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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.
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!
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.
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.
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