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Anatomy of a coffee cake recipe

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33 replies to this topic

#1 Ellen Shapiro

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Posted 31 January 2003 - 08:26 AM

One of my favorite cakes, and that's a favorite among a long list of favorites because I love cake, is the Lithuanian coffee cake served at Claire's Corner Copia in New Haven, Connecticut.

It so happens I have the Claire's Corner Copia cookbook.

I decided last night to make the coffee cake, from the recipe in the book.

Silly me.

What I baked was quite unrelated to the version served in the restaurant. It was tasty, mind you, just not the thing.

I am going to assume that the recipe as printed in the book is just completely out of whack. But let me describe it:

It's a basic batter cake, with the cake ingredients being 1 stick butter, 1 cup sugar, 2 egges, 1 tablespoon coffee, 1 teaspoon vanilla (I doubled this), 1 cup sour cream, 2 cups AP flour, 1 teaspoon each baking soda and powder. Then there's a filling you layer in with the batter in the bundt, consisting of 1/4 cup brown sugar, 2 tablespoons regular sugar, 1 teaspoon cinnamon, 1 tablespoon coffee grounds, and 1/4 cup each chopped walnute and raisins. There's also a frosting but it's not the issue here--I nailed it no problem first try.

Okay, so the cake I made was very light yellow in color inside whereas the one in the restaurant is darker and grayer. The one I made was pretty light and fluffy compared to the denser, silkier cake at the restaurant. Those are the major differences. Two different coffee cakes, basically.

What I'm trying to figure out, because I'm at the end of the road on my baking knowledge, is how I can start tinkering with the recipe to increase density and silkenness.

Can we have a little clinic here?

Taking the above measures, can an experienced baker tell me what would happen, for example, if I added more eggs? Less flour? More butter? A different kind of shortening or a mix of shortenings?

I think this would be a useful exercise (especially for me!) on many levels.

Edited by Ellen Shapiro, 31 January 2003 - 08:26 AM.

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#2 Robert Schonfeld

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Posted 31 January 2003 - 08:45 AM

The soda and powder are the leaveners, so cutting them should increase density.

Try weighing the flour.

On a humid day, the flour will take more liquid ingredients.

Maybe - here I'm speculating - another egg yolk, or one less white.
Who said "There are no three star restaurants, only three star meals"?

#3 Liza

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Posted 31 January 2003 - 09:11 AM

Robert et al,
Any thoughts on adding sour cream?

#4 Suzanne F

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Posted 31 January 2003 - 09:46 AM

This is almost identical to a "Sour Cream Coffee Cake" my mother used to make. Hers had no coffee, and only chopped nuts and cinnamon in the filling (and sprinkled on top). And it had 1 1/2 tsp of baking powder instead of 1, plus 1/2 tsp of salt. She mixed it by hand, and baked it in a loaf pan. The cake was very dense and moist. One of the best things she baked. She probably got the recipe sometime in the 1960s, I don't know where from though.

Sounds like you beat your eggs a lot more than they do (or than she did); that would account for your fluffier texture and partly for the lighter color. You incorporated more air into the batter than they do. Maybe you need to go low-tech: don't use an electric mixer: just cream the butter and sugar, mix in the eggs, sift together the flour and leaveners and stir them in alternating with the sour cream, coffee, and vanilla. No beating.

Another color factor is the coffee: is it possible that they used a darker brew than you did? And this is a wild guess, but maybe they used darker brown sugar than you did?

I would not screw around with the current proportions. (Especially since I know from experience that the recipe CAN make a dense, moist cake.) Shirley Corriher had a piece in Fine Cooking about ratios for successful cake-making. Basically, she said there are three possibilities for successful high-ratio cakes (in which there is more sugar than flour, by weight):
1. Sugar should weigh the same as, or slightly more than, the flour.
2. The eggs should weigh the same as, or slightly more than, the fat.
3. Liquid (including the eggs) should weigh the same as, or more than, the sugar.
This recipe conforms to those ratios. The article is here.

#5 JAZ

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Posted 31 January 2003 - 01:23 PM

This is almost identical to a "Sour Cream Coffee Cake" my mother used to make.  Hers had no coffee, and only chopped nuts and cinnamon in the filling (and sprinkled on top).  And it had 1 1/2 tsp of baking powder instead of 1, plus 1/2 tsp of salt.  She mixed it by hand, and baked it in a loaf pan.  The cake was very dense and moist.  One of the best things she baked.  She probably got the recipe sometime in the 1960s, I don't know where from though.

I can practically guarantee that she got it from the Betty Crocker Cookbook. (Nice discussion of this cake and subsequent, "lighter" versions in a book called The Best Thing I Ever Tasted by Sallie Tisdale).

#6 Suzanne F

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Posted 31 January 2003 - 01:44 PM

The recipe in Betty Crocker's Cookbook (1969) is similar, but has different amounts of the ingredients (and neither coffee nor raisins, which I suspect are Claire's additions). The amounts are one-and-a-half times Claire's and my mother's by volume or count, which makes for different proportions by weight.

