Berry Sourdough Coffee Cake


The living being in my fridge – right. It’s sourdough. Sourdough starter is the living being in my fridge. (Although there may very well be others.) Like the tweedlebugs’ neighbourhood on Sesame Street, with rows of buildings all constructed out of old milk cartons and yogurt containers. That is entirely possible. But if it is in fact happening, this new sourdough monster is the mayor of Julie’s Fridgeville.

So yes, I am very excited to have acquired a peanut butter jar full of bubbly, pungent sourdough starter that is older than me. A CBC listener called in with a rush-hour tip while I was taking over traffic duties one afternoon and thought I might really like to hear about the sourdough starter (or “monster”) he had in his fridge, and not only did I want to hear about it, I wanted to drive over to his house and get some. Of course I did.

So here’s the story, in short: his Mom’s friend was dating a chef at the Banff Springs Hotel back in the early 70s, who got a chunk of the monster from him, and then gave some to her. (Who knows how old it was at the time?) She had a baby boy at the time, who grew up eating sourdough pancakes every Christmas and sourdough biscuits and dumplings with his dinners. He grew up, left home, and years later asked for some starter, which meant relocating some of it from Campbell River, B.C. to Calgary. And now a small vat of it is taking up residence in my fridge. Which excited me more than I probably should admit, but I love that this thing has been kept alive for so long, and has been so enjoyed.

A sourdough starter is essentially an alternative to commercial yeast. Flour and water is mixed together into a sort of soupy paste which then attracts and cultures wild, natural yeasts from the environment (as well as from the grain), and the lactic acid bacteria is what gives it its characteristic tang. The starter can then be used in place of commercial yeast in bread recipes. I tried adding some to my usual no-knead bread with very happy results: all I did was knock down the flour to 2 cups (mixed with 1/4 tsp. yeast and 1 tsp. salt) and add a cup of starter. I wasn’t brave enough to eliminate the yeast entirely; I’m not sure it would have worked. May have. In this case it just added the sourdough flavour and a slightly chewier texture. (If you have not tried the no-knead bread yet, PLEASE DO. Don’t worry about the sourdough part. Just make it!)

Truly, even if you don’t have a friend dating a chef from the Banff Springs, it’s simple to start your own sourdough starter. The simplest ones are no more than just flour and water, although it’s common to add some squished unwashed organic grapes (to take advantage of the yeast that’s naturally present on its skins, and sugar, to aid feeding) or starchy potato water to help get things going. You’ll need a week or two to properly establish your starter, and then you’re good to go.

There are two basic types of starter: one scenario involves mixing up a batch of dough, pinching off a piece (called the “chef”), and baking the rest; the chef is kept to add to the next batch, and so on. The other way to do it is to mix up a batch of “wet” starter, which is what I have, and keep it alive in your fridge, using it as needed and replenishing it each time by feeding it more flour and water (or sometimes milk).

If you want to try your own The Kitchn has some good basic instructions, as does Wild Yeast and Joy the Baker. And on YouTube you can even watch a video. If you want to visit the bookstore or library, Nancy Silverton’s Breads from the La Brea Bakery, Rose Levy Beranbaum’s Bread Bible and Peter Reinhart’s The Bread Maker’s Apprentice are good choices. Now from what I know, you want to avoid adding commercial yeast to your starter, which is a little like cheating – the packaged yeast sort of overpowers the natural yeasts you are trying to attract

It’s a fun project to take on, especially if you have kids and are running out of things to do on spring break. If they really want a pet, you can fulfill their wish. And if they don’t kill the starter, maybe they can get a puppy.


Sourdough Berry Coffee Cake

Recipe link


March 26, 2009


1 cup flour

2 tsp. baking powder

1/2 tsp. baking soda

pinch salt

1 cup starter

1/3 cup canola oil

1 egg

fresh or frozen berries, or sliced apples, pears or plums


2-3 Tbsp. each: brown sugar, flour, butter, sliced almonds (optional)


1Mix the dry ingredients; add the wet. Stir just until combined. Spread into an 8"x8" pan, top with berries or other fruit. Rub together crumble ingredients and sprinkle overtop. Bake at 350 for 30 minutes.


(If I may, I need to sidetrack here and tell you that if my camera was within arm’s reach I would take a photo of my gut. It looks as if I might deliver quads at any time. I just ate a piece -plus two or three shavings- of chocolate Guinness cake my sister made for a surprise party we just held for my other sister, who just became Vice Principal of her school. It was thickly topped with cream cheese frosting that was just barely sweetened; enough to differentiate it from plain old cream cheese, but not enough to allow it to do anything but slump over the cake. I have to obtain that recipe, which came from her Irish friend.)

