A couple of weeks ago one of my neighbours popped around with a proposition:
Handing me a small tub and brief list of instructions, as she tootled off I made a mental note to better explain next time what it is that I do for a living, and then got to wondering what this whole "friendship cake" thing was all about.
It turns out that a friendship cake is essentially the baking equivalent of a chain letter. When handed your "Herman" you're charged to stir 'him' daily, occasionally give 'him' something to eat and then, on the day before baking, divide 'him' up and pass all bar one portion (which you'll use to make your cake) on to family or friends (or neighbours) so that they can then do the same. In some respects a cute idea, but admittedly I was skeptical.
The first thing that tipped me off was that the cake batter contained a lot of baking powder - a surprising addition if you're supposedly using a sourdough starter for lift. And then there was the "starter" itself. Fed once every four days with equal parts flour, sugar and milk it sounded to me more like cultured dairy than a levain, and I was also curious as to how any starter could survive such a high dose of sugars without suffering some kind of osmotic shock. But then came the real clincher. On further investigation I discovered that you can make your own "sourdough starter" (aka Herman) with a mixture of flour, water, active dry yeast, milk and sugar... Now, tell any sourdough baker you're using a starter that involves commercial yeast and just watch as they immediately start to tick. Two words: not sourdough.*
But inappropriate uses of terminology aside the recipe still had me curious and, if anything, I was at least keen to see what happens when you ferment milk and sugar at room temperature for ten days and then try and eat it (once a scientist...).
So I went ahead and made it anyway. Admittedly the "starter" was pretty fun to watch, as it got reasonably active during days five to nine of the pre-bake process. And if you think of it as contributing a soured flavour rather than being there to provide lift then the cake itself is actually quite nice. The ferment definitely added a greater complexity of flavour, and gave the crumb a slight chewiness that contrasted nicely with the sweet burst of raisins and apple chunks. Dense and rich, this is one of those cakes perfectly suited to the depths of mid-winter, and would most definitely benefit from a good dollop of double cream or crème fraîche. I can't say I'll be adding 'him' to my all-time-favourite recipe list, but Herman's certainly worth checking out if you're looking for something a little different when baking your next apple tea cake.
No recipe this week as I just followed the instructions I was given (and don't especially approve of the whole chain letter/recipe phenomenon). That said, there are plenty of easily-searchable recipes out there if you're keen to give it a go yourself.
** This is not to say there's anything wrong about baking with commercial yeast, just please don't ever refer to it as sourdough.