Thursday, September 2, 2010

Cinnamon Sour-Cream Coffee Cake . . . and Bakers' Intuition

One evening, a couple of months ago, I found myself casually browsing around in a big bookstore. Strolling from section to section, pausing to pick up interesting titles that caught my eye, it wasn't long before I meandered  into the cookbooks. I zeroed in on the baking books of particular interest to me, but hung back a bit as I approached because there was one other woman in the aisle and she, too, was focused on the very group of books I hoped to peruse. I didn't want to invade her space or make her feel rushed, so I busied myself nearby and took a book randomly from one of the shelves. Flipping through the glossy pages, I kept glancing over in her direction, curious as to which books were absorbing her attention so completely.

Eventually she must have sensed my interest because after a few minutes she turned to me with a smile and said, "Do you have any suggestions for good baking cookbooks? I want something new, but I'm not sure what to get." That comment broke the ice and we stood there chatting for a good twenty minutes or more. We paged through a half dozen books together, critiquing their merits. We talked about the kind of baking we each like to do, and what we value so much about baking from scratch. It was one of those rare conversations you occasionally have with a complete stranger that evolves so naturally it makes you feel as if you might have known that person for years.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about that little encounter was that it really wasn't so surprising at all. It seems to me that when you see someone who is immersed in a baking book, you are very likely looking at a kindred spirit. After all, not everyone bakes for fun. Most people, in fact, almost never bake from scratch, and not everyone reads cookbooks purely for pleasure.

But some of us do. In this respect, as devoted home bakers, it's kind of like we're charter members of an unofficial but universal club. We seem to have ways of finding each other. Whether it be through books, or recipe sharing, through food blogs, or chance encounters in person, I'm starting to wonder if we have some sort of magical radar that allows us to scout each other out. Is it just a form of bakers' intuition, or a bakers' psychic connection? I do not know. But, whatever it is, it's delightful, comforting, and ever so slightly mysterious.

About this recipe . . . 

What's not to love about a classic sour cream coffee cake embedded with swirls of cinnamon, brown sugar, and pecans? I'm talking about a moist cake with a soft tender crumb, not a super-dense pound cake texture. Add to that the complementary flavor balance of vanilla and butter, marbled with a generous streak of delicately spicy sweetness, and you can't go wrong.

This sour cream coffee cake formula combines what I think are the best features of two similar recipes found in two fine sources: The Sono Baking Company Cookbook, by John Barricelli, and Carole Walter's Great Coffee Cakes, Sticky Buns, Muffins & More. The most interesting feature of Barricelli's version, I thought, was his direction to mix the baking soda with the sour cream well before it gets mixed into the rest of the batter. This allowed the sour cream time to actually fluff up from the action of the soda, so when I finally added it into the batter, alternately with the flour, it was almost like I was adding in beaten egg whites instead of plopping in heavy wet globs of sour cream. In my experience, speaking strictly as a home-baker, this is an altogether uncommon technique, but one that produces a pretty intriguing effect. Though I don't recall encountering it before, I must admit I was instantly enamored.

From Carole Walter's recipe, I borrowed her advice to use superfine sugar instead of regular granulated sugar in the cake, and  instead of using Barricelli's guidance to go with cake flour, I went with Walter's choice of All Purpose flour, which I decided had better be sifted. I toasted my pecans before chopping them, and I decided to use vanilla bean paste instead of vanilla extract. Why? Only because I 'd never used it before but had recently purchased a bottle and wanted to try it out. This seemed like it might be an appropriate venue in which to do so because this cake can handle a substantial amount of vanilla flavoring without being overpowered by it.

Vanilla bean paste is akin to a dark syrupy version of vanilla extract that also includes visible vanilla bean seeds, along with a little bit of sugar. It can be exchanged for vanilla extract in a recipe on a one-to-one basis, so it's a flexible ingredient to have in one's arsenal.

This is a very solid recipe that I can envision making again and again in years to come. I was completely pleased with the way it turned out.

Cinnamon Sour Cream Coffee Cake

(For a printable version of this recipe, click here!)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter generously the sides and bottom of a 10" tube pan with a removable bottom, and dust well with flour, tapping out the excess.

