Kugelhopf cake

The Science of Yeast-Leavened Cakes (+ Recipe)

We’ve been making bread for thousands of years, using flour, water and in a lot of cases yeast. Yeast is what makes our breads light and fluffy, by producing carbon dioxide gas bubbles to make the dough rise. Without yeast, we would have been limited to flatbreads or tough lumps of bread.

Nowadays, there is another way to rise breads, using baking powder a and baking soda. But compared to yeast, we’ve only just started using those. They were invented in the first half of the 19th century only. Whereas most bread is still made using yeast, it’s a completely different story for cakes.

Just about all cake recipes you will find online or in cookbooks are risen by baking soda and/or baking powder. This makes them very easy to make since it’s a matter of mixing ingredients and putting it in the oven. The heat will activate the two powders, making your cake light and fluffy instead of dense and brick like.

Nevertheless, cakes aren’t a very recent invention. We’ve been making cakes for centuries as well, without baking powder or baking soda. So what did we use? We used eggs. These were whipped up (which would have taken a lot of time and man power) and thus brought air into the cake. But, it wasn’t just eggs, we also used yeast, of course, just as we did for bread. Making a yeast risen cake requires some more time and patience, since they yeast will have to do its work, but gives its own unique, tasty cakes!

What is a cake?

A seemingly superfluous question to ask, wouldn’t you think? But it’s not as simple as you might think. Once we got into researching yeast-leavened cakes we ended up being confused about this question. Because what is a cake? And then what is a bread? There’s not one wrong or right answer here, different countries, cultures, people, all use slightly different definitions. And we’re fine with any of those. But want to share a few and then conclude what we use here.

Definitions of a cake

The Oxford English dictionary says that a cake is “an item of soft sweet food made from a mixture of flour, fat, eggs, sugar, and other ingredients, baked and sometimes iced or decorated.” A nice broad definition, but quite specific to sweet foods. Unfortunately, there’s a second definition, which they mention is “an item of savoury food formed into a flat round shape, and typically baked or fried.” Here they refer to potato cakes for instance.

In other words, cake can be used for a bunch of things, but here we’ll use the first, the sweet definition. A sweet baked good with flour, fat, eggs and sugar. But does that mean it can be risen with both baking powder/soda as well as yeast? Here is where disagreements online start popping up. Some say a cake can’t be made with yeast, others say it can. We think it can.

When does a cake become a bread?

This is where things start becoming very tricky. As you will see furtheron, yeast-leavened cakes tend to be less crumbly and have a firmer structure than a basic pound cake which is light and crumbly. When have you changed the structure such that it has turned into a bread? We don’t know.

Some say a brioche is a bread, others would say this is a cake. Some say a babka is a bread, others say it is a cake. To us, those are breads, but we wouldn’t be able to say exactly why they are.

To complicated matters further, there are bakes that are called a bread, but to us are more like a cake! What about banana bread?

It’s easy to get lost in all of this, even if it’s just for the fun of it. Because this is what food is all about isn’t it. It’s so diverse, that it’s hard to put everything in one little box with a name on it.

What do we think is a cake?

A cake to us has to be sweet and has to contain some sort of flour (doesn’t have to be wheat). You can eat a cake without anything else, it doesn’t need a topping, but it can be decorated with an icing for instance. A cake is sweeter than a bread, and richer, if you’d prefer to say less healthy, that’s ok. A cake is more of a snack, whereas a bread is more part of a meal. You’d eat one slice of cake, but you can easily eat several slices of bread. Also, a cake is made from a batter, whereas a bread is made from a dough and requires extensive kneading.

Oh, and croissants aren’t cakes, they’re pastry, probably because they use layering to incorporate air. And what about doughnuts? Also a cake?

Of course, the definition isn’t perfect, but it’s good enough. It’s time to get bake to that yeast leavened cake!

A slice of Kugelhopf a yeast leavened cake
A slice of homemade Kugelhopf (recipe at the bottom of this post), see the larger air pockets? There are characteristic for yeast risen cakes.

