Videography by Erin Reitz
The sun has not yet fully risen, but the dough and the man who kneads it already have. When Bobby James gets to work at dawn, he lights some candles and gets to cracking — eggs, that is.
It’s been a quiet morning so far at Winkler Bakery in Old Salem, where James makes a variety of pastries relying on some of the same techniques Moravians used in their baking when they settled in the area in the 18th century.
Only the sound of James’s shuffling feet can be heard as he moves around the kitchen and stokes the wood in the domed “beehive” oven. The sharp smell of smoke cuts through the air as the fire roils and roars and the oven hovers at a temperature of about 500 degrees. It’ll need to cool off by about 100 degrees before anything can be put inside of it.
James brushes his hands against his apron and readjusts his cap before pausing to look at the large pans in front of him. They’re filled with moist dough that’s spread thickly — long, sticky sheets of pillowy mounds and craters that are on their way to becoming sugar cake. He wonders if the dough has had enough time to proof before he moves onto the next step.
“Yeast has to do its own thing,” James says, humming while he works.
The fungus might want to take its sweet time, but James doesn’t have a whole lot of it. He’s a patient man — as one has to be with a job like this — but he has a lot to do before hordes of school children pay him a visit in just a few short hours.
It’s visits from these curious, tiny humans — or any human, for that matter — that James, who admits he’s not much of a cook at home, enjoys most about his work. While all of James’s visitors walk away with a ginger cookie, he hopes that they also leave with a greater appreciation for enduring traditions that are a hallmark of Old Salem.
Moravians, who founded one of the oldest Protestant denominations in the world, arrived in Savannah, Georgia in 1735. Many left for Pennsylvania in 1740 and began to settle in North Carolina in 1759. Old Salem was founded in 1766. The baked goods they made, especially around the holidays of Christmas and Easter, were an intrinsic part of fellowship.
During Lovefeast, a ceremony held on any special occasion, including on Christmas Eve, members of the community would gather to sing, read from the Bible, eat, and drink together. At the first ceremony of the evening, children were given ginger cakes. Today we know them better as ginger cookies, which is a more accurate descriptor when you consider what these delicacies actually are: thin, crunchy wafers that have a distinctive blend of molasses and various spices. Given the cost of spices, they were considered a treat for special occasions.
These ginger cookies, now sold in iconic tubes at Winkler Bakery and online, because this is 2015 (and what a time to be alive), have become synonymous with the holiday season to many North Carolinians. But there’s another special holiday sweet that was also a staple to the Moravians and still endures at Old Salem: sugar cake.
“A lot of people wouldn’t even pay attention to what the pastor was saying because they had sugar cake on their mind,” James says.
Let us get this out of the way by stating the obvious: Yes, the sugar cake has some sugar in it. It is also coated in several layers of melted butter before it’s sometimes topped with a blanket of brown sugar and cinnamon. But it isn’t cloying like you’d expect. The reason? Mashed potatoes, James says.
The unusual ingredient results in a denser, less sweet dessert with a texture similar to that of coffee cake, and for one reason or another reason, it works. At the time, potatoes were commonly used as a starter for bread because they helped natural yeasts to form. If only we could go back in time to thank the person who had the novel idea of adding potatoes to a cake, but tracing evolution of sugar cake recipes can get somewhat tricky.
Joanna Roberts, who is the Assistant Director of Interpretation at Old Salem, says many of the recipes used at Old Salem — whether at Winkler Bakery, the Tavern, or elsewhere — are based off of an archived collection of old diaries, daybooks, and even records from business meetings when spices were purchased. But information can be sparse.
“Sometimes it’ll just be a list of ingredients and that’s all you got,” she says. “We take our basic knowledge of cooking of the time period and we apply it to what we’ve got.”
Sometimes lore is added to the mix.
“Back in the olden days, when Moravians would want to marry a lady, they’d always want to check thumbs,” James says. “The reason being that they’d use their thumbs to make indentions in the sugar cake. If a lady had big thumbs, then that’s what they were looking for.”
James doesn’t know how much truth there is to that story, but he’s well aware of how involved the process of Moravian baking can be.
Generally, one day a week was set aside for all of the household baking. For special celebrations that involved more treats than usual, the day before baking day was dedicated to grinding up spices.
“If you want to use a lot of sugar, you’ve got to grind your sugar up,” Roberts says. “Your sugar came in hard, contained lumps.”
The dough back then was slower to rise, too. In the cold winter months when kitchens weren’t heated at night, bowls of dough had be swaddled in warm blankets, coaxed, and cooed so they’d rise.
Winkler Bakery uses fast-acting yeast now as well as another modern-day convenience.
“There are just some things that you can’t beat, and that’s a toothpick,” James says.
But many of the methods at Winkler haven’t strayed much from those used since the bakery was built in 1800.
Both then and now, there’s a certain magic that makes something taste better when you make it yourself. But what makes sugar cake most magical is when it’s shared.
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