Cherry and almond bake

Thought sourdough was just for bread? These irresistible cake recipes prove otherwise

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Thought sourdough was just for bread? These recipes from specialist sourdough baker Vanessa Kimbell will upend your expectations in the sweetest way.

Did you hop on the great sourdough bandwagon during lockdown? If you did, you probably fall into one of two camps: those who formed a loving relationship with their sourdough starter and baked many batches of homemade loaves, and those whose little jars of yeast obstinately defied any attempt to bake anything edible. Perhaps you resisted the call to get involved in breadmaking altogether.

We aren’t here today to sing the praises of sourdough, though. What we are here to do, though, is tell you that sourdough doesn’t only belong to the realm of bread. Unbeknownst to many, sourdough has a sweet side – and its unexpected flavour will shake up your baking repertoire for good.

If you’re thinking: sounds delicious, but probably a big culinary commitment, prepare to upend your expectations. While sourdough suffers from a reputation of being time-consuming and tricky to make, baking it can actually be a cinch, as Vanessa Kimbell proves in 10-Minute Sourdough: Breadmaking For Real Life. The chef, author and BBC broadcaster is a master of making sourdough – so much so that she founded The Sourdough School in Northamptonshire, where she teaches sourdough breadmaking and baking classes to students all around the world.

As the name of Kimbell’s cookbook suggests, sourdough can be workable for busy lives. So simple, in fact, that you can make a sourdough bake with just 10 minutes of active work – no hours of kneading or words of encouragement required. And while the cookbook has plenty of beautiful bread, Kimbell also takes the opportunity to show off its sweeter side with irresistible cakes that are packed with depth, personality and sourdough goodness. 

Fancy sampling a slice of sourdough cake? Below, we’ve three scrumptious bakes that will make a wonderful treat any time of day.

First up, Kimbell’s cherry and almond bake, which takes a throw-it-all-in-a-bowl approach to create a beautifully light sponge elevated with the slight tang of sourdough – the kind of thing you’d see in your favourite Scandi coffee shop, only better.

The orange curd cake, meanwhile, is an autumn-appropriate beauty made golden with strands of saffron, citrus and marmalade, and upgrades your regular sandwich cake into something your family and friends will rave about.

Lastly, the apple spelt sourdough cake with cinnamon butter is the edible equivalent of a hug, and can easily be adapted with other fruit and spices as the seasons change. Enjoy warm from the oven with a pot of tea and feel your spirits instantly lift.

  • Cherry and almond bake

    Cherry and almond bake
    Sourdough cakes: Vanessa Kimbell's cherry and almond bake

    Vanessa says: “Bring on the cherries for sweet cake and sweet dreams.

    Cherries are a great source of the phytochemicals anthocyanins, which give them their rich red colour. They are also a source of tryptophan, which helps to make serotonin. This in turn makes melatonin, the sleep hormone, which is released from the brain in the evenings to send us off to sleep.”

    Makes 1 30cm bake

    Ingredients

    • 100g organic stoneground wholegrain flour (11.5% protein)
    • 75g plain flour
    • 3 large free-range eggs, at room temperature
    • 175g sunflower oil, plus extra for greasing
    • 175g caster sugar
    • 2 tablespoons dried rose petals
    • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
    • 175g bubbly, lively second-build starter (page 12)
    • 100g fresh cherries, halved and stoned
    • 2 tablespoons (20–25g) flaked almonds

    For the second-build starter

    30g starter

    • 60g water at 16–18°C
    • 100g organic stoneground
    • wholegrain flour

    Method

    Mix

    Put all the ingredients except the cherries and almonds into a large mixing bowl and combine to form a loose batter – it might seem too wet, but don’t worry. After you remove the starter to use in the dough, refresh the remaining starter in your jar and put to one side.

    Prove

    Grease a 30cm, 3cm deep flan tin and line with baking parchment. Pour the batter into the tin, then leave somewhere warm (about 28–30°C) to prove overnight – perhaps in an airing cupboard or in the oven with just the light on. (The batter needs this warmth to prove because the oil, sugar and eggs have an osmotic effect on the yeast.)

    Bake

    The next morning, preheat your oven to 180°C/gas mark 4. Scatter the cherries and almonds over the top of the cake and bake for about 20–25 minutes until the sponge is tender, golden and light and a skewer inserted into the middle comes out clean.

