Coffee cake and I go way back. It’s one of the first things I remember baking as a kid, which makes me realize that, when I first started out in the kitchen, I was much more the cook than the baker. In my single-digit years, I made a mean ham sandwich (extra pickles!) and I had the “spaghetti test” (the one where you fling a cooked noodle at the nearest wall; for the life of me, I can’t remember what result one hoped for) down pat. By the time I could drive, I had a bruschetta recipe that earned me adoring fans (family memebers all, but still.). When I finally moved into an apartment of my own in college, my talents lay mainly on the stovetop, rather than the oven—in the sizzle of a wok (stir fry), on the shining surface of a griddle (grilled cheese; pancakes), in the bubbling water of a sauce pot (pasta). Aside from an impromptu chocolate chip cookie bake or my mom’s annual Christmas cookie madness (with which I helped and, naturally, by “helped” I mean “sneaked bits of dough”), I just wasn’t much of a baker.
Which probably explains why the coffee cake stands out in my memory. It’s what I baked during a seventh grade home economics (was it really called that?) class and, I suppose, it’s quite possibly the first thing I baked all on my own (or rather with the help of a couple group members, if memory serves, but I have every confidence they functioned primarily as my sous chefs). Whatever the case, I was dazzled by that coffee cake experience—from the precise measurements to the thick batter to the final product, a puffed cake topped and bisected with a rippling layer of struesel. I even liked the process of cleaning up the mess—returning flour canisters to the cupboards, filling a sink with sudsy soap, upturning the washed measuring cups on a kitchen towel to dry—as the cake baked. I remember hardly anything else from home ec (I do have a vague recollection of a long row of sewing machines and a length of cloth stiched to the quarterback’s flannel (it was the 90′s, folks) shirt), but I do remember that cake.
As it turns out, it set off in me a love of streusel-y baked goods, be they muffins, tea cakes or sweet rolls. But, my favorite of all these remains the coffee cake. And here’s the even better part: baking coffee cake, like any homey cake, still inspires a bit of wonderment in me—the kind I felt in the miniature kitchen tucked away in a corner of my middle school. It’s that process of taking always-there staples (flour and sugar from the cupboard, cinnamon from the spice rack, butter and eggs from the fridge door), mixing them into a rather ho-hum-looking batter and pulling, a mere half-hour or so later, a completely beautiful cake from the oven.
In some ways, it’s more satisfying than baking a towering layer cake, or a meringued pie, or delicate pastries, or yeast-leavened breads. Because here the process is so much more stripped down—no double-boilers, no hours of inactive time, no obscure ingredients. It’s familiar and quick; it can be accomplished on a whim. It’s simple—simple enough, even, for a 13-year-old kid rolling her eyes through a home ec class—and I like that.
Sour Cream Coffee Cake
Adapted from Cooking Light
This cake, while not the exact recipe from seventh grade (though I do remember bringing it home to my mom, breathlessly conveying my success with the cake), this recipe is remarkably similar. It’s tender and rich, with a streusel that’s equal parts sweet (brown sugar), spicy (cinnamon) and nuttily crunchy (toasted walnuts). I’m certain my home ec teacher would approve.
3/4 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup butter, softened & 1 tablespoon butter, melted
2 large egg whites
1 1/4 cup sour cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
Preheat oven to 350°. Brush a cake pan (springform, as I have used, or 8- or 9-inch square or round pans will all work fine) with the melted butter and set aside.
Combine first 3 ingredients; set aside.
Place granulated sugar and softened 1/4 cup of butter in a large bowl; beat with a mixer at medium speed until well-blended (about 5 minutes). Add egg whites, 1 at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in sour cream and vanilla. Lightly spoon flour into dry measuring cups; level with a knife. Combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt, stirring well with a whisk. Gradually add flour mixture to sugar mixture; beat well.
Spread half of batter into an the prepared pan. Sprinkle half of walnut streusel over batter. Spread remaining batter over streusel. Top with remaining streusel.
Bake at 350° for 45 minutes or until a wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool the cake on a wire rack. If using a springform pan, allow the cake to cool completely before releasing the outer ring.