Types of yeast-leavened cakes

Typing in ‘yeast-leavened cake’ in Google won’t actually give you a lot of yeast-leavened cake recipes. This is probably due to the fact that these cakes aren’t generally referred to as yeast-leavened specifically. Instead, they tend to be long-standing traditional recipes (e.g. Kugelhopf) from specific countries with their own names. They just happen to use yeast.

Gugelhopf / Guglhopf / Kugelhopf

This originally yeast leavened cake has a lot of origin stories as you can see it has names. It could have come from Austria, others say from France. Some stories mention royal families who like the cake and moved it to other neighbouring countries. The different names and origins all point to a similar, but not identical, cake, shaped in circle with a hole in a middle (like a Bundt pan, but with a slightly different design).

What is clear, is that the original version is made using yeast. Nowadays you’ll be able to find plenty of “Kugelhopf” recipes though which use baking powder or soda. It is different from the yeast leavened one though, simply because yeast can really work well in a recipe made for baking powder and baking soda. Worth a try though, since it truly isn’t that complicated.


Is it a cake or a bread? In any case, it’s risen using yeast and it’s sweet. It has its origins in Italy and is filled with fruits. It has quite a distinctive dome shape.

Bara brith

This is a typical Welsh cake (or is it a bread?) risen with yeast. It also contains fruits, which seems to be a commonality in these yeast risen cakes.


Last but not least, the savarin which has its origins in France. A savarin is somewhat similar to a brioche, but makes a lot drier bake which is why it needs to be soaked in syrup. Of course, the origin, as for the Kugelhopf, involves various possibilities, most of them referring to a king at one point or the other.

During our search we mostly found yeast-leavened cakes from continental Europe (especially Germany, Italy). However, if you know of recipes from other regions let us know!

What’s special about a yeast-leavened cake?

Yeast proves a batter or dough by converting sugars into gas, carbon dioxide (fermentation). This gas creates the little air bubbles in your bread or cake. You need patience when working with yeast, most doughs you make at home take at least an hour to rise, if not longer. Cakes tend to contain quite a lot of butter and eggs. This slows down the growth of the yeast even more.

If you make a cake, you want a light, slightly crumbly texture. This is relatively easy for a cake made with baking powder or baking soda. However, when you use yeast, it will be slightly less crumbly. This is because the batter needs a bit more structure to hold on to that air.

Holding on to the air

Since rising takes some time, the dough will have to be able to hold on to that air in the meantime. When you use baking powder the aeration occurs at the same time that the proteins denature and the starches cook, which helps the cake hold on to the air. If the baking power would work before going into the oven, part of the air would already escape.

It so happens that gluten is very good at holding onto those air bubbles. But a gluten network also makes the cake less crumbly and more breadlike. So you want to sit somewhere in between a cake and bread when it comes to gluten and gluten development.

That’s why you shouldn’t use cake flour for these cakes, they contain less gluten than regular flour. Most recipes call for regular flour, or a mixture of regular with bread flour which has a bit more of those gluten.

Mixing and kneading induces gluten development. With a regular cake you want to do as little mixing as possible to keep it light and airy. However, that won’t work for these cakes since they need that bit of extra support. Most of these recipes therefore call for moderate mixing. Since the batters are quite wet, kneading isn’t always possible, so instead, you’ll mix it through a bit more than a regular cake.

Flavours & moistness

Yeast doesn’t just bring air into a dough or batter. While it’s fermenting away, it also produces all sorts of flavour molecules. These aren’t necessarily very apparent, but do improve the overall flavour profile of the cake.

You might also remember that sourdough breads tend to dry out less quickly than conventional yeast risen breads. The same goes for yeast-leavened cakes versus conventional ones. They tend to hold on to moisture a little better and can be kept quite ok, although the difference isn’t as clear as for breads.

Baking a yeast-leavened cake (Kugelhopf)

The recipe we used is largely based on the one from Backen macht glucklich, a German website.

