What is coffee cake?
Judging the name alone, one might think it’s cake that’s flavored with coffee….like chocolate cake, except coffee.
Although I suppose that’s a possible variety, coffee cake most often refers to a sweet, quick bread-like cake, swirled with fruit, nuts, or cream cheese, and (if you’re lucky) streusel. Occasionally, coffee cakes are made with yeast, but I think that takes away from the beautiful simplicity of this treat. Coffee cake is typically made with on-hand and seasonal ingredients, is easy to mix together, infinitely customizable, and is best enjoyed still warm from the oven.
Why, you may ask, is it called coffee cake? Well, it’s delicious to eat while drinking coffee. It’s a bit of a holdover from the days when neighbors and friends had lingering conversations over coffee and a sweet treat.
Coffee cakes can, of course, be enjoyed without the benefit of coffee (or tea). Yet, eating a piece of simple cake with a hot beverage provides textual and flavor contrasts that enhance each item, making for a more substantial and pleasurable experience. Thus, cakes and pastries were a fundamental part of the menu of coffee houses from the onset.
Coffee Cake Was Not Invented. It Evolved.
The words coffee and tea were first mentioned in English in 1598 in a translation of the travels of a Dutch navigator Jan Huyghen Van Linschoten. Actual coffee was only introduced to Europe (outside of the Ottoman Empire) by way of Venice and reached England in 1630 (23 years after the founding of Jamestown) several decades before the arrival of tea there in 1652.
The first coffee house outside the Ottoman Empire opened in Livorno, Italy, in 1632, the first in England was in Oxford in 1650. Subsequently, coffee cultivation spread outside its native Ethiopia, while the cost of sugar dramatically fell due to the influx of Caribbean cane. As a result, by the end of the 18th century, the masses of Europe partook of coffee on a daily basis and it replaced beer there as the most widely consumed beverage.
Tea and Coffee Come to North America
The Dutch brought tea to North America in 1650 and coffee in 1670. Initially, tea proved more popular. The first coffee house in America, the London Coffee House, opened in 1676 in Boston. American coffee houses served as one of the primary locations for revolutionary activities, including purportedly (and ironically) planning the Boston Tea Party.
After the War of 1812, less expensive and high quality coffee began flowing in from South America. Beginning in the 1840s, tumultuous economical and social conditions in Germany led to decades of immigration to America; the newcomers (along with Scandinavians) brought their foods traditions, their love of coffee, and some common German expressions, including: kaffeeklatsch (coffee chat), kaffeekuchen (yeast coffee cakes), krümelkuchen (crumb cake), kaffeehaus (coffee house), and streusel. Demographic changes generally take several generations to impact local culinary and cultural transformations. By the mid-19th century, coffee replaced tea and hard cider as the American drink of choice and German-style kuchen increasingly overtook British baked goods as American coffee cakes.
The British began referring to various baked goods served with popular hot beverages by the name ‘tea cakes” and (coffee cakes) akin to the initial ‘chocolate cake’ which did not contain chocolate but was served alongside hot chocolate. English tea and coffee cakes were typically unleavened cookies, scones, and crumpets (what Americans call English muffins) or sweet yeast buns. The term ‘coffee cake’ eventually disappeared in England.
It was not until after the Civil War, when the impact of German coffee traditions grew more pronounced, that the term ‘coffee cake’ became commonplace in America.
Americans initially used it to indicate a chemically leavened cake incorporating brewed coffee into the batter. As late as the 1918 edition of The Boston Cooking School CookBook, Fanny Farmer employed ‘Coffee Cake’ and ‘Rich Coffee Cake’ to denote batters containing coffee in the Cake section. However, her ‘German Coffee Bread’ in the Bread and Bread Making section was a recipe for a yeast-raised sweet bread with streusel topping which was popular with hot coffee.
Reflecting the language and culinary changes afoot in America at the time was Aunt Babette’s CookBook (1889) by Bertha Kramer, an author from a German-Jewish background. In the generic Cake section Kramer provided a recipe for ‘English Coffeecake,’ a coffee-flavored batter leavened with soda. In addition, there was a separate section entitled Coffee Cakes, which encompassed an assortment of German, yeast-raised kuchen and pastries enjoyed with coffee. Pointedly, the recipes in the Cake section were leavened with chemicals, while all the baked goods in the Coffee Cakes were raised with yeast and usually topped with chopped almonds, cinnamon, and sugar, and aptly named ‘Kaffee Kuchen’ and three others as simply ‘Coffee Cake.’
