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Swans and Streusel

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<img src="http://forums.egullet.org/uploads/1221417463/gallery_29805_1195_47214.jpg" hspace="5" align="left">by Margaret McArthur

I moved my Mother-of-the Bride frock to the guest room closet last week. Its lines, a concoction of curves and cinches, reminded me of my mother's coffee cakes -- that childhood whiff of streusel supplanted for a blessed moment the memory of me busting my middle-aged moves to "White Wedding." Because midnight blue sequins would have morphed me into the Mother-of–the-Undead (on a slab, wearing a toe tag) I'd run out of formal options. Knowing one thing was true -- I couldn't afford Carolina Herrera – I took a trip to Joanne Fabrics to find a dress pattern.

There it was: Vogue Vintage 2401, circa 1952. It's vaguely New Look, sporting the same face-framing collar of my mother's wedding gown, three-quarter sleeves, and more darts than a pub in Paddington. No zippers or buttonholes, praise God, but some severe structure. I looked at the sketch: the dress was Nancy Mitford; Kay Kendall; Eloise's absent mother -- my mother. My mother's girlfriends.

They were slim, those ladies. I can't figure out how my mother and her girlfriends remained soignée swans rather than dumpy ducks, because they ate, best as I can recall, six meals a day: Breakfast, Coffee, Lunch, Tea, and Dinner; finally, late-night grilled cheese sandwiches and beer with Johnny Carson. They never exercised, except for a twirl around the dance floor at the Country Club or nine holes of hit-and-giggle on the Ladies' Nine.

My mother's breakfast might have been wheat germ, blackstrap molasses, and a cup of coffee. That left her an hour to bake a coffee cake, restore the kitchen to its alien gleam, don careful makeup, a pair of capris and a saucy sweater. Her girlfriends were coming for Coffee with a capital C. Entemann's Raspberry Swirl in a foil pan wouldn't do; that would be announcing that you were a slut. It was home-baked and Maxwell House all the way. The swans left about eleven-thirty so they'd have enough time to greet the cob and the cygnets for lunch.

With those time constraints, yeast and almond paste were out of the question when it came to quotidian coffee cake. Whipped up in the Mixmaster, then baked in an eight-inch pan, sporting a sugary streusel or glaze, they had the wholesome allure of the smart girl in the old baggy sweater who was a guy magnet in tenth grade: the appeal of modesty.

Modest, and thrifty too. The day after I relocated my dress, I baked my mother's go-to recipe. I found it tucked away in the pocket of a ring binder, scribbled on the back of a souvenir postcard from my parents' first trip to the Uffizzi. "Lois's Coffeecake": Mummy wasted no words -- she couldn't very well scribble over Botticelli's Venus – and Lois didn't waste time on measurements for the streusel. The ingredients cost less than a scone at Starbucks and the cake took thirty thrifty minutes from mixing bowl to mouth. (Research makes me suspect that Lois owned a copy of The Joy of Cooking -- her recipe is a near-clone of the Rombauer Ladies' "Quick Coffee Cake.") Wrapped tightly and zipped in the microwave for ten seconds, it's as good with Thursday's coffee as it was with the Sunday papers.

Just as speedy is Dorie Greenspan's "Swedish Visiting Cake" from Baking From My Home to Yours. The Swedish friend who shared the recipe with her told her that if you started when you saw your girlfriend turning the corner, the cake would be on the table as soon as the coffee brewed. (Well, maybe if the corner were half a mile away). Baked in a skillet, fragrant and crunchy with almond extract and almonds, I don't dream of streusel. I conjure Carl Larsson's kitchen.

Brownies and blondies were stirred in a saucepan, to the accompaniment of Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. We kids counted these confections cheap -- common currency for dessert. What we lusted for was the solitary square of coffee cake our friends' mothers had left uneaten.

Why did we crave those cakes, so much plainer than the fudge-frosted brownies and Nanaimo Bars whose presence on the sideboard sustained us through the thousand Brussels Sprouts my mother insisted we eat every single day? Was it the tender, cakey crumb, the cinnamon crunch of streusel, or the guilty pleasure of spreading a chunk of cake with butter? Perhaps it was the seductive scarcity of the four-inch square remaining in the pan -- a tease, a whiff of the frivolous feminine society we kids could never join. They weren't baked for us -- they were the property of the sisterhood of swans.

<div align="center">+ + +</div>

From My Mother's Recipe Card:

Lois's Best Coffee Cake

Oven: 375 F

Butter one 8" x 8" square pan

Cream:<blockquote>1/4 C butter

1/3 C sugar</blockquote>Beat in:<blockquote>1 egg

2/3 C milk

1 t vanilla</blockquote>Sift and add:<blockquote>1-1/2 C flour

1/4 t salt

2 t baking powder</blockquote>Spread into the pan. Top with a layer of brown sugar, cinnamon, pea-sized dabs of butter and coconut or nuts if you have them. Bake 25 minutes. Serve hot, spread with butter.

