Coffee cake is the food of slow, reassuring deliberateness—the food of waiting rooms and break rooms, picnics and funerals, holiday brunches and Sunday mornings. You can’t rush when you eat a piece of coffee cake. I think there’s an actual law somewhere that says you have to consume it slowly, sitting down, preferably with a mug and the newspaper in front of you. If there’s anything so precisely comforting as coffee cake, I don’t know it.
It’s just as comforting to make, hands in the bowl scrunching brown-sugary rubble for the cake’s top, smoothing layer upon layer of thick batter into the pan, the whole house smelling the way realtors urge you to make your house smell when you’re trying to sell it.
In my own very subjective opinion of coffee cake, there must be the following things:
Moist, buttery, slightly dense cake;
Lots of crumbly topping;
“Optional” (but not really): a stripe of something through the middle—jam or streaky cinnamon sugar—or big jewels of fresh or dried fruit in the batter.
But really, there’s no one way to make coffee cake—though you’ll notice that I make mine with a ⅓-cup measure as my primary unit of measurement, which makes coffee cake-baking almost dangerously easy, especially for freewheeling improvisational spirits and those with impressive memorization skills. Make a coffee cake that speaks (no, sings!) to you by following these 5 steps:
When it comes to coffee cake’s crumbly topping, that addictive layer of buttery spiced pebbles, we want flavorful, tender, not-too-sweet, a wee bit salty. The way to do it is to mix 1 stick room-temp butter with enough flour and sugar until it looks and clumps like wet sand—I like 1 2/3 cup all-purpose or whole wheat flour + 2/3 cup brown sugar.
There’s room for improv here: Substitute up to 2/3 cup of the flour for alternative flours like rye, buckwheat, almond meal, or flax meal. What’s that? You want to add a handful of oats? Do it! Add a healthy dose of spice! Cinnamon is classic; nutmeg or five-spice or cardamom would be dreamy. Fennel seeds, crushed in a mortar and pestle, would be CRAZY and probably delicious. Add a handful of roughly chopped nuts or seeds for texture. And a good pinch of salt is non negotiable—it will help keep the cake’s sweetness in check.
Scrunch everything together between your fingers until it’s more or less homogenous. Again, you’re going for wet sand here. Pop it in the fridge while you make the cake. This is essential! If the crumbly topping is at room temp when the cake goes into the oven, you run the risk of melting crumble instead of those sought-after pebbles.
I’ll concede another topping option: It’s exactly what you’d use to make the crumbs but sans butter and flour and with nuts; that is, just stir together sugar with a handful of chopped nuts (and maybe some spices and salt) and scatter it over the batter’s surface. The result will be a just-crisp, almost candied cake top.
Well, what’ll it be?
Hunky, juicy pieces of fruit? You’ll need 1/2 to 1 pound fruit, cleaned and either thinly sliced (like apples or pears) or roughly chopped if larger than a blackberry. Toss with a couple spoonfuls of cornstarch, which will help absorb excess moisture (and keep a good cake from getting soggy). Frozen will work just as well as fresh.
A layer of jam or compote? You’ll need 2/3 cup. If it’s very thick, heat gently with a splash of water until easily spoonable. Apple butter would be the bomb in this role. And here’s a trick from my aunt Anne: Slice up a can of jellied cranberry sauce (yes, really) and use that for your fruity element. It is so, so good.
Straightforward (or not so much) sugar and spice? Same 2/3 cup, but let it be a combination of sugar (white or brown), spices, finely chopped nuts, finely chopped dried fruit (like raisins or apricots or figs or cherries), and maybe even a spoonful of cocoa powder.
Oh, go ahead. Throw a handful of chocolate chips in there.
NB: No one’s saying you can’t do more than one of these options. Sugar and spice + fresh fruit? Jackpot.
The best coffee cakes are buttery, tender, lightly tangy, not too sweet, and a little bit dense—I love how satisfying it feels to really sink a fork into a piece. The batter will look pretty thick; that’s a good thing! It needs to be able to support the filling and the hefty crumb layer you’ll dump on top.
Hold onto your hats, recipe-fiddlers: Use all white or brown sugar, or go half and half, or substitute a bit of the dry sugar for a wet sweetener like honey or maple syrup. Experiment with whatever kind of dairy you’ve got—I bet even ricotta would work well (and would likely contribute some lightness)—but let it be full fat. You won’t get that rich tang or texture without it. Up to 2/3 cup of the flour can be an alternative flour like rye, buckwheat, oat flour, cornmeal, nut meal. And as for spices, citrus zest, and extracts, you can go bananas. A zip or orange or lemon zest, a splash of vanilla or almond extract, and good dose of whatever spice the spirit moves you to—this is where your cake will get its character.
Cream together the butter and sugar with an electric mixer, then beat in the eggs, one by one, followed by the sour cream (or whatever dairy you’re using). In a separate bowl, whisk together the dry ingredients; gradually and gently beat them into the wet mixture until there are no remaining streaks of flour. If you are adding chunks of fresh fruit (tossed with cornstarch), now’s the time! (If you have thin slices, hold off—you’ll fan them out between the layers of cake when you assemble it in the pan.)
Heat the oven to 350°F; grease a 9-inch springform pan and line it with parchment paper. (Here’s how to cut it into a handy circle!)
Spread half the batter into the pan. Sprinkle or spread your filling—your compotes, jams, nutty sugar, and spice mixtures, you name it—over the surface of the batter; if you’re using slices of fruit like apples or pears, go ahead and fan those over the surface now. Spoon the remaining batter over the filling in big dollops and smooth carefully until the filling is covered. It doesn’t have to be perfect or totally even, and don’t worry too much if some of the filling gets swirled in while you’re spreading.
Crumb time! Grab your crumb mixture from the fridge and make good-sized clumps of it with your hands. Scatter them over the surface of the cake.
Bake 40 to 55 minutes, until the crumbs are golden, the cake is super fragrant, and a thin knife inserted into the center comes out clean. Let it cool 15 minutes, then slide a knife around the edge of the pan and remove the springform pan’s collar. Eat warm or at room temp—or heck, even cold, straight from the refrigerator, with your fingers. Try your hardest not to pinch the fattest crumbs from the top. (If you succeed at that, you’re stronger than I.)
Are you a coffee cake lover? Share your favorite version with us below!