When I think of a slow morning or a big breakfast, the first thing that comes to my mind is coffee cake. Dense, crumbly, and slightly sweet, coffee cake, also known as crumb cake, is the ultimate in baked goods, to be enjoyed with a hot cup of coffee.
During the fall holidays, I dug in the catacombs which are my mother’s family recipe boxes and found my childhood coffee cake recipe, created by my great-grandmother June in the 1930s. Great-grandmother June’s recipe reflected the finances of the Great Depression, but so it is with coffee cake recipes, adapted by bakers over the centuries.
The origins of the coffee cake are unknown, although countries like Germany, Austria, and Denmark are among the countries that are believed to have created this delicious dessert. When coffee was introduced to Europe in the 1600s, the aforementioned countries quickly adopted the combination of coffee and their traditional sweet breads, which are rich in spices and nuts.
When the Dutch and Germans immigrated to the United States, they brought their recipes for coffee cakes with them. Americans fell in love with this influx of new recipes, especially desserts, and coffee cake quickly became a popular treat.
My family’s recipe was perfected at the DeLalio family farm on Long Island, New York, during the Great Depression. Using few ingredients, but a lot of fat, the five-step recipe was ridiculously easy, even for me.
I deviated slightly from the recipe to make it a bit more modern (sorry, great-grandmother June) by adding a few dashes of vanilla, replacing granulated sugar with brown sugar, and replacing some of the shortening with butter (because who on earth wants a cake with 1 ⅓ cup of shortening?). I also put my own stamp on creating crumbs by adding more cinnamon and when cool enough icing sugar to cover all my cooking sins.
A bite of the cake confirmed its success, with the rich and chewy cake contrasting perfectly with a solid inch of spicy crumbs, all topped with the delicate sweetness of icing sugar. I had managed to create what my mom calls a “dream bite”, all eaten in perfect balance in one bite.
DeLalio Crumb Cake (circa 1934)
4 cups of flour, sifted
2 cups of sugar (I modified with 1 cup brown sugar, 1 cup white)
1 teaspoon of salt
1 ¼ cup shortening (can be replaced with melted butter to your liking. I used half the shortening and half the melted butter)
2 ½ teaspoons of baking powder
2 eggs, beaten
1 cup of milk
3 teaspoons of cinnamon (add more to taste)
3 tablespoons of melted butter
Mix the first 4 ingredients. Reserve 3 cups of the mixture for the breadcrumb filling. Add the baking powder to the remaining mixture. Add eggs and milk and mix until smooth. Pour into a greased 13 x 9-inch pan.
Add cinnamon and butter to 3 cups of breadcrumb mixture. Distribute the crumbs evenly over the dough. Bake at 325 F for about 30 minutes. Mix the cinnamon with the icing sugar and sprinkle over it.