A slice of Kugelhopf a yeast leavened cake

Kugelhopf - yeast-leavened

Yield: 1 large cake
Prep Time: 20 minutes
Cook Time: 55 minutes
Total Time: 1 hour 15 minutes


  • 22-24 cm Bundt/Kugelhopf pan (or other design, as long as it has a hole in the middle for even baking)
  • Butter for coating the pan


  • 100g raisins
  • 1 tbsp juice (you can use any fruity juice, we used raspberry syrup for making lemonade)
  • Enough water to soak the raisins
  • 1 tbsp flour


  • 150g butter
  • 140g sugar
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 tsp instant yeast
  • 500g flour (don't use cake flour, all purpose works fine)
  • 280ml milk


  • Almonds (whole or slivered)


  1. At least one hour in advance, preferably earlier, soak the raisins in the juice and water. Not soaking your raisins will increase the chance of them burning if they stick out.
  2. When you start on your dough, pour the liquid from the raisins and leave to dry on a paper towl.
  3. Coat the pan with butter to prevent sticking. Sprinkle in some almond slivers or lay down a few whole almonds for decoration.
  4. Mix the butter and sugar, add the eggs. Add the flour and yeast and mix through.
  5. Add the milk. The dough doesn't have to be kneaded like a bread, mix it through until everything is incorporated homogeneously. It should look like a thick cake batter, more fluid than a bread dough.
  6. Dust the raisins with a little bit of flour, until they're just coated. This should prevent sinking.
  7. Mix the raisins through the batter. Only add the raisins after the rest has been mixed to prevent breaking down the raisins too much.
  8. Cover the pan with another pan or foil to prevent the top from drying out and leave to rest for at least 1 hour. If it hasn't risen, leave for another hour. It shouldn't double in size (like bread dough does) but it should rise a few centimeters up.
  9. Bake in a pre-heated oven at 180C for 45-55 minutes.


Development of baking powder, ACS, link

Cake, Oxford dictionaries, link

Cake, The Oxford companion to food, p.129, link; goes back to Roman times to understand how bread & cake have developed over the centuries

Bakery product, Elementary food science, p.299, link; mentions that cakes aren’t made with yeast, but chemically leavened

Yeasted cakes, Classical German baking, p.95, link; on the origin stories of Gugelhopf, this book contains a lot more recipes for yeasted cakes!

The Oxford companion to sugar and sweet, p. 92, 225-226, 286, 311-313, 387, 589, link; a great book if you want to learn more about the history of cakes and other sweet goods, it has extensive sections on different countries all around the world

Savarins, Road to pastry, link; nice summarizing article on savarins and related products (baba au rum)

Yeast-raisen pound cake, Food52, link

Newsletter Updates

Enter your email address below to subscribe to our weekly newsletter


  1. I just started watching The Great British Bake Off and they are doing Continental cakes and as an avid baker, myself, I can honestly say I had no idea that there were cakes made with yeast. I feel so silly. So obviously, I had to Google this and yours is the first sight that popped up because you just posted this blog post and it’s a wonderful post and I’m going to try and give your recipe a go. One thing I always have in my pantry is loads of yeast because homemade bread is my all-time favorite thing to eat and smell in my home.
    I really enjoyed reading all of your information. I feel like I got a very good overall view of what it is I was trying to find. So thank you.

  2. I heard of a yeast cake from Israel, not sure if it is true google search does not prove it to be true but here is the recipe.

    Chocolate, hazelnut & cinnamon krantz loaf

    Fills a 1kg loaf tin

    ● 1 batch yeast dough (see below)
    ● A little egg wash (1 egg beaten with a pinch of table salt), if you like
    ● 200g/ml basic sugar syrup

    For the filling:
    ● 100g unsalted butter
    ● 190g caster sugar
    ● 80g 70% dark chocolate
    ● 40g dark cocoa powder
    ● 1 tsp ground cinnamon
    ● 60g roasted hazelnuts, roughly chopped

    ● Melt the butter in a small saucepan over a medium-low heat. Remove from the heat, tip the sugar in and stir to dissolve.

    ● Add the chocolate, cocoa and cinnamon and mix to combine. Set aside to cool a little at room temperature (don’t place it in the fridge, as it will set solid).

    ● Place the chilled dough on a lightly floured surface and roll into a rectangle of about 50cm x 30cm.