One Year Ago: Smoked Chicken Tortellini Salad


About Julie

45 comments on “Berry Sourdough Coffee Cake

  1. robyn
    March 26, 2009 at 10:24 pm

    The sourdough starter horrifies me. Is it basically controlled food poisoning? I will definitely continue to eat it and pretend I don’t know where it came from!

    Congrats to A on her amazing promotion! She deserves it!

  2. Ricki
    March 27, 2009 at 4:20 am

    I’ve always been intrigued by sourdough and have wanted to try it out but have always been afraid it wouldn’t work for me (I have an irrational fear of yeast for the same reason). But I’d only been thinking about breads. . . now that you’ve posted a CAKE recipe, I think I’m going to have to take the plunge. Looks amazing!

  3. Rebecca
    March 27, 2009 at 5:49 am

    I’ll second the motion on the joys of no-knead bread! It’s super yummy and very easy to make. It does have somewhat of a sourdough flavour already but I can only imagine the benefits of adding sourdough starter to the recipe.

  4. JulieVR
    March 27, 2009 at 6:09 am

    Food poisoning?? Sourdough has been around since around 1500 BC – if it made us sick it would not have weathered the past few thousand years. Not all bacteria is bad. You eat yogurt, don’t you? (And in fact the presence of lactic acid bacteria has shown to inhibit spoilage in wheat sourdough bread.)

  5. erin
    March 27, 2009 at 6:11 am

    Julie, I have a question for you (which may seem a bit ridiculous, but you have to understand that I also am terrified of food posioning type issues).

    I just read ‘Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day’ by Jeff Hertzberg and Zoe Francois, which gives a recipe that is much like your no-knead bread. Basically you make a big batch of wet dough, and keep it in the fridge for up to 2 weeks, and you just pull off a pound here and there whenever you want fresh bread. Well, I tried it on Sunday, and my first loaf was great, but then I tried a new loaf yesterday, and the dough smelled bad, and the loaf tasted really sour. So, my question is, when do you know when your dough has gone past the sourdough stage, or can that even happen?

  6. JulieVR
    March 27, 2009 at 6:16 am

    Yes, I have heard of that book – it uses the same fundamentals Jim Lahey – the baker in New York who came up with no-knead bread – discovered. I haven’t tried it myself, but it sounds to me like if you have a wet dough that has been kick-started with some yeast already sitting in the fridge for 2 weeks, you’re going to end up with sourdough. Do you mean past the sourdough stage, as in gone bad? I don’t think it could happen in under 2 weeks, especially kept in the fridge. Maybe try freezing balls of dough and thawing them to bake?

  7. Brenda
    March 27, 2009 at 6:38 am

    Julie, I have been on an enthusiastic sourdough binge for about 2 months now. I got my free starter from Carl’s friends.
    I followed their information off of their website and the starter is very robust. I do find it likes a bit warmer proofing temperature than my house provided at night during the cold snaps and very regular feeding, meaning of course, that I have to keep using it up with new recipes.
    I have made several loaves of no knead bread using sourdough and substitute 1/4 cup of starter for the yeast. If I have used a lot of whole grains, oatmeal and such I add a bit of gluten and a bit longer and/or warmer rise. I have also found excellent recipes and discussion of the bread making process on http://www.breadtopia.com.
    I’ve had a couple of issues with the nk bread, sourdough and year based. Sometimes I make the dough too wet and the finished loaf is a bit too spongy. Also, I am terrible at slicing it, which means I still have a loaf of store bread in the freezer for my offspring’s pnbj lunch sandwiches. The biggest problem is that I love nk bread and want to eat too much of it. By the way, my family much prefers sourdough pancakes to my old baking power recipe.
    Thanks for the great recipes and photos. I really enjoy your site and am looking forward to more sourdough ideas.

  8. erin
    March 27, 2009 at 6:39 am

    Thanks Julie – I will try freezing it. They also give instructions for par-baking bread, so I might try that as well.

  9. Carolyn
    March 27, 2009 at 7:14 am

    Brenda, thanks for the tips. I’ve tried to make a sourdough starter a few times, with little success. Perhaps I’ll try again….. if only I could recreate the taste of San Francisco sourdough…

  10. Ellen
    March 27, 2009 at 7:17 am

    Okay all you no knead bread lovers out there – I have a question. Why doesn’t this bread work for me??? I have tried this recipe several times, and frankly, I’m not that impressed! Mine never turns out that well. It always has this almost too moist and chewy texture and consistency. I’ve never made anything like carrot pudding/cake steamed in the oven, but it seems to me that it would also have this kind of consistency. I’ve tried using my crockpot insert to bake it as well as my Dutch oven sized enamel covered cast iron pot. It’s not just me either – my husband and kids don’t like it much either. And we are a family of bread eaters. Any suggestions?