    Cool for 5 minutes in the tin, then remove from the tin and transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.

    By now, your starter should be ready to put in the fridge until you next want to prepare it for baking.

    The bake will keep for a few days. I usually slice it, then wrap each slice in greaseproof paper and store in a tin.

    Tip

    It’s important to note that the flour, eggs, oil and caster sugar all need to be at room temperature before you mix this batter.

    Second-build starter

    Vanessa says: “Your starter needs to be at peak activity for successful baking. If you aren’t baking every day, you will need to build your starter before you bake. This is a two-stage process, known as a double refreshment, which will leave you with a second-build starter.”

    Day 1 8pm (first build)

    Place your 30g starter in a clean jar with the water and whisk together well – this will oxygenate the water. Add the flour and stir vigorously to combine the ingredients. Cover the jar with a lid, keeping it loose so that the gases produced during fermentation can escape. Leave the jar on the kitchen work surface at an ambient temperature of 20–22°C.

    Day 2 8am (second build)

    Take 30g of your starter and refresh it again following the instructions for the first build. Leave the jar for a further 12 hours before baking. This process builds up the microbes in your starter so that it is ready for baking.

    Discard

    Because I bake every day here at the School, I don’t need to discard often, because my starter doesn’t need rebuilding. The instructions in this book are for people who bake once or twice a week, so your starter will need rebuilding when you take it out of the fridge, especially if you have not used it for a long time. This is a ‘belt and braces’ approach.

    I know many people feel uncomfortable about discarding surplus starter each time they refresh, but it’s a process that is often misunderstood. In my experience, keeping slightly more starter in your jar (about 200g) cultivates a more active starter.

    However, the conundrum is that this means you will have surplus, and you will need to discard some starter in order to control the acidity – and therefore the activity – of the yeast.

    When you are storing starter, it is good to have a larger amount in the jar. The hooch (vinegary liquid) that forms on top will deter pathogens, and the starter will stay healthy.

    However, when you are ready to bake, you will need to shift your starter into leavening mode. This means it needs to be activated, and you need to lower the acidity in order to build up the yeasts so that the starter will be able to raise the bread. The easiest way to do this is to reduce the amount of starter that is refreshed by discarding some of it, so that the yeasts grow faster than the bacteria. Once you understand this, the refreshment process makes more sense.

    Discarding starter doesn’t necessarily mean throwing it away. Leftover starter can be used in other recipes. You can also put it to great use on the compost heap. Either way, there is no need to ‘waste’ your discarded starter.

  • Orange curd cake

    Orange curd cake
    Sourdough cakes: Vanessa Kimbell's orange curd cake

    Vanessa says: “Can a cake make you happy? Yes… obviously. Social interaction is vital for good mental health, and taking the time to bake, share and enjoy food together is sometimes the easiest expression of affection when words fail.”

    Makes 1 20cm sandwich cake

    Ingredients

    • 200g fine polenta
    • 300g organic wholegrain khorasan flour, plus extra for dusting
    • 170g soft brown sugar
    • 10g fine sea salt
    • pinch of saffron strands
    • 200g water at 27°C
    • 4 large free-range eggs, at room temperature
    • 175g light-flavoured olive oil
    • 150g bubbly, lively second-build starter (recipe above)
    • grated zest of 1 orange
    • butter, for greasing
    • 300g orange curd
    • icing sugar or 2 generous tablespoons warmed
    • marmalade, to top the cake

    Method

    Mix

    In a large bowl, mix together the polenta, flour, sugar, salt and saffron. Add 175g of the water, along with the eggs, oil, sourdough starter and orange zest.

    Stir to combine all the ingredients until there is no dry flour remaining. Set aside for 10–15 minutes. While the mixture is resting, refresh the remaining starter in your jar and set aside.

    Gradually add the remaining 25g water, a little at a time. You may not need the full 25g – the amount of water you need to add will depend on your flour, so mix it in gradually and check the consistency before adding more. You want a thick, batter-like consistency.

    Prove

    Thoroughly grease 2 x 20cm round cake tins and dust with a little flour. Divide the batter between the tins and leave to prove on the kitchen table overnight.

    Bake

    The next morning, preheat the oven to 180°C/gas mark 4. Bake your cakes for about 25 minutes until they are light golden brown and firm to touch when pressed lightly. Check your cakes as they reach the end of the baking time, because every oven is different. A skewer inserted into the middle should come out clean. If not, return the cakes to the oven for another couple of minutes and test again.

