This is not solely a Christmas dish—in fact, Easter in Winston-Salem, NC is unimaginable without it—and most people tend to buy their sugar cake ready-made from Dewey’s, an old bakery in Winston-Salem, or the Winkler Bakery on Main Street in Old Salem, a charmingly low-key restored settlement. Old Salem is well worth a visit, especially at the holidays to partake in the quaint custom of a “lovefeast,” an evening carol service where participants hold aloft a beeswax candle wrapped in a red paper frill and finish with a feast of buns and coffee. Lovefeast or no, hardly anyone leaves Old Salem without a slab of this cake in hand, and we love to eat it Christmas morning, no matter what else we’re having!
- Yield: 9 by-13-inch cake
- ½ cup milk
- ¼ cup (½ stick) butter, softened
- 1 package active dry yeast (2¼ teaspoons)
- 5 tablespoons sugar
- 2 eggs
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 1 medium russet potato, cooked and mashed, or ½ cup leftover mashed potatoes
- 4 cups all-purpose flour
- 6 tablespoons (¾ stick) butter
- 1 cup light brown sugar
- ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
- ¼ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
- Warm the milk and butter in a small saucepan over medium heat until the butter melts. Remove the pan from the heat and cool the milk mixture to 115°F. (If the mixture is any hotter, it may kill your yeast.) Stir in 1 tablespoon of the sugar and the yeast and let it sit for 5 minutes until frothy.
- Pour the milk into a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook, add the remaining sugar, eggs, salt, and potato, and mix. Add the flour, a little at a time, up to 3 ½ cups. Don’t add any more unless the dough is very wet, and then only add it a few tablespoons at a time. The dough should be soft.
- Lightly butter a 9-by-13-inch glass baking dish and turn the dough into it, pressing gently to spread it. Cover it with plastic wrap and let it rise in a warm, draft-free place until doubled, about 1 hour.
- When you’re ready to bake, preheat the oven to 375°F and put all the topping ingredients in a small saucepan over medium heat. Cook, stirring, just until the butter melts and then remove the pan from the heat. Poke the dough all over with a fingertip. (Legend holds that generous cooks use their thumb, those less so use the small end of a wooden spoon!) Be sure to make holes right up to the edge of the pan.
- Pour the topping mixture over the surface of the cake so that it drips down into all the holes. Bake for 15 to 18 minutes, until the cake is golden and the topping is bubbling. You can serve the cake warm or at room temperature, but it’s best eaten the day it’s made.