The alluring aromas of sweetness and lemon drew me to the empty kitchen. The oven was cooling and to the side rested a whisk and two mixing bowls, their rims painted with golden batter. Instinctively, I ran my finger across the counter the way a mother might inspect the cleanliness of a bedroom. Looking down, my finger was covered with white powder, and looking even closer, I noticed the counter held the silhouette of a dusted white ring.
On a plate nearby sat a freshly baked ciambella (cham-bel-uh)—a classic Italian cake similar to a pound cake. The pungent fragrance of lemon, the craggy crust, and the snow-mantled top wasn’t fancy or elaborate. Yet, the enticement of this simple cake was always impossible to ignore. Yes, the flavor and texture were sublime, but it was also the amazement that something so wonderful could be made from a few simple ingredients, without a recipe, and with hardly any effort.
Note: You can make this cake without a sourdough starter if you don’t have any. See the note in the recipe.
A moment later, my nonna (grandmother) walked into the kitchen with her apron on, folded at the waist, her thick glasses dusted at the edges with powdered sugar, and said: “there’s ciambella there.” As if this magic of conjuring deliciousness from a little flour, a few eggs, a scoop of sugar, lemon, some berries if we had them, and a splash of limoncello, sambuca, or Grand Marnier was nothing. She’d often whip this cake together without thought, squeezing the work (and lemons) between making other things in the kitchen.
Of course, my sourdough starter discard ciambella isn’t exactly like my nonna’s. She wasn’t a sourdough baker, so she didn’t have starter discard. And she never wrote anything down; I only remember a few scattered papers in the kitchen for obscure recipes she didn’t make often. So this is my version, recreated from the memory of her ciambella that I ate a million times.
The sourdough starter discard doesn’t bring any sourness to this classic cake, but I like including it because the mixture results in a tenderer crumb thanks to the well-fermented flour. Plus, it’s a way to use flour and water that would normally go into the compost. The overall flavor is sweet but not too sweet and decidedly lemony. The interior is very tender, and the crust—especially where it ruptures on the top so beautifully—has crispness, bringing structure to the cake. I sometimes serve it with a mix of berries, and a dollop of ricotta never hurts, though the cake certainly doesn’t need anything extra.
This sourdough starter discard cake is perfect when accompanying a breakfast cappuccino, to have as a snack after lunch, or to enjoy for dessert after dinner.
What is Ciambella?
Ciambella is an Italian cake often baked in a ring mold pan and typically prepared with flour, oil (sometimes butter), baking powder, milk, salt, sugar, and vanilla extract. Flavors include lemon, orange, cocoa, or anise. Ciambella is similar in taste and texture to an American pound cake, though it’s less sweet.
What is Sourdough Starter Discard?
Sourdough starter discard is ripe sourdough starter removed from a starter during daily feeding, when fresh flour and water are added to keep the naturally fermenting culture going. Though often thrown away, you can use discard to make other non-bread recipes. It’s a good way to use fermented flour that would otherwise go into the compost or trash, and it lends subtle sourness and tenderness to whatever it’s mixed into.
Sourdough Starter Discard Cake Tools
Traditionally, ciambella is made in a ring mold pan (tube pan). I’ve searched and searched and finally found the perfect ring mold pan that isn’t too tall (so it gets a nice color on top), wide, or with a center hole too large.
This 9.5-inch aluminum ring mold pan is ideal for making ciambella. Using this pan results in a cake with a tall rise thanks to even and efficient heating, and it cleans up easily.
If you don’t have a ring mold pan, you can use an angel food cake pan or any traditional bundt pan.
How to Make Ciambella, Step by Step
This is probably one of the easiest and most delicious cakes I make, and the fact that it's a sourdough starter discard cake makes it even better. There's no need for a stand mixer; you can mix this all by hand.
Preheat the oven with a rack in the middle to 350°F (180°C). Grease a 9-inch ring mold pan with neutral oil.
Then, in a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, salt, and lemon zest.
NOTE: After feedback from several readers, I've adjusted the baking temperature down to 350°F (180°C) and recommend baking for a few minutes longer.
In a separate large bowl, whisk together the sugar and eggs until the sugar dissolves and the mixture turns slightly bubbly, 2 minutes.
Add the oil, milk, limoncello, sourdough starter, and vanilla. Whisk vigorously until everything is combined and the mixture becomes frothy.
Add the flour mixture and stir with a rubber spatula until just combined (avoid overmixing). Pour the batter into the prepared pan. Place the pan on a sheet pan.
Bake until a knife inserted into the cake comes out clean, 40 to 45 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven and let cool for 10 minutes. Use an offset spatula or knife to gently release the edges of the cake from the pan, turn the cake out onto a wire rack, and let cool. Once completely cool, dust the top with powdered sugar (if desired).
The cake will keep well for several days on the kitchen counter, covered.
Watch Me Make This Sourdough Starter Cake
This sourdough starter discard cake is an Italian treat that's made in minutes. Intensely lemony, a little sweet, and ultra-tender, it's perfect any time.