    Let the cakes cool in their tins for a few minutes, then remove from the tins and transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.

    By now, your starter should be ready to put in the fridge until you next need to prepare it for baking.

    When cool, sandwich your cakes together with orange curd, then dust the top with icing sugar or brush with the warmed marmalade. Wrap in greaseproof paper and store in a cake tin, and enjoy within 1–2 days.

  • Apple spelt sourdough bake with cinnamon butter

    Apple spelt sourdough bake with cinnamon butter
    Sourdough cakes: apple spelt sourdough bake with cinnamon butter

    Vanessa says: “A recipe that can easily be adapted to use other fruit and spices. For example, I use peaches paired with cardamom in early summer. 

    This recipe includes spelt flour for fibre, apples, which have been shown to help with maintaining a diverse gut microbiome, and cinnamon, which can help reduce levels of inflammation in the body.”

    Makes 2 bakes (2 x 20cm round tins)

    Ingredients

    • 390g water at 24°C
    • 100g bubbly, lively second-build starter (recipe above)
    • 500g organic stoneground wholegrain spelt flour
    • 10g fine sea salt
    • butter, ghee or coconut oil, for greasing
    • olive oil spray
    • 4 large red apples
    • 2 heaped tablespoons soft brown sugar
    • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
    • 30g salted butter, cut into 1cm dice

    Method

    Mix

    In a large bowl, whisk together 360g of the water and the sourdough starter. Add the flour and salt, and use a strong spatula to vigorously mix your dough for about 2 minutes. It will form a stiff ball of dough with no dry flour left. Leave to rest for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, refresh the remaining starter in your jar and set aside.

    Mix in the remaining 30g water using the bassinage technique described below. The liquid needs to be fully incorporated into the dough. Cover and leave the dough to rest for another 30 minutes.

    Prove

    Grease 2 x 20cm, 4cm deep cake tins and line with baking parchment. Divide the dough between the tins.

    Spray a little olive oil over the surface of each loaf.

    Cover and leave to prove on the kitchen table overnight.

    Bake

    The next morning, the dough will have risen to almost the top of the tins. Preheat your oven to 220°C/gas mark 7 for 30 minutes.

    Slice the apples in half and remove the cores, then cut each half into 4 or 5 slices. Gently arrange these slices over the top of the dough in each tin, forming concentric circles. Don’t push the slices into the dough because it is delicate at this stage and you want to keep all the air in it. Sprinkle the sugar and cinnamon over the apple slices and scatter the cubes of butter evenly across the top. Spray the loaves lightly with olive oil – just enough to protect the apple slices from burning.

    Reduce the oven temperature to 200°C/gas mark 6 and bake for 30–35 minutes. Every oven is slightly different, so check your loaves towards the end of the baking time and take them out of the oven as soon as they are baked. Leave to cool in the tins for 5 minutes before removing from the tins and transferring to a wire rack to cool completely. Your starter should now be ready to put in the fridge until you next want to prepare it for baking.

    Once cool, store in a tin, wrapped in greaseproof paper. These are best eaten on the day they’re made, but if not, enjoy within 2 days.

    Bassinage

    Bassinage is the technique of adding water to dough over a period of time.

    Add the remaining 30g water to the bowl. You will be using your hands to mix this in. You cannot make fast dough if you are covered in it, though, so before you begin, wet your hands in a jug of lukewarm water.

    Shake off any excess water – your hands should be just wet enough to stop the dough sticking to your skin as you mix it. This is a clean, fast way of working. Place your wet hands in the dough with firm, open fingers, and gently close your fingers whilst twisting the dough anti-clockwise drawing the dough through your fingers as you do so. This action mimics a dough hook. The dough should not stick to your wet hands if it has been rested long enough. Every couple of movements, wet your hands once more, again shaking off any excess water, and turn the bowl. It should take less than 1 minute to mix in the water. Cover and leave the dough for another 30 minutes.

    10-Minute Sourdough: Breadmaking For Real Life by Vanessa Kimbell (£18.99, Kyle Books) is out now

Photography: Georgia de Lotz and Vanessa Kimbell.

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Christobel Hastings

Christobel Hastings is a London-based journalist covering pop culture, feminism, LGBTQ and lore.