Streusel Comes to the Front
A different German topping proved even more popular, streusel, a simple pastry of flour, sugar, butter, and sometimes spice. Since it has no liquid, streusel can contain a higher amount of sugar and butter than other pastries, which makes it tender and sweet. The larger the proportion of flour, the crumblier the texture, while a higher proportion of sugar results in crisper and more granular chunks.
Streuselkuchen began appearing in small German bakeries in the Northeast and Midwest. The ‘Streusel Coffee Cake’ in A Book of Cooking and Pastry by C.F. Pfau (1887) is the first record of the word streusel in an American cookbook. It was a traditional yeast-raised treat rolled out and topped with streusel.
The Rise of Baking Soda and Baking Powder
Meanwhile, the nature of American cakes and coffee cakes (the kind accompanying hot coffee) was changing due to the popularization of commercial baking soda and baking powder. Chemically leavened coffee cakes, a distinctly American innovation, are much easier and quicker to prepare; they fall somewhere between quick breads and butter cakes.
In general, coffee cake batter is more liquidy than quick breads and it contains a bit more sugar and fat (either butter or oil) but less so than butter cakes. The final product is lighter, moister, and has a finer crumb than quick breads, but is less sweet and intense than butter cakes.
Coffee cakes are able to be prepared either like quick breads, by stirring together the liquid and dry ingredients, or creamed like butter cakes; the creaming method produces a finer crumb. Whereas butter cakes are commonly frosted and quick breads tend to stand alone, coffee cakes are usually single-layered and lightly gilded with a glaze, streusel, or cinnamon sugar topping (or a combination of these) and are almost never frosted.
America Made Coffee Cake Even Better with the Addition of Sour Cream
Chemical leaveners, like baking soda and baking powder, need some kind of acid to make them activate. This aids in the rising of the baked goods and results in a tender finished product. In the late 19th century bakers used home-fermented raw milk and cream (sometimes called clabber or clabbered cream) to get that reaction.
Following WWI, pasteurization in America became widespread and practically eliminated various old-fashioned, homemade, naturally-fermented, dairy products. In cakes, instead of clabber and clabbered cream, Americans shifted to using commercial, cultured sour cream.
When bakers began using sour cream in coffee cakes, they noticed something interesting. It not only helped the cake rise, sour cream also made it tastier and much more moist. The high fat content of sour cream also added a delectable richness.
The Coffee Cake Is Versatile
The dense coffee cake is not sweet or fancy, proving ideal for breakfast, brunch, snacks, and other informal occasions, while the ample streusel makes it rich and impressive enough for a dinner dessert; it’s truly an any-time-of-day treat, with or without coffee. The lactic acid in sour cream results in a tender crumb and also keeps the cake fresh longer. The fat contributes flavor and moistness. The slight tang of the sour cream and the warmth of the cinnamon-accented streusel perfectly underscore the velvety, buttery cake. The batter is rather thick in order to support the heavy streusel. An optional topping of cream cheese or fruity filling enhances the sensory experience. Coffee cake can be made in almost any type of pan, but many people prefer a Bundt.
Coffee Cake Has Its Own National Holiday
As surprising as that sounds, it’s the truth. Foodimentary (https://foodimentary.com/), the website where you can find a holiday for nearly every food, declares that April 7 is National Coffee Cake Day. There is no explanation as to how it came to be, nonetheless it makes for an excellent reason to celebrate the richness and goodness of a coffee cake in the middle of the spring season.
A tender, perfectly-spiced slice of coffee cake and a steaming cup of joe make a natural pair. The enticing aroma, ribbons of cinnamon streusel, and the hallmark crumb topping make it a treat at breakfast or as a midday indulgence. Coffee cakes are synonymous with casual gatherings that don’t require frosted or other labor intensive cakes. Made with just a few pantry staples, coffee cake is a delicious and easy way to start the day….even if your day doesn’t start until the relaxing Sunday brunch at noon!
So, the next time you enjoy this treat with your favorite cup of coffee (or tea) you won’t be left wondering how this scrumptious pastry came upon your plate today.