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Anatomy of a coffee cake recipe


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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 (log)

Ellen Shapiro

www.byellen.com

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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"?

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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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.

Dave Scantland
Executive director
dscantland@eGstaff.org
eG Ethics signatory

Eat more chicken skin.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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