For the topping:
1/2 cup light brown sugar, firmly packed
2 to 2 and 1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon (use the larger amount if you're a cinnamon maniac)
1 and 1/4 cups pecans, toasted and then finely chopped (toast in 350 oven on a baking sheet for about 12 minutes)

For the cake: 
2 cups thick sour cream (I actually used 1 and 1/2 cups sour cream and 1/2 cup Greek style yogurt and it worked out great; I needed to do this because I miscalculated how much sour cream I had on hand to start with. I think you could safely substitute more yogurt for some of the sour cream if you wanted to do so, but I wouldn't substitute all yogurt for all of the sour cream. I suspect doing that might change the character and/or flavor of this particular cake.)
2 tsp. baking soda
3 and 1/2 cups All Purpose flour, sifted
1 Tbsp. baking powder
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
2 cups of superfine sugar
2 tsp. kosher salt
4 large eggs, room temperature
1 and 1/2 Tbsp. vanilla bean paste or vanilla extract

To make the topping: 
In a little bowl, toss together the brown sugar, finely chopped toasted pecans, and cinnamon, mixing it well with a fork. Set aside.

To make the cake:
In a small bowl, stir together the sour cream and baking soda; set this aside. In another small bowl, whisk the flour and baking powder together; set this aside as well.

In the large bowl of your mixer, using the paddle attachment, cream together the superfine sugar, butter, and salt on medium-high speed until fluffy and light, for 2 to 3 minutes. Halfway through, stop to scrape the bowl and beaters.

Add in the eggs, one at a time, beating after each one. Beat in the vanilla paste/vanilla extract.

On low speed, add in the dry ingredients in three batches, alternately with the sour cream. Beat well after each addition.

Spoon half of the batter into the prepared tube pan.

Sprinkle in half of the topping mixture, taking care to avoid the sides of the pan if possible (easier said than done!). You want to kind of hide the filling within the batter. Use a knife to lightly swirl the topping into the batter.

Add the rest of the batter on top of that, and smooth it out. Sprinkle the remaining topping all over the top of the batter.

Put the cake pan on top of a baking sheet and bake in a preheated oven for 50 to 60 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the cake comes out clean. Be sure to check the cake about halfway through its baking time and rotate the pan. If the top is already golden brown, cover it lightly with foil at that point and leave the foil on until the cake is done.

Cool the cake in its tube pan, set on a cooling rack, until it's almost completely cool. Run a thin knife around the inside edge of the pan to loosen it. Lift it out of the pan, insert the cake quickly onto a flat plate, then re-invert it onto your serving plate (might want to do this over a sink, because some of the topping will inevitably fall off; the faster you do it, the less will have a chance to fall off!).

(If you'd like to comment on this post, or to read any existing comments, please click on the purple COMMENTS below!)


Catherine said...

Ooooh my goodness, this looks incredbile Jane!
Wonderful job on the photos!!

The Urban Baker said...

I love a good sour cream coffee cake. This looks yummy!

adrienzgirl said...

This cake looks wonderful. I love coffee cakes. I found your blog through my sister yesterday. She was researching bar recipes for a recipe swap I host on my blog on Thursdays. She stumbled across your Apricot Bars and we both just drooled with delight over them. She actually posted a link to them today on her post. Please feel free to link to my recipe hop anytime your recipes meet our theme for the week. Today's theme was cakes and bars.

I really think food is the universal language of love and friendship. The conversation you had in the aisle at the book store is proof positive of that!

Danielle said...

This looks so moist and delicious!

Sara H said...

I NEED a pan like that. STAT!

Allison said...

Hi Jane! You articulated so wonderfully the exact reason why I started my own blog. I want to be able to connect to all the other passionate bakers out there, amatuer or professional. To swap tips and advice. To know that there are others looking for a little more pleasure and happiness in life doing something they love. Your post was a nice reminder of exactly why I started my blog...I've needed some refocusing lately :)

This recipe sounds just perfect for fall. And about now is the time I start to yearn for cooler temperaturesl; so of course this week it finally decides to warm up in California!

Susi's Kochen und Backen said...

What a mouthwatering looking coffee cake! Even your pictures of the dough look good enough to eat (is it wrong that I want to eat the raw dough?) I'm going to make this recipe really soon, everything about it screams "family hit" to me! Thanks for sharing :o)

Juliana said...