- 177g neutral-flavored oil, such as canola or a very mild olive oil, plus more for greasing
- 423g all-purpose flour (Cairnspring Mills Edison All-Purpose Flour)
- 7g baking powder (1 ½ teaspoon)
- 3g fine sea salt (½ teaspoon)
- Zest of 1 large lemon
- 232g granulated sugar (I like to use superfine sugar)
- 171g (3 large) eggs, at room temperature
- 211g whole milk
- 28g limoncello (2 tablespoons; see Note)
- 100g ripe sourdough starter (100% hydration) discard (see Note)
- 7g vanilla extract (1 ½ teaspoons)
- Powdered sugar, for topping (optional)
- Preheat the oven with a rack in the middle to 350°F (180°C). Grease a 9-inch ring mold pan with neutral oil.
- In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, salt, and lemon zest.
- In a separate large bowl, whisk together the sugar and eggs until the sugar dissolves and the mixture turns slightly bubbly, 2 minutes. Add the oil, milk, limoncello, sourdough starter, and vanilla. Whisk vigorously until everything is combined and the mixture becomes frothy. Add the flour mixture and stir with a rubber spatula until just combined (avoid overmixing). Pour the batter into the prepared pan. Place the pan on a sheet pan.
- Bake until a knife inserted into the cake comes out clean, 40 to 45 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven and let cool for 10 minutes. Use an offset spatula or knife to gently release the edges of the cake from the pan, turn the cake out onto a wire rack, and let cool. Once completely cool, dust the top with powdered sugar (if desired). The cake will keep well for several days on the kitchen counter, covered.
To make this ciambella vegan, substitute the milk for a full-fat nut or oat milk, and instead of the eggs, use a “flax egg.”
The juice of 1 lemon can be used in place of the limoncello.
If you don’t have any sourdough starter discard, use 50g flour and 50g whole milk in its place.
Sambuca (anise-flavored) ciambella: Substitute the limoncello for 2 tablespoons of sambuca.
Orange ciambella: Substitute the lemon zest for the zest of 1 orange and the limoncello for Grand Marnier.
Poppyseed ciambella: Omit the vanilla extract. Add 1 ½ tablespoons of poppy seeds to the dry ingredients, and swap in the zest of 1 orange for the lemon zest.
Keywords: lemon, bundt cake, tube pan, quick, easy, authentic
This sourdough starter cake recipe can be the base for many variations in the same way a ciambella varies across Italy, taking on regional differences and adapting to what’s in season and the pantry. Here are a few of my favorites:
Sambuca (anise-flavored) ciambella
Substitute the limoncello for 2 tablespoons of sambuca.
Substitute the lemon zest for the zest of 1 orange and the limoncello for Grand Marnier.
Omit the vanilla extract. Add 1 ½ tablespoons of poppy seeds to the dry ingredients, and swap in the zest of 1 orange for the lemon zest.
Sourdough Starter Discard Cake FAQs
What makes ciambella different from pound cake?
Typically, ciambella is typically made with oil instead of butter, the latter common in pound cakes. Additionally, the ratio of ingredients (fat to sugar to flour) is different: pound cake has equal parts of each, whereas ciambella typically has much less sugar (usually around 50% to total flour), fat (oil), and egg.
Do I need a ring mold pan to make ciambella?
If you don’t have a ring mold pan, use an angel food cake pan or classic bundt pan.
Can I leave out the alcohol in this ciambella?
Instead of using limoncello, use the juice of 1 lemon.
Why are room-temperature eggs used when baking cake?
Since this cake is mixed by hand with a whisk, using room-temperature eggs makes them easier to incorporate with the sugar and other ingredients. Additionally, room-temperature eggs will provide a little more rise to the cake versus cold eggs from the fridge, which are more viscous. To quickly warm eggs to room temperature, put them in a bowl filled with warm water for 5 minutes.
Can I use a hand mixer instead of a whisk?
Yes. Instead of whisking the ingredients by hand, use a hand mixer (this is my favorite hand mixer) set to medium speed.
How do I store ciambella?
Ciambella will keep well in a sealed container for several days at room temperature, or for one week when refrigerated.
Can you freeze ciambella?
Yes, you can freeze ciambella for up to 3 months. Once the cake has fully cooled, cut it into sections, wrap each with plastic, and place the wrapped pieces inside a zip-top freezer bag. Thaw overnight in the refrigerator before serving.
Is ciambella a donut?
Technically, yes, it is a donut because it’s a ring-shaped cake that has a hole in the middle. However, the term donut in the United States typically refers to dough that’s been deep fried, whereas a ciambella is only baked.
After making this sourdough starter discard cake, if you're in the mood for even more cake, you'll enjoy the rich flavor of this date and banana tea cake with whole grain spelt. Or another easy and delicious recipe using discard is my recipe for sourdough blueberry muffins.
Look at all the sourdough starter discard recipes for more ways to use your discard each day.