making herman cakes in class. However, someone has raised concerns over the safety and contamination by leaving him on the bench for 10 days when milk has been added and then feeding it to the children. Can you please help with any reassurance that it is safe. I have been unable to find anything online. many thanks.

    • Rock Salt

      Hi Georgie,

      First of all, let me say that I’m not qualified in any food safety, do not work with food in a professional capacity, and my opinion is just that – an opinion.

      However, my opinion – backed up by hundreds and hundreds of other bakers – is that Herman is safe to eat.

      The inclusion of milk is different from other bread starters that people might keep at room temperature, and we all know that milk spoils easily. At the same time we also know how terrible milk smells when it goes off! Your starter should never smell rotten or mouldy (though it may small strongly yeasty or like beer).

      The main things to ensure when it comes to food safety are that the environment is kept clean, the people working with the starter keep their hands clean, and the final bread is baked fully.

      Maybe there could be an additional element of learning in all this – can you get in touch with an expert, maybe a professional baker or a home sciences teacher, who would be willing to explain about how Herman works? This might help put the worried parent’s mind at ease, as well as teaching everyone something new.

      Do let me know if you do this, I’d love to find out!

      • Georgie and Brian Gibbon

        Thanks so much, Great idea. I rang two bakery’s andΒ  also a private baker and they all said that this was fine as it was milk that was added and not eggs. So could be left at room temperature and the yeast would feed off the milk. As long as it was well cooked and not consumed room, it posed no risk. Our children can now happily continue with Herman πŸ™‚ Thank you so much for the suggestion. Kind regards Georgie.

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