Wow, this cake looks so yummie, love cinnamon, and it sure looks SO moist...great photos!

scrambledhenfruit said...

I'd really love a slice of this right now with a cup of coffee- it looks fabulous!

kitchen flavours said...

This is the kind of cake that my family will definitely love! Thanks for sharing!

Basic Meatloaf Recipe said...

Oh! That's look great!
Wonderful recipes posting.

Paula said...

so big, so rich, and I`m sure that so tasty :)

Katie said...

This looks divine and my idea of coffee cake heaven. I adore anything cinnamony - love the swirl through the middle

Patrice @ Circle-B-Kitchen said...

Wow! Just found your website and I love it! This cinnamon coffee cake looks amazing. My mouth is so watering right now. Beautiful photos too. I'll be back!

Kerry said...

I love your story about the woman in the bookstore. I think that's the best part for me about loving to bake and starting on this whole blogging journey. You become instant friends with complete strangers... over recipes! Honestly, a lot of the world's problems would be solved if we could just get all the diplomats and politicians and terrorists and whoever baking together. P.S. Your coffee cake looks so good!

Jessica said...

This cake looks so delicious! Every time I see someone using their standing mixer I remind my hubby of my christmas wish this year! Poor's already got ice cream maker, tart pans, and God knows what else on that list! lol

June in Ireland said...

What a wonderful story, and a wonderful post, Jane. While reading it, I knew exactly waht you meant and how both you and the 'kindred spirit' in that book shop felt. It's a delicious feeling that I've discovered too, by 'connecting' with a few 'kindred spirits' in the baking blog world. When I go into a bookshop, I head straight for the cooking section, and could spend hours there (if it's a good enough section, I mean) there. There are still so, so many cookbooks I want - not just to learn from and to bake from, but also to savour and enjoy and immerse myself into, for the sheer joy, bliss and pleasure that these books can bring. Thanks again for the brilliant post (as is usual for you) and for the great coffee cake recipe and the great photos. I love, love, love coffee cake! In fact, when I was a young girl, the very first cake I ever made by myself, aside from the Easy Bake Oven cake mixes, that is, was a coffee cake with cinnamon crumble topping. Even though technically it was from a Betty Crocker mix, I still felt so proud and pleased that I made it myself, with no help from my mom.

Thanks for sharing, Jane.

Linda said...

I agree with some of the above comments about how well you have articulated this bond that we share. I have been reading cookbooks for pleasure for 40 years, and it has been a great joy to find others like me. :)

I love your descriptions of the coffee cake and the reasons for your varied use of ingredients. It is interesting that you caution against using all yogurt in place of the sour cream. I buy Greek yogurt made by a local dairy and have found that I particularly love the taste of baked goods (especially breads) when I include or substitute yogurt for sour cream or even for milk or cream. However, I did regret the substitution in a cake I made, and it has caused me to tread a little more carefully. ;)

Anonymous said...

Super... super blog. I'm your newest follower.

faithy said...

everytime i look at your posts, i want to bake everything from it..and bookmarked them all! Now i just need to find time to bake them! :S yummy looking cake..i love cinnamon!

I agree with you totally. I'm also one of those who reads cook/bake books for pleasure..hahaha..and thats the only type of books i read nowsadays.. other type of books makes me fall asleep!

Unknown said...

I strike up a conversation at stores too. Bakers understand each other ;) This method seems interesting, bookmarked, Just need that lovely pan!!

HanaĆ¢ said...

Wow, how gorgeous, Jane! I love how you combined 2 recipes to create a new one. I like how this cake isn't dense like pound cake. I have to wonder how much more tender the cake would have been with cake flour. Do you think it would have been too tender and therefore falling apart upon eating, if made with cake flour?

Rummy Arizankoska said...

It sounds delicious! Have to try it!
Love your blog!

Rummy :)

Naomi said...

Your cake looks real close to one I make, only mine has sour cream in it. Our Family loves coffee cake!
I Enjoy your reading your blog.

cocoa and coconut said...

Not only is this a beautiful cake, you really wrote a lovely story. It's true I think we do have the tendancy to find each other :) And as I said on my first comment, I'm glad I found your blog. I'm off to explore the rest of your recipes - so I hope you don't mind my comments which I'm sure will be filled with lots of "OHH" "YUM" "WELL DONE!"