I dare not say that's where my mother got it, since the only cookbooks she had at the time were a 1945 edition of The Settlement Cookbook, Leah Leonard's 1956 Jewish Cookery, and Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Although it is possible one of her sisters got it from an earlier edition of Betty -- since the recipe went around the family long before 1969.

#7 Lesley C

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Posted 31 January 2003 - 02:46 PM

Ellen, pictures would help.

#8 Ellen Shapiro

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Posted 02 February 2003 - 03:34 PM

I was so frustrated, I tossed the cake--it actually wasn't bad it's just that I had one thing in my mind's eye (the cake it was supposed to be based upon my 20 years of eating it at the restaurant) and it wasn't what I ended up with--so out it went.
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#9 Suzanne F

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Posted 02 February 2003 - 04:44 PM

:unsure: :unsure: You're able to throw away edible food, just because it's not what you expected? :blink: :blink: :shock: (Wish I could, sometimes)

#10 Fat Guy

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Posted 02 February 2003 - 04:49 PM

No I ate 7000 calories worth of it first. Don't worry.

I think the question of shortening must be a big one. I've seen and tasted both cakes. I'll eat my hat if the Claire's cake served at the restaurant is made with butter. The restaurant has a huge kosher clientele and no way would the desserts be dairy. I'm guessing vegetable oil, or maybe shortening. I wonder if this alone could account for the difference. Maybe half and half would make sense as an experiment.

It's really annoying when restaurants do cookbooks and don't give their real recipes. In my opinion this is the case here, or perhaps the recipe has evolved. Probably worth its own thread, if we haven't had such a discussion already.

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#11 Jason Perlow

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Posted 02 February 2003 - 04:52 PM

can't you just call them up and ask them for the real recipe?
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#12 Fat Guy

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Posted 02 February 2003 - 04:55 PM

No she should reverse-engineer the recipe, then call them up and catch them if they lie!

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#13 Jason Perlow

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Posted 02 February 2003 - 04:58 PM

No she should reverse-engineer the recipe, then call them up and catch them if they lie!

Why not just freakin go there and take pictures of them making it? I see TDG article.
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#14 Dave the Cook

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Posted 02 February 2003 - 04:59 PM

This erroneous recipe topic has come up on a number of threads, so I won't vent again here, except to say that I think it's inexcusable.

My first thought was of the most recent Cook's Illustrated, where they make a carrot cake using oil. I don't have the article in front of me, but they remarked on the density and moistness of the cake in the same way Ellen talked about the original of her cake. Might be worth a look.

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#15 jaybee

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Posted 02 February 2003 - 05:48 PM

Cooks Illustrated has a recipe for a classic sour cream coffee cake that has the density you describe. Compare the recipe with the one you have from Claire's.

#16 Ellen Shapiro

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Posted 02 February 2003 - 06:08 PM

I'll check out Cooks Illustrated. I should have bought the giant bag of walnuts at Costco because it looks like I'm in for the long haul but I didn't think I'd be experimenting with the cake--I figured I'd make it, enjoy it and on to the next thing.
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#17 JAZ

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Posted 02 February 2003 - 08:32 PM

I'm guessing vegetable oil, or maybe shortening. I wonder if this alone could account for the difference. Maybe half and half would make sense as an experiment.

When I first read your post, I thought of oil as well. I have no idea what this cake is like, but my mother made several coffee cakes that used oil rather than shortening or butter, and they always had a wonderfully dense, moist texture. Melted butter comes sorta close, but even though it tastes better than oil, it still doesn't have quite the same texture.

#18 Jason Perlow

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Posted 02 February 2003 - 08:37 PM

Ah, the challenge of reverse engineering.

Coffee Cakes are so much more fun than Xboxes or DVD encryption algorithms.
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#19 Suzanne F

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Posted 02 February 2003 - 09:06 PM

Just because it didn't come out the way you expected, that does not mean that the recipe is wrong (sorry, D the C, and everyone else who has been so quick to fault the recipe). It is always possible that the recipe doesn't specify the method to use -- but that is not a mortal sin. It just means you have to keep trying different methods of mixing batters until you find the one they used. Before you start futzing around with the proportions of the recipe, how about trying different a method from the one you used? Did you beat a lot of air into it (which it sounds like you did)? Then don't, this time. Did you use the creaming method last time? Then try the two-stage method, or flour-batter method. Forgive me, but you still haven't said HOW you made it. Think about that before you start screwing around with the recipe.

Right now, the proportions of ingredients as you describe them should work. If you add more egg whites, you will have a denser, dryer cake, closer to a cellulose sponge. Adding more yolks will increase the emulsifiers, which you would have to do if you switch to oil. Once you start changing proportions, you change the chemistry and have a COMPLETELY different cake.

#20 Dave the Cook

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Posted 02 February 2003 - 09:25 PM

All good points, Suzanne.

Perhaps referring to this thread, where Really Nice did such a great discourse, would help.

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#21 Fat Guy

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Posted 02 February 2003 - 09:52 PM

Okay but if my theory is correct -- that there is no butter in any dessert at Claire's -- then it is an absolute waste of time to vary the recipe procedures without getting at the shortening question. I'm no baker, but I eat a lot of baked goods and I would be very surprised to find out I'm wrong here.

