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Wales, United Kingdom
In autumn 2010, my husband Ian and I both quit our jobs, sold our house and left the flatlands of the east for the mountains of Wales. Our goal is to create a more self-sufficient lifestyle in a place we actually like living. Whilst Ian will continue to earn some money as a freelancer, my part of the project is to reduce how much we spend by growing and making as much of what we need as possible. The purpose of this blog is to keep friends updated with how the grand project is progressing, but all are welcome here. If you're not a friend already, well perhaps you might become one.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

A culinary cultural exchange: Herman the German bara brith

This is my absolute final experiment with Herman the German friendship cake starter. After several cakes that came out less well than the equivalent with baking powder I was ready to give up. Then my neighbour suggested bara brith, being a traditional Welsh yeast-leavened cake, so I gave it one last go.

I looked at several recipes before settling on Delia's as a basis. I was surprised that she didn't soak the fruit in tea first, as I thought that was a defining feature of bara brith. I soaked my fruit.

I made a couple of other changes to the recipe, to accommodate the starter. I left out the milk and sugar, because both of these are in the starter, and the egg, because starter seems to have much the same effect as egg in recipes I've tried so far. Here's the recipe I used.


  • 12 oz flour, mixed wholemeal and white (I might try just white next time)
  • 2 oz butter
  • 10 fl oz friendship cake starter, having fed it the day before
  • 8 oz mixed dried fruit soaked in...
  • 400 ml strong tea (made with 2 teabags) There was quite a lot left over from this. I might try one bag in 300ml next time
  • 1/2 tsp each of salt and mixed spice


  • Make up the tea and soak the fruit. I added the fruit while the tea was still hot and left overnight, but I think half an hour would probably have been enough.
  • Mix the salt and spice into the flour, then rub in the butter.
  • Stir in the starter, then enough of the tea to make a dough and knead. I made quite a soft dough, which wasn't such a good idea in retrospect.
  • At this point I ignored the instruction to leave the dough to rise, as the starter's already had plenty of time to work on its flour and I didn't want the tough chewiness I'd found in previous cakes.
  • Mix in the fruit. I had trouble with the instruction to knead it in gradually. By the time I'd added a few spoonfuls, it had broken through the other side of the dough and was squishing all over the work surface. Mixing it in the bowl was much more successful. However, since the fruit had been soaked, it brought a lot of liquid with it and made a very sticky mixture. That said, it looked more like cake mix than bread dough, which I thought was probably no bad thing.
  • Leave to rise. Delia says 30-45 min, but mine took four hours, and it wasn't particularly cold, either. Maybe I should have given it some rising time earlier.
  • Bake. Delia says gas mark 5 for an hour. Mine took an hour and a half, and I wasn't entirely sure the middle was cooked when I'd finished, but the outside certainly was.

German friendship bara brith

When we first tried it, still warm from the oven, the centre seemed undercooked, but it turned out that that was just because of the steam from cooking. When it cooled down it was fine - just the right texture. Obviously the top was a bit burnt, probably because I didn't cover it whilst cooking, but otherwise this is very nice. I finally have a successful German friendship cake recipe, and it's Welsh!

Unfortunately, Ian still doesn't like fruit cake (though he did eat a whole slice of this to test it, so it can't be that bad), so I still haven't solved the problem of what to do with Herman. Much as I like bara brith, I'm not sure I could manage a whole loaf of it to myself, every five days. Maybe I could slow Herman down a bit. I'll tell you a secret: In spite of what the instructions say, putting Herman in the fridge doesn't kill him, it just slows him down a bit. It doesn't even slow him down all that much, in my experience, but maybe that could reduce the bara brith frequency to a rate I could keep up with.


  1. I reckon you could cook Herman without any fruit. I have one in my kitchen at the moment that my daughter was given, and I know what you mean about adding all the cake ingredients- you seem to add a whole cake's worth of ingredients to the starter, which wasn't what I was expecting.

    I have been using the baking powder, though less than the recipe directs, and ignoring most of the dire warnings that came with him.

    We've made two so far; one with some apple that we acquired (don't normally buy apples at this time of year) and no dried fruit, and a second with currants and mixed spice instead of the cinnamon. The currant version is drier, but still very nice and I don't think I'd miss them if they weren't there.

    I've also found the cake freezes very well, though you may run out of freezer space before you can eat it all!

    1. I've noticed that online discussions of Herman often recommend giving him to children. "Such a great way to get them interested in baking" they say. I think it's just a sly way to increase Herman's survival rate - parents will feel much more guilty about letting him die if he belongs to a child!

      I did try plain cupcakes and they were nice - just not as nice as the ones I usually make without a starter.

  2. Daughter needs no encouragement to bake- my problem is going to be discreetly losing Herman...

    Maybe I could swap him for a sourdough starter?

    1. I did try turning Herman into a sourdough starter by mixing some with a little bread dough and feeding with plain flour and water, but it didn't work :(


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