Herman the friendship cake

I’ve had a weird flashback to the 70s this week, with the arrival of a little jar of cake mixture. Herman the Friendship Cake has arrived in St Albans, and is being shared around by keen cooks and families, just as it was when I was a kid. I have been receiving messages from around the area asking if I would like a Herman, or do I know where I can get one – Herman is taking over!

The idea is that you take your mini Herman mixture home, and nurture it (him?) for ten days. For the first few days you stir him. I think Herman absorbs yeast from the air, and gently bubbles and ferments away, a little like a sourdough bread mixture. On day four you add flour, milk and sugar, and stir again. For the next few days you stir daily, and on day nine you divide the mixture into four, and give three jars away to your friends. On the final day, you add more flour, sugar and milk and your chosen ingredients, and bake. I have heard about chocolate, ginger and lemon versions but we added chopped apple, sultanas, nuts and sunflower seeds.

Every day we checked to see how he was getting on. Little bubbles would form each day, and the mixture looked as if it was swelling, and trying to escape its bowl.  A vigorous stirring kept it under control. The mixture looks like a cross between a sponge cake and a bread dough, and has a slight yeasty aroma. We were warned not to put him in the fridge, else that could kill him off. Herman needs warmth, air and attention to grow, just like a pot plant!

My daughters were in charge of the regular stirring and took it all very seriously, peering into the bowl each morning to look for changes. They were really concerned about how we could give some away, and yet still have enough to make a cake. There was a brief discussion about fractions, but I don’t think anyone was reassured. Our youngest asked, “Will it taste mouldy?”, which had also crossed my mind, but I knew my neighbours had eaten Herman and survived, so we kept on going.

The day came to part with our Herman offspring, and I found three willing families to adopt. We carefully packaged up three jars of the mixture, along with a copy of the instructions, and it was on its way to new homes. One friend was really keen, having baked these with her mum years ago in Finland, but another looked very suspicious and asked “What have you set me up for this time?”

On day ten we were ready to bake our Herman. The recipe tells you to make one large cake in a baking tray, but we didn’t have one large enough that hadn’t already been weathered by years of Sunday roasts, so we made six muffins and one large round cake instead. 45 minutes later, the kitchen was filled with a fug of lovely cake aroma and we ate our muffins warm from the oven – very delicious. Was it worth all the stirring, and was it better than a regular cake that you make and bake on the same day? Well, it did taste richer and had a lovely texture, so I think it is definitely worth doing.

I’m keen to hear how our mini Hermans are getting on. They should be nearly at the sharing stage, and then they will be off to yet more families. Apparently, this sort of chain letter friendship cake started with the Amish in America, and was a practical way to share a yeast cake mixture. These days we don’t need to do that, but it has been a lovely way to share baking with friends, and have an easy project at home with the children. I remember it going round my school as a child, and here we are, 30 years later doing the same.

Have you shared a friendship cake, or any other recipe like this? Let us know or send me a message at thelocalfoodie.wordpress.com






About thelocalfoodie

Food writer for The Herts Advertiser.
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One Response to Herman the friendship cake

  1. Becky Alexander says:

    I received a lovely letter from Howard Palmer about his family’s experience of Herman cakes, including the starter:

    Dear Becky

    My wife, Rose Palmer, first made a version of Herman in the 1970’s although then we just knew it as a ‘friendship cake’. She recently had a mini Herman starter given to her and made 3 cakes and will be baking the 4th on Monday 13th Feb.

    Herman is well travelled and offsprings have been sent from his home in Wheathampstead to St. Albans, Stevenage and Harpenden in Herts, Penn in Bucks and Barton le clay in Beds.

    We love the cake as do our grandchildren, Thomas, Rhys and Millie who have told us it is ‘wonderful’, (Wonderbar!). It is nice cold or hot with custard and you can include a variety of different fruits, both fresh and dried and a wide range of spices can be used as well, (ginger and banana?).

    I have included the recipe we used which shows the starter mix.

    Best regards,

    Howard Palmer.

    Herman the German Friendship Cake Starter.


    1 Pkt active dried yeast.
    ½ Cup lukewarm water.
    1 Cup plain flour.
    1 Cup sugar.
    1 Cup warm milk.

    In a small bowl dissolve yeast in warm water for 10 minutes. Stir well. Add sugar and flour. Mix thoroughly otherwise mixture will get lumpy when you add the milk. Slowly stir in the warm milk to make a smooth paste then loosely cover the mixture with a lid, cling film or tea towel. Allow the mixture to get bubbly. Consider this Day 1 of the cycle or the day you receive the starter. For the next 10 days follow the instructions for Herman the German Friendship Cake below.

    Keep on the worktop for 10 days. If Herman is refrigerated he will stop bubbling and die!

    Day 1.
    Put Herman in a large bowl capable of holding 2 litres. Stir and cover with cling film allowing mix to ferment.

    Day 2.
    Stir well.

    Day 3.
    Stir well.

    Day 4.
    Herman is hungry! Add the following ingredients then stir well and cover.
    110g of plain flour, 250ml milk, 220g sugar.

    Day 5.
    Stir well.

    Day 6.
    Stir well.

    Day 7
    Stir well.

    Day 8.
    Stir well.

    Day 9.
    Herman is hungry again! Add the same ingredients as Day 4. Then divide into 4 equal portions and give three away to friends along with a copy of these instructions. Keep a portion for yourself to make another Herman the next day if you wish.

    Day 10.
    Herman is very hungry indeed. Stir well and add the following ingredients: 220g sugar, 220g plain flour, 2 eggs, 2 heaped tea spoons cinnamon, 2 heaped tea spoons baking powder, ½ tea spoon salt 175 ml sunflower oil, 2 cooking apples peeled, cored and cut into cubes, 140 gms raisins/sultanas, 70 gms walnuts, (optional). Mix all ingredients into Herman and put into a large greased roasting dish. Sprinkle with brown sugar and dot with 50 gms butter. Bake at 180 C/gas mark 4 then check after 35 mins, he may need 45 mins. Test with skewer or cake tester. When it comes out clean Herman is done!

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