<div align="center">+ + +</div>

From Dorie Greenspan's Baking From My Home to Yours (Houghton Mifflin 2006; by kind permission of the author):

Swedish Visiting Cake

<blockquote>1 C sugar, plus extra for sprinkling

Grated zest of one lemon

2 large eggs

1/4 t salt

1 t pure vanilla extract (optional)

1/2 t pure almond extract (optional)

1 C all-purpose flour

1 stick (8 T) unsalted butter, melted and cooled

1/4 C sliced almonds, blanched or not </blockquote>Getting Ready: Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter a seasoned 9-in cast iron skillet or other heavy ovenproof skillet, a 9 inch round cake pan or even a pie pan.

Pour the sugar into a medium bowl. Add the lemon zest and blend the zest into the sugar with your fingers until the sugar is moist and aromatic. Whisk in the eggs one at a time until well blended. Whisk in the salt and the extracts if you're using them.. Switch to a rubber spatula and stir in the flour. Finally, fold in the melted butter.

Scrape the batter into the skillet and smooth the top with a rubber spatula. Scatter the almonds over the top and sprinkle with a little sugar. If you're using a cake or pie pan, place the pan on a baking sheet.

Bake the cake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until it's golden and a little crisp on the outside; the inside will remain moist, even slightly damp. Remove skillet from the oven and let the cake cool for five minutes, then run a thin knife around the sides and bottom of the cake to loosen. You can serve the cake warm or cooled, from the skillet or turned out onto a serving plate.

<div align="center">* * *</div>

Margaret McArthur, aka maggiethecat, is the editorial director of the Daily Gullet. She writes, cooks and tends her garden near Chicago.

Art: Leda and the Swan, by one of his pupils after a lost painting by Leonardo DaVinci. Reproduced under the Wikimedia Commons license.

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Great piece, Maggie. I remember the desire that overtook me when my mom's sour cream coffee cake came out of the oven; I succumbed a few times, shaved the topping off with a butter knife, and ran when my mom discovered the top-down convertible.

Her girlfriends were coming for Coffee with a capital C. Entemann's Raspberry Swirl in a foil pan wouldn't do; that would be announcing that you were a slut.

Indeed. Entemann's? Might as well spit in the half-n-half.


Chris Amirault

camirault@eGstaff.org

eG Ethics Signatory

Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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I've added this coffee cake (Lois's) to the menu for the Ladies of the Lake when we return to a post resort on the North Shore of Lake Superior for our annual Thanksgiving weekend. We leave on Thursday, at 3:00 pm, whether we've had our pie or not, and we do eat six meals per day (or, perhaps it's one constant meal. We get our exercise by walking to the outdoor hot tub (shivering burns calories, right?) clutching our plastic glasses of wine. But swans we are, and we do need coffee cake

And, while we will not look chic, we will all pitch in -- someone will cream, another will whip up a strusel topping, and another will whisk together the dry ingredients while the fourth of us will grease tha pan, wandering around a kitchen in t-shirts and panties. Oh, and the pan-greaser can make mimosas and we will be the 2008 version of the ubuer-chic women of the 50's. Oh, and that last square, among ladies, is to be divied up into 1/2" squares. Welding the knife certainly burns additional calories, doesn't it?

Ah, warm coffee cake slathered with great butter, accompanied by the kind of company who appreciates the ambrosia. Be still my beating heart!


Susan Fahning aka "snowangel"

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I've added this coffee cake (Lois's) to the menu for the Ladies of the Lake when we return to a post resort on the North Shore of Lake Superior for our annual Thanksgiving weekend.  .  But swans we are, and we do need coffee cake

And, while we will not look chic, we will all pitch in -- someone will cream, another will whip up a strusel topping, and another will whisk together the dry ingredients while the fourth of us will grease tha pan, wandering around a kitchen in t-shirts and panties.  Oh, and the pan-greaser can make mimosas and we will be the 2008 version of the ubuer-chic women of the 50's.  Oh, and that last square, among ladies, is to be divied up into 1/2" squares.  Welding the knife certainly burns additional calories, doesn't it?

Ah, warm coffee cake slathered with great butter, accompanied by the kind of company who appreciates the ambrosia.   Be still my beating heart!

Susan, I'm so honored that this coffee cake will be part of the Thanksgiving retreat for your set of Swans. Be still my beating heart! And, truly, Lois's recipe can be improved by any whim and any ingredient at hand. (I'd like to be the pan greaser!)


