Chasing the Friendship Cake dream

My daughter was mightily amused by a perfect moment at her select school for young ladies and gentlemen.

She sat with the other 11 year olds in her science lesson: a session on electromagnetism. Her teacher, Mrs Langton, found there were no magnets, and dispatched a class member to fetch them from her alternative empire: the food technology lab.

For Mrs Langton has an alter ego, and that alter ego instructs young ladies and gentlemen in matters of cookery.

The trusted pupil arrived back minutes later with the magnets and a look of undisguised concern.

“Mrs Langton,” she ventured, “there’s a pot bubbling over all by itself in the food tech lab…”

Mrs Langton’s hair stood on end. Here eyes bulged. “My friendship cake!” she exclaimed, and without further ado she shot out of the room and disappeared into the school of spiral stairs and convoluted little Victorian corridors, leaving the class gawping in her wake.

Friendship cakes: useful for teaching young people fellowship in a concrete way (unless you burn them).

I must enquire of my daughter whether the key ingredient of a friendship cake – the dough which contains living yeast – survived the disruption to its schedule.

For Β yeast can be awfully important.

Phil visited Estonia in 2008 as a guest of the Estonian Tourist Board. As part of the tour the Estonians took him to a traditional bakery.

Every time the bakers made a cake they took part of the live yeast culture to make the next set of dough. No one who worked there is quite sure how far back the first dough was made, but they estimate the first yeast was cultivated centuries ago.

Yeast is an extraordinary one-celled micro-creature: it does not require sunlight to grow. Rather, sugars are often its favoured repast. It pays for its keep by converting sugars to alcohols and- importantly – carbon dioxide. It is choosy about its surrounding temperature: bread yeast generally likes 26-29 degrees celsius, or 80-85 degrees farenheit.

And it is possible to cultivate yeast as one would a farm animal, providing one feeds it and keeps it in the right conditions. There is no milking or shearing. It does, however, take a particular lifestyle. The whole business shouts meticulous, slow, well-paced care.

And what Mrs Langton and I share is a hectic, harum-scarum pace of life which would, I fear, be extremely hazardous to all those little well-husbanded microorganisms.

What those little guys need for their wellbeing is a mother who does not work. A life with some space. Because as you read the recipe, and the process, it becomes clear that this is not some superwoman-hurdle to clear.

No: this is an altruistic ritual. It has a message. It teaches a lesson. One does not need to preach for hours on end to drive home these ethics: the baking process says it all using the words of a recipe, and a yeast ranch.

You will have heard the recipe before. The yeast needs a cup of flour, a cup of milk and half a cup of sugar to keep it company in a mixing bowl for two days.

You leave it alone awhile so the yeast-cells can get their bearings and get in the mood for lurve. Well: mitosis, an asexual equivalent.

On day three one would take them and feed them, much like one throws fish to penguins but without all the bird noises.A cup of flour, a cup of milk, half a cup of sugar.

Mix them up and cover so none of the little blighters escape.

For the next two days it’s just peek n’ stir. Day six is Drive The Cells To Market day: one-third stays with you, two-thirds board a truck (or car, or possibly you might just walk) Β to other friends to start a life in pastures new.

And on day seven, you make the cake.

I once received a cup of that starter mixture. I am notoriously disorganised, and the little yeast cells perished under my supervision. I don’t feel good about that.

And so, pardners, I have come to a decision.

When you are too busy to make friendship cake and pass it on to pester all your friends in this flighty 21st century of ours, you are too busy. I shall be donning my yeast ranger’s Stetson and moseying down to the kitchen to make little yeasty cells feel comfortable about getting it on. I shall be at the sharp end of yeast husbandry.

Because I have a sneaking feeling that the pace of the friendship cake is like an ancient metronome. An indicator of a correct pace of life.

A standard to which one might fall in step; and be happy.

I wonder if I’m chasing a dream?

Image source, and a friendship cake recipe at –Β  here


62 thoughts on “Chasing the Friendship Cake dream

  1. I’ve never made my own starter… I’m not good with house plants so I’ve always assumed I’d kill the little blighters too but perhaps I’m wrong… they are, after all a food ingredient and I far prefer those to decorative elements such as house plants…;)

    I like your phrase ‘ancient metronome’ – there is indeed a reassuring sense of being part of long centuries of tradition in using yeast and the bread and cake making which necessarily follow on. Something entirely fundamental.

