moravian sugar cake

Moravian Sugar Cake

The Lehigh Valley of Eastern Pennsylvania is full of Moravian history. Bethlehem, Pennsylvania was founded in 1741 by a group of Moravians, members of a church that traces its heritage to pre-Reformation fifteenth-century central Europe. These Moravians settled in the Lehigh Valley from what is now the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

On April 2, 1741, William Allen deeded 500 acres at the junction of the Monocacy Creek and Lehigh River to the Moravian Church. An ample lumber supply, fertile soil, and a plentiful water supply made settlement in the area ideal and it experienced rapid growth.

By 1761 the settlements inhabitants erected over 50 buildings, maintained nearly 50 industries, and cleared over 2000 acres of land in the Bethlehem/Nazareth region.

For over one hundred years Bethlehem was exclusively Moravian, but far from an isolated community it was an active center for trade and industry. Although the Moravian Church continued to hold the vast majority of the land in Bethlehem, the land could be leased from the Church and used for homes or private businesses. This organization remained in place until 1844 when the community was opened to non-Moravians.

This yummy and addicting treat is turned out by bakeries across the Lehigh Valley at a fevered pitch during the Christmas season. Not exclusive to Pennsylvania, the cake is found in South Carolina, another area of the US with Moravian Church settlements.

This “cake” is made with a sweet yeast dough enriched with mashed potatoes. The dough is left to rise in a flat pan, and just before baking, deep wells are formed in the surface of the dough with the finger tips. A mixture of butter, brown sugar, and cinnamon is sprinkled generously on the top.

During baking, this mixture forms a rich, sugary crust that permeates deep into the interior of the cake. Moravian Sugar Cake is best served warm from the oven, but it keeps at room temperature for several days, and also freezes well.

Fresh Yeast v. Dry Yeast

This recipe calls for a cake of yeast (fresh yeast) which is not always easy to find in stores today as it was in the past. Use the fresh yeast if you can find it.  If not, use one envelope (packet) Active Dry Yeast or 2-1/4 teaspoons Active Dry Yeast from a jar.

Moravian Sugar Cake

Recipe by A Coalcracker in the KitchenCourse: DessertsCuisine: Pa. Dutch, Coal RegionDifficulty: Intermediate

Moravian Sugar Cake is made with a sweet yeast dough enriched with mashed potatoes. The dough is left to rise in a flat pan, and just before baking, deep wells are formed in the surface of the dough with the finger tips, and a mixture of butter, brown sugar, and cinnamon is loaded on top.


  • 2 or 3 potatoes

  • 1 yeast cake (.6 ounce US) OR 1 packet active dry yeast OR 2-1/4 teaspoons active dry yeast from a jar

  • 2/3 cup warm water

  • 1 cup milk, scalded

  • 1/2 cup sugar

  • 1-1/2 teaspoons salt

  • 1/2 cup butter

  • 2 eggs, slightly beaten

  • 7 cups sifted All purpose flour

  • 2 cups light brown sugar

  • additional 1/2 pound butter (or more if needed)

  • Cinnamon


  • Peel and cook until tender enough potatoes to make 1 cup mashed potatoes
  • Soak yeast in 2/3 cup warm water.
  • To scalded milk, add sugar, salt and 1/2 cup butter, stirring until sugar is dissolved. Cool until lukewarm
  • Add the mashed potatoes, yeast and eggs and beat until smooth
  • Add flour and knead 10 minutes using more flour as dough becomes sticky
  • Place in a greased bowl (spray bowl and dough lightly with cooking spray).  Place in a warm (80F) and let rise about 1-1/4 hours or until doubled in bulk
  • Roll into 3 cakes 11 inches by 15 inches and put each on a lightly greased cookie sheet
  • Brush tops with melted butter or shortening. Cover and let rise to 3/4 inch thickness
  • Sprinkle tops with light brown sugar
  • Punch dough with thumb to make deep (but not through) indentations in dough one inch apart across entire top. Place a 1/4 inch square cube of butter in each hole (use more butter if you have more dents than cubes)
  • Lightly drizzle some melted butter over top. Sprinkle with cinnamon
  • Bake at 350F for 20 to 25 minutes


  • Recipe from Edna Eby Heller’s Dutch Cookbook, 1960