  11. JenF
    March 27, 2009 at 7:33 am

    My grandmother used to make sourdough pancakes every Sunday. Her starter was over 70 years old when it was thrown out by my uncle when she moved to an old folks home. I wish he’d kept it – like Julie, I loved the fact that it was older than all of us and still going! Kind of like my grandma…

  12. Kate
    March 27, 2009 at 8:04 am

    I like the idea of adding whole wheat and flax meal to the nk bread. The blog photos I’ve seen look good and chewy and a beautiful, but I don’t want a white flour bread – unless I am dipping it in some spicy olive oil :) Have anyone tried mixing in other grains as well? I would be interested in knowing a rough guesstimate on ratios of whole grains to the white unbleached flour. Cake looks delicious!

  13. Brenda
    March 27, 2009 at 10:12 am

    Kate, this is the base recipe I use for multigrain bread.
    I use Sunny boy cereal or oatmeal for my 1/2 cup multigrain mix and I use Sunny Boy whole wheat flour for the whole wheat. I just bought some spelt flour to try substituting for the whole wheat as an experiment but I haven’t done it yet. I also add a spoonful of gluten if I am using a lot of whole grains. The loaf does seem to hold it’s shape a bit better, but try it without unless you already have some gluten around the house.

    Ellen, I’ve had the same issues with a spongy loaf when I make the initial dough too wet. As it does it’s slow rise,the dough gets looser, so I have to remind myself to allow a bit stiffer dough to begin with. As our climate is quite dry here I often need to add a bit of extra liquid to any bread recipe and I get carried away. I have also kneaded in a bit (sometimes quite a bit) of flour before the last rise but you do end up with smaller holes and a more traditional loaf. You can also try the Cooks Illustrated “Almost No Knead bread” which is available here but not on the CI website unless you sign up.
    http://www.breadtopia.com/cooks-illustrated-almost-no-knead/ It was good but not what I was after but you might prefer it.

    Julie may have some other suggestions.

  14. JulieVR
    March 27, 2009 at 11:37 am

    Yes it works fine with other grains – I always add a couple spoonfuls of flax to the mix. Typically I’ll go half all-purpose and half whole wheat flour (or 2 cups and 1 cup, or vice versa), plus some ground flax. Just experiment. The more heavier flours and grains you use the heavier (and sometimes gummier) texture your bread will have. Try half and half and then go from there to see what you like!

  15. JulieVR
    March 27, 2009 at 11:38 am

    Ellen – I have no idea! This is very odd.. a steamed pudding consistency? Is your yeast perhaps dead? what is the crust like?

  16. Elizabeth L.
    March 27, 2009 at 12:40 pm

    Ellen-I have been making the nk bread for a while now and my last loaf turned out like you described. It was not nearly as fabulous as the previous ones, and, I recall, that as the dough was rising on the floured board, it seemed far too runny (it actually spilled over the edge of the cutting board–should have been my first clue).

    I didn’t add flour, because on one of the numerous websites it recommends to resist the urge to add more flour, as the charm of this bread is it’s relatively high water content. I think I added too much water during the initial mixing–it really does need to be 1 1/2 c. + 2 T. of water, which I thought was fussy, so I rounded up to 1 2/3 c. It is hard to tell at that stage because it is so raggy looking. If it seems like it needs a bit more flour next time at the second rising stage, I will throw caution to the wind!

  17. JulieVR
    March 27, 2009 at 12:43 pm

    Yes – it’s the high water content that allows the gluten molecules to come into alignment without kneading.

  18. Theresa
    March 27, 2009 at 1:36 pm

    100% rye does not work out very well for no knead bread. next time I’ll go half and half.

    What were you thinking going to a strangers house with promises of food?????

    Have you not heard of Hansel and Gretel??? :)

  19. Fiona
    March 27, 2009 at 2:08 pm

    What happens if you put vital wheat gluten in the NK bread? I mean, if you’re using 100% WW flour?

    (I ask because I have a big bag of it in my freezer, and let’s face it, I’m not going to make seitan any time soon. I just know that about myself.)

  20. JulieVR
    March 27, 2009 at 2:16 pm

    NO idea. Try it and let us know!

  21. Dana mccauley
    March 27, 2009 at 5:51 pm

    Ooooh! Ahhhh!

    That looks great!

  22. thepinkpeppercorn
    March 27, 2009 at 6:15 pm

    YUMMMMMMMMM! This looks absolutely to “die” for. Totally lovely with the berries. Now I will have to try my hand at sourdough…oooh! I’ve been procrastinating, but it doesn’t sound that difficult – fingers crossed :)

  23. Ellen
    March 28, 2009 at 8:07 am

    Thanks, everybody. I’m guessing that I do have it too wet from the start. It is usually quite runny still after it’s first 18 hr rise. I think I’ll give it another try.