Margaret McArthur

"Take it easy, but take it."

Studs Terkel

1912-2008

A sensational tennis blog from freakyfrites

margaretmcarthur.com

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Lovely, Maggie. :rolleyes:


I don't understand why rappers have to hunch over while they stomp around the stage hollering.  It hurts my back to watch them. On the other hand, I've been thinking that perhaps I should start a rap group here at the Old Folks' Home.  Most of us already walk like that.

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I loved Entenmann's (and Drake's) coffee cake when I was growing up in NYC. So I really AM a slut. I had my suspicions...


Gene Weingarten, writing in the Washington Post about online news stories and the accompanying readers' comments: "I basically like 'comments,' though they can seem a little jarring: spit-flecked rants that are appended to a product that at least tries for a measure of objectivity and dignity. It's as though when you order a sirloin steak, it comes with a side of maggots."

 

-The mosque is too far from home, so let's do this / Let's make a weeping child laugh.

    Nida Fazli, poet, 1938-2016 (translated, from the Urdu, by Anu Garg, wordsmith.org)

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A few weeks ago I ran across a relic of this era - a set of rectangular clear glass plates, each of which has an indentation for the matching glass coffee cup. I remember my mother serving various desserts to her friends on these, and I'm sure coffee cake was one of them.

She's now 81 and in poor health. I methodically went through her recipes a couple of weeks ago to try and find things I could make, and perhaps get her to eat, which is a real issue now that she's down to 94 pounds. The flood of memories in that recipe collection, which included a sour cream coffeecake, almost made me think my life was flashing before my eyes.

I'm probably more of a pariah than anyone -- Sara Lee was one of my childhood coffeecake memories, and from time to time I do purchase one.

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A few weeks ago I ran across a relic of this era - a set of rectangular clear glass plates, each of which has an indentation for the matching glass coffee cup.  I remember my mother serving various desserts to her friends on these, and I'm sure coffee cake was one of them. 

Maggie might correct me, but I'm sure the "luncheon plates" (complete with cup) were a part of these gatherings, or at least they were back in the day when women wore dresses, and the cook probably had an apron on.

The apron(s) were probably wedding shower gifts, either embroidered or appliqued, and the table sure had a wedding shower table cloth (again either embroidered or appliqued) along with matching napkins for holding and with which one could pat one's mouth. (Back then, in Nebraska, lipstick was blotted with two squares of toilet paper folded in half).

No doubt the dishes were hand washed and dried with flour sack or linen towels, embroidered (think Aunt Martha transfers, Maggie!), that had also been given as a bridal shower gift.

BTW, Maggie, I inherited ALL of those linens. Yes, be jealous. It was indeed an elegant era, wasn't it? Back when a martini was served in a coupe. And coffee and tea were served in cups with saucers (china, natch). Mugs had not been invented.

Edited to add: if they didn't use luncheon plates, surely they ate off real cut glass plates or fine china, and any flatware was sterling. This was not the day of plopping a hunk of coffee cake on a paper napkin!


Edited by snowangel (log)

Susan Fahning aka "snowangel"

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She's now 81 and in poor health.  I methodically went through her recipes a couple of weeks ago to try and find things I could make, and perhaps get her to eat, which is a real issue now that she's down to 94 pounds.  The flood of memories in that recipe collection, which included a sour cream coffeecake, almost made me think my life was flashing before my eyes.

I cooked for my mother until her death from Alzheimer's at age 90. One of the few things she would eat was that Seafoam Salad so popular at luncheons from the same era. It has pineapple and cottage cheese in it, so she was getting a little nutrition along with her flashbacks.


I don't understand why rappers have to hunch over while they stomp around the stage hollering.  It hurts my back to watch them. On the other hand, I've been thinking that perhaps I should start a rap group here at the Old Folks' Home.  Most of us already walk like that.

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The Great Coffee Cake years ran late fifties through mid-sixties, and most of the swans wore slacks and drank from -- gasp -- mugs!

The lovely cup/plate combos, the linens, the dresses were the property of Afternoon Tea, usually with two tables of bridge set up in the living rooms, tea sandwiches and the unintelligible ( to me,) murmurs of "two spades" or "three no trump." Tea was dressy, coffee was casual. The food at either event should make a comeback.


Margaret McArthur

"Take it easy, but take it."

Studs Terkel

1912-2008

A sensational tennis blog from freakyfrites

margaretmcarthur.com

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The Great Coffee Cake years ran late fifties through mid-sixties, and most of the swans wore slacks and drank from -- gasp -- mugs!

