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.
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.