  24. JulieVR
    March 28, 2009 at 8:23 am

    I should note that there are varying quantities of water given for this recipe – his original calls for 1 5/8 cups water, some for 1 1/2 cups plus 2 tablespoons, some 1 1/2 cups plus 1 tablespoon.. but then on the video Jim Lahey only uses 1 1/2 cups. Maybe try that?

  25. Aimee
    March 28, 2009 at 6:17 pm

    Long ago I had a sourdough chocolate cake that I remember as being –well just that, highly memorable. I imagine this coffee cake would be on the same page.

    Lovely blog!

  26. Helly Visser
    March 30, 2009 at 7:32 am

    Hi Julie,
    How do I get in touch with you about one jar of sourdough starter which you are giving away.
    I just wanted to start my own but prefer to have a historic sourdough starter to multiply it for all the cooks in my own family. I would gladly pick it up from the CBC station.
    I hope to talk to you soon,

  27. Serenity
    October 24, 2009 at 10:59 am

    I might be wrong….but I think something is missing from this coffee cake. I made it in a hurry, not paying my usual attention to recipes..and I did not notice that it didn’t call for any sugar. It came out looking so good, but was soooooo bland. It definetely needs some kind of sweetner. I used to do sourdough coffee cakes many years ago, and I know this could be absolutely wonderful…just needs something to sweeten it a little.

    Enjoy your page.

  28. Steven Hill
    June 13, 2011 at 10:52 am

    Had my starter on hand and 24 pounds fresh blue berries – the cake was a 91/2 x 10 Looked great! I’ll add 1 T sugar to the next batch though – Thanks

  29. Kristen
    September 10, 2011 at 8:33 am

    Am I missing the sugar? I don’t see it. Or is it not sweet?

  30. JulieVR
    September 11, 2011 at 9:02 am

    Kristen – hmm…you’re right! there should be sugar, but this was so long ago I can’t recall… I’d go for about 1/2 cup?

  31. Lucy
    September 17, 2012 at 6:23 am

    I mixed up this cake and like Kristen and Serenity I realized there should be sugar. i tasted the batter and it was ugh, so I added 3/4 cup sugar. I also added some orange zest and vanilla. I baked a thin layer of barely cooked apple slices under the crumble topping.
    It’s a good beginning for a recipe but not a complete one and I wonder what happened to the recipe testing here.

    • JulieVR
      September 17, 2012 at 7:27 am

      Yikes, sorry about that! Not sure how that happened… generally it’s not a case of recipe testing but a typo or omission when writing it out. I’ll pull it down and rework it. Sorry!

  32. Charlotte
    October 9, 2012 at 6:49 pm

    I made this today, adding 1/2 cup sucanat (unrefined sugar, not as sweet as sugar) and I sprinkled lots of cinnamon into the dry. I added vanilla to the wet, too. With apples on top, it was a perfect fall coffee cake. I love that it’s sourdough and whole wheat but tastes better than the coffee cake at our local bakery!

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  34. Gina
    September 28, 2013 at 7:15 pm

    This morning I made this and it was the most heavenly thing ever! My entire family loved it.

    • Julie
      September 30, 2013 at 12:26 pm

      I’m so glad! This is an old one – haven’t made it in ages. Thanks for the reminder!

  35. Miquela
    December 22, 2013 at 2:03 am

    This had a lovely rise but, yeah, it needs some kind of sweetener. I wish I had read the comments before making it. I realized for myself the sweetener omission but only after I had assembled the cake. :( We drizzled it with honey when we served it, but future makers of the recipe would certainly appreciate it if the recipe was corrected. :)

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  38. sourdough baker
    April 5, 2014 at 8:09 am

    I have two starters, one with wheat flour, the other white. I bake EVERYTHING with it successfully including no-knead bread, dutch babies, pancakes, waffles, cake etc. However I do confess to using a scant amount of yeast for my no-knead artisan bread dough…….

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  40. SusieQ
    May 5, 2014 at 7:59 am

    I loved reading about your new pet sourdough starter. A few months ago I took a sourdough bread making class and came home with my own sourdough starter and have been caring for it ever since. Unlike my dog, I never mind when it gets overly excited and “overflows” all over my kitchen. I was skeptical about it staying alive in the fridge and and would take it out every couple of days, bring it to room temperature and feed it to make sure it was alive. Always sprang back to life. So now it’ll sit in the fridge for a couple of months at a time. When it sits that long it produces a layer of alcohol on the top that my teacher told me to pour off. I always mix it in (don’t want to offend my starter). Cant bear to waste anything it creates. Some day I’ll drink it! And so today it will be your berry sourdough coffee cake….with a little apples mixed in, accidentally ate half my blueberries…

  41. sourdough baker
    May 29, 2014 at 6:41 pm

    SusieQ, when I use apples for this recipe, I sautee them lightly first with a little grated ginger and cinnamon. Delish………

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