The lovely cup/plate combos, the linens, the dresses were the property of Afternoon Tea, usually with two tables of bridge set up in the living rooms, tea sandwiches and the unintelligible ( to me,) murmurs of "two spades" or "three no trump." Tea was dressy, coffee was casual. The food at either event should make a comeback.

Yes, and if one belonged to that 'tea' culture, one also remembers that it was a great honor to be chosen 'to pour.' Usually the most senior and revered member of the group was asked. The thinking was that everyone would at some time stop by the tea table for a cup and that way, everyone would get a moment, but just a moment, with the grandest and most honored of the guests.


I don't understand why rappers have to hunch over while they stomp around the stage hollering.  It hurts my back to watch them. On the other hand, I've been thinking that perhaps I should start a rap group here at the Old Folks' Home.  Most of us already walk like that.

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The Great Coffee Cake years ran late fifties through mid-sixties, and most of the swans wore slacks and drank from -- gasp -- mugs!

The lovely cup/plate combos, the linens, the dresses were the property of Afternoon Tea, usually with two tables of bridge set up in the living rooms, tea sandwiches and the unintelligible ( to me,) murmurs of "two spades" or "three no trump." Tea was dressy, coffee was casual. The food at either event should make a comeback.

Lemme tell yopu, it's work

Yes, and if one belonged to that 'tea' culture, one also remembers that it was a great honor to be chosen 'to pour.' Usually the most senior and revered member of the group was asked.

Last year I had the honor of "pouring" and it made me feel positively ancient, although half the ladies in the room had twenty five years on me! But I was what my dear Mama would have called "Great High Visiting Lady" so the task fell to me. Let me tell you it's work! The tongs and the sugar cubes, lemon, milk?

A warm coffee cake and a mug, kicking it with your girlfriends discussing "Butterfield 8" or Peg Bracken's latest was just fun.

Note to self: Maybe I should write a piece about tea parties. So sublime, especially if there was a bottle of sherry on the tea tray.


Margaret McArthur

"Take it easy, but take it."

Studs Terkel

1912-2008

A sensational tennis blog from freakyfrites

margaretmcarthur.com

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Maggie - I just found this and read it about 30 minutes ago. The coffee cake is in my oven right now. I got the coffee pot ready, too. So all I have to do when Mr. Kim and Jessica stumble down the stairs is hit the button and put the coffee cake and butter on on table. What a lovely vignette you gave us. I can just picture your mother and those ladies.

I have a set of those luncheon plates and cups somewhere. My grandmother gave them to me - she worked and didn't 'lunch'. I was born in the wrong decade, because I kept them in my kitchen cabinets for years (even through college!) thinking the occasion to use them would surely come up. Sadder, but wiser, they are now somewhere in a forgotten corner of one of the attics.

ETA: Delectable!!!!


Edited by Kim Shook (log)

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I have a set of those luncheon plates and cups somewhere.  My grandmother gave them to me - she worked and didn't 'lunch'.  I was born in the wrong decade, because I kept them in my kitchen cabinets for years (even through college!) thinking the occasion to use them would surely come up.  Sadder, but wiser, they are now somewhere in a forgotten corner of one of the attics.

Not sure if you celebrate Christmas but, if so, those plates come in very handy on Christmas morning. Seems like the grownups are always sitting around sleepy-eyed watching the youngsters tear through the gifts. Those plates are perfect for holding a 'little something' like coffee cake or toast while balancing a cup of coffee or juice.


I don't understand why rappers have to hunch over while they stomp around the stage hollering.  It hurts my back to watch them. On the other hand, I've been thinking that perhaps I should start a rap group here at the Old Folks' Home.  Most of us already walk like that.

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I have a set of those luncheon plates and cups somewhere.  My grandmother gave them to me - she worked and didn't 'lunch'.  I was born in the wrong decade, because I kept them in my kitchen cabinets for years (even through college!) thinking the occasion to use them would surely come up.  Sadder, but wiser, they are now somewhere in a forgotten corner of one of the attics.

Not sure if you celebrate Christmas but, if so, those plates come in very handy on Christmas morning. Seems like the grownups are always sitting around sleepy-eyed watching the youngsters tear through the gifts. Those plates are perfect for holding a 'little something' like coffee cake or toast while balancing a cup of coffee or juice.

I never would have thought of that! What a great idea. Now I have to figure out where they are :blink::biggrin: !

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Thanks for a lovely little memory. I've printed your recipe and will make it Saturday morning. I have some little clear-glass plates from the 40's that my mother-in-law gave me and a goodly collection of mugs. Alas, my milk-glass snack sets from the 60's are long gone. lkm


Edited by lmarshal1 (log)

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