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#22 Dave the Cook

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Posted 02 February 2003 - 09:58 PM

All good points, Fat Guy.

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#23 Fat Guy

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Posted 02 February 2003 - 10:01 PM

Field trip to Claire's, followed by baking experiments.

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#24 Ellen Shapiro

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Posted 03 February 2003 - 05:06 AM

Claire's site is http://www.clairesco...a.com/index.htm and I have filled out the feedback form for info.
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#25 Suzanne F

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Posted 03 February 2003 - 11:45 AM

All good points, Suzanne.

Perhaps referring to this thread, where Really Nice did such a great discourse, would help.

Thanks. And thanks for the link. (I missed it originally :sad: ) Excellent discussion, Really Nice!

#26 Ellen Shapiro

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Posted 04 February 2003 - 06:59 AM

Suzanne--the recipe does specify blending with a mixer for 45 seconds--first in the bowl with the sugar, egg and butter (I didn't--I mixed by hand) and then again when the moist mixture is added to the flour and baking soda and powder mixture and again at the end with the addition of the final ingredients. But it does specify that each go with the hand mixer should be short--approximately 45 seconds.

As much as I ever follow a recipe to the letter of the law (I hand mixed rather than used a hand mixer)--I did so this time because I knew exactly what I was after and I wanted to end up with the "Claire's" cake. I am open to trying other mixing methods (and even different recipes) but she does give specific instructions in the recipe and I really do think that something has been altered over the years--or that the recipe in the book is simply not the one they use in the restaurant.
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#27 Suzanne F

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Posted 04 February 2003 - 07:34 AM

...  I really do think that something has been altered over the years--or that the recipe in the book is simply not the one they use in the restaurant.

Now THAT is more than likely! Especially since you followed the directions (closely enough) as stated.

What can happen in restaurant kitchens is that the "official" recipe gets lost and then recreated from (imperfect) memory; or someone makes a change that becomes part of common practice without becoming part of the official recipe. Or field conditions change -- maybe a particular brand of ingredient drops off the market, and the substitute just doesn't perform the same way. And the home cook might use an entirely different set of brands and equipment -- all of which perform differently from those at the source.

These are only a few reasons why a "restaurant" recipe doesn't yield the same result at home that one gets at the source. What got my back up here was the almost immediate assumption that the recipe was "erroneous" -- and by extension that the source was somehow guilty of obfuscation or worse. Also that people were so willing to suggest making substantial changes, without knowing all the circumstances of the experience. Bad science.

Fat Guy @ Feb 3 2003, 12:01 AM

Field trip to Claire's, followed by baking experiments.

That's the way! :biggrin:

#28 Dave the Cook

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Posted 04 February 2003 - 08:19 AM

...  I really do think that something has been altered over the years--or that the recipe in the book is simply not the one they use in the restaurant.

Now THAT is more than likely! Especially since you followed the directions (closely enough) as stated.

What can happen in restaurant kitchens is that the "official" recipe gets lost and then recreated from (imperfect) memory; or someone makes a change that becomes part of common practice without becoming part of the official recipe. Or field conditions change -- maybe a particular brand of ingredient drops off the market, and the substitute just doesn't perform the same way. And the home cook might use an entirely different set of brands and equipment -- all of which perform differently from those at the source.

These are only a few reasons why a "restaurant" recipe doesn't yield the same result at home that one gets at the source. What got my back up here was the almost immediate assumption that the recipe was "erroneous" -- and by extension that the source was somehow guilty of obfuscation or worse. Also that people were so willing to suggest making substantial changes, without knowing all the circumstances of the experience. Bad science.

Fat Guy @ Feb 3 2003, 12:01 AM

Field trip to Claire's, followed by baking experiments.

That's the way! :biggrin:

It wasn't immediately assumed that the recipe was wrong. It was assumed that Ellen had been meticulous in her craft, since she was after a specific result, and seemed to be sure that she was going to get what she wanted as long as she followed the recipe. The fact that it produced an acceptable cake indicates that the recipe she followed worked. The fact that it did not produce the cake as advertised indicated that the recipe was wrong. There is an assumption here (later confirmed by Ellen herself), but it's a stretch to call it bad science.

[soapbox]

I don't see where intent makes a difference. A recipe that is wrong is a recipe that is wrong, regardless of how it got that way. This was from a published, consumer-level cookbook, not a professional collection. There's no excuse for not testing recipes, and testing them under the conditions that the reader is likely to encounter. The purchaser of a cookbook has a right to expect that what is in the book will be accurate -- that's part of what they're paying for.

[/soapbox]

Nothing personal, Suzanne. I have a great deal of respect for you, your experience, and your opinions :smile: .

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#29 Fat Guy

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Posted 04 February 2003 - 08:50 AM

I am now in e-mail communication with Claire herself. I will get to the bottom of this soon.

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#30 Fat Guy

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Posted 05 February 2003 - 10:03 AM

Claire says, emphatically, that the recipe in the book is the exact same recipe used in the restaurant, and has offered to walk us through the whole process at some point. So, I will snack on my hat for now and report back when we learn how to make this thing right.

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