    ● Spread the filling over the dough, reaching right to the corners, then sprinkle with the hazelnuts. Roll up tightly from one of the longer sides, so that you end up with a 50cm-long log. If the dough has softened too much for you to handle it, place on a tray and chill in the fridge for 10 minutes to firm up. While you are waiting, butter the loaf tin and line the base and long sides with baking parchment, making sure that there is an overhang so that you will be able to lift the baked loaf out easily.

    ● Use a pastry cutter or sharp knife to cut the log in half along its length to expose the layers. Place the halves with the cutsides facing upwards. Lift one halved log over the other so that they form a cross at their midpoints, with the filling layers still pointing upwards. Continue to twist the strands over each other until the dough looks like a lovely twisted plait.

    ● Place in the lined baking tin and leave to prove in a warm place until the dough is fluffy, soft and doubled in size. This will take about 1½ hours in a warm kitchen, or up to 2 hours if it is chilly.

    ● Preheat the oven to 220°C/200°C fan. If you are using the egg wash, brush all over the surface.

    ● Bake in the oven for 10 minutes, then turn the tin around for an even bake and leave for another 10 minutes. Reduce the heat to 190°C/170°C fan and bake for a further 10 minutes.

    ● Remove from the oven and immediately pour the sugar syrup all over the hot cake.

    ● You must let this cool in the tin or it will fall apart. I know this is hard, but practise some restraint. It will be worth the wait.

    Yeast dough

    This base dough is very butter-rich and needs to be cold when you work it, so don’t take it out of the fridge until you are ready to fill and shape it.

    Makes enough dough for one cake (about 620g)

    ● 20g fresh yeast (or 2 tsp dried yeast)
    ● 330g strong white bread flour
    ● 40g caster sugar
    ● a pinch of table salt
    ● 1 whole egg
    ● 85g/ml milk
    ● 90g unsalted butter, at room temperature

    ● Crumble the yeast into the flour, sugar and salt in a mixer bowl with a hook attachment and mix together. (If you are using dried yeast, dissolve it in the milk before adding to the flour.)
    ● Add the egg, milk and butter and combine to form a dough that comes together in a ball. This will take about 5–6 minutes on a medium speed.
    ● Cover the bowl and chill in the fridge for at least 6 hours or overnight.

    • Thank you for the beautiful write-up. This recipe looks too good to resist…would love to bake this right away. I would be glad if you can share any replacement for egg as my family doesn’t take eggs at all.
      Waiting eagerly.

      • Hi Lakshya,

        Thank you for coming by! I have never tested this cake without the eggs, but if I were to try it I would try either of the following.
        Eggs in this recipe provides richness (thanks to the fat), emulsifications (thanks to the lecithin) and moisture. You could try replacing all of the eggs with the same amount of apple sauce (assume 3 eggs are about 150g). This provides both moisture and some smoothness. If that turns out too dry, I would suggest replacing about 30g of the egg with some fat (e.g. butter, coconut oil, or regular oil). Since apple sauce does contain a lot of sugars, you will have to reduce your yeast content, start testing out half the current amount.
        Alternatively, you could add some corn starch (I’d suggest starting out with 3 tsp) and adding 120ml of water (or milk).

        We tried out some of these methods in a non-yeast cake, which you can find here, that might help!

        Good Luck!

  3. Hi,
    Can I use the bread machine to make the dough? Then punch out lightly to knock out the air n shape the dough into a ball, cover n let it rise a few cm up then bake?
    Thank you 🙂

    • Hi Lilyn,

      I’m not too familiar with bread machines, this dough is a little more sticky than a regular bread dough, so that’s something to keep in mind. Also, generally, bread machines have less stronger ‘kneaders’ so you might need some more time there. Otherwise, a bread machine is just a nicely warm space to hold your dough so should work! Do keep an eye on the time for proofing, I’d expect your bread machine to take less time than if you’d do it at room temperature.

  4. What comes to mind is traditional Chinese cakes- in particular, Bai Tang Gao (white sugar cake) and Huat Kueh/Fa Gao (steamed rice cake). Bai Tang Gao is traditionally fermented with a kind of rice wine ferment but yeast works too, and some renditions of Huat Kueh use a starter with leftover rice. Nowadays most huat kueh is made with baking soda/powder or fruit salt though.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Skip to Recipe