    1. I remember your visit to that old winery (is that the word?) -those photographs in the cellar reflect the same values: some very old wines, some new: a reluctance to rush completion, and an emphasis on sensuality. Fabulous.

  2. This reminds me of the ginger beer plant – so called – given to my mother. When I was a child every kitchen had a water filled jam jar sitting on the windowsill which would erupt when fed with sugar. After feeding for a week, ginger beer was made, and you would then hand half of the yeast mixture to someone else. The ginger beer was delicious.

  3. I once tried making sourdough bread with my own yeast starter. It was a colossal disaster. As for plants. I’m not sure if I kill them or if they commit suicide. *sigh*

  4. So enters the Yeast Sheriff into the realm of the little critters. Turn them all into little iYeasties and they will multiply exponentially and take themselves to your neighbors and friends. Code a neat little “cake app” into their DNA and they will bake themselves.

    Centuries boiled down into nano seconds….YOU CAN Do IT!!!!!

    1. Ok, Lou, thanks – fired up now and ready to go! I’m off to lasso me some yeast!
      (Course, the boiler’s broken down and the house is a little chilly….maybe Phil can help with his stove….)

    1. A timely note of caution, there, MTM πŸ˜€ I shall make a mental note not to have a bad day at work, come home and bear the friendship cake off to my lair for devouring. They wouldn’t be able to roll me out of the doorway afterwards.

  5. Your friendship is stellar, without any pastry parameters πŸ™‚ Best of luck though, beer has yeast in it I think – perhaps an ice cold one for company while you’re busy will encourage the beasties to play along πŸ˜‰

  6. My friend Alice (mother of Cayleigh; follows your blog) gave me one of those blasted friendship cake recipes a couple of years ago. We made it once. Perhaps we did something wrong, because it was too sweet. We threw the whole thing, including the starter, in the garbage.

    I feed my sourdough starter every couple of weeks. I make pretzels with it and give them away. (I cannot eat much gluten.) The starter came from the Amish community in the state of Pennsylvania, and I am sure it is older than me. I love that it lives in my refrigerator, and for some reason, I don’t mind keeping it alive.

      1. You are amazing, Andra. It is as if you love the routine of the sour dough, even though eating it yourself is not often on the cards! It is clearly very much at home in your fridge πŸ˜€

  7. Aha! Friendship cake. It has made its rounds, more than once, in my lifetime and I eventually kill the yeasty beast, though I love the cake and actually wish I had one ready to bake right now on this cold and snowy day. Fun post, Kate.

  8. It’s been 20 years, but I kept some friendship cake starter alive for some time. As I recall, I liked the cake . . . and the concept.

    Good luck! Hope you RISE to the occasion, Kate. πŸ˜‰

  9. years ago i had one of those cake bugs, the bug lives in a jar and you only use part of it for each cake and now that i am indeed LIVING the simple life i sought all that time ago i wish i had another>.. because I can still taste that cake.. i loved it.. do you think that Ms Langton could be persuaded to send me a wee bit in the mail.. or maybe i shall hurl myself down her spiral stairs in search of it myself.. c

  10. It’s been decades since this fine brew bubbled all over my counter…even in the days that I didn’t work outside of my home I could still lose track of it, but the yeasty smell would permeate the house and I’d eventually get to it. When my children were young I was as busy as anyone could be, but life in general was not the hectic pace we all keep today. There was time for Friendship Cake. I lost track of the recipe and you’ve provided it. I don’t know how long I can keep it up, but I would love to resurrect this lovely tradition. If for no other reason than your post made me terribly nostalgic, Kate. Thank you. Debra

  11. Goodness, it’s years since I had time to make a friendship cake. I’d forgotten all about them. Maybe I need to slow down a bit and take on another one. This is a goodly reminder…

  12. Thanks for that very interesting snippet about the Estonian bakery tradition, Kate. Just told the hub (his Mum was Estonian) and it was one he didn’t know πŸ™‚

  13. i don’t know,it looks like a lot of hussle.With some friends we have the potato of friendship ,you just made a mousaka ,which is basically a layer cake of vegetables with a creme morney with cheese,and when you reach the potato in the bottom ,the part that has absorbed all the flavour of all the vegetables (you know the last part of a plate,that everyone is leaving on the plate ,due to feeling guilty of eating the last bit of something) you offer it to your friend.Also it minimises transportation since you and your friend must be in the same table to share.

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