Department-Store Coffeecake

Worthy of a fine marble counter

Cinnamon Walnut Coffeecake with coffee
Image by Author

Earlier this year I quested to create the perfect cinnamon-walnut coffeecake. It wasn’t merely a flavor I was after, it was a luxurious, velvet crumb that held together cleanly when sliced, studded with just enough crunchy, cinnamon-crusted walnuts; a crumb topping that went from firm to liquid just a moment too quickly, leaving you wanting just one bit more. I needed to create this marriage of flavor and texture that persisted in my mind. Rounds of testing (and too much eating) later, I was finally satisfied with what I’d produced — and for a reason I couldn’t yet state, I immediately called my production “Department-Store Coffeecake.” No one, including me, understood why I’d call it that. It just felt right, and I decided to do some thinking about why.

I arrived in the world just as a really cool food trend seemed to be wrapping up. I remember, as a kid, walking into the grand department stores in the city (my city at the time was Rochester, NY) and seeing their fantastic bakery departments. Rochester had some pretty cool stores with some pretty special bakeries — McCurdy’s and Sibley’s are two, now long gone, that stand out in my mind. (Indeed, my mother still has sturdy shirt boxes from those stores, reused and rewrapped Christmas after Christmas.) Along my journey as a food person, I also learned about Jordan Marsh’s iconic blueberry muffins, served originally at their flagship department store in Boston; that excellent recipe is still the “Toll House” of blueberry muffins.

My mother is a talented and joyful baker, so we rarely, if ever, chose to use the resources we had during my childhood to buy department store baked goods. I remember a bite of cookie here and there, but what I remember more is the polish and perfection that these creations promised. The context created a special kind of magic. Amongst the glowing brass fixtures, the bright broad marble aisles lined with smiling, well-heeled salespeople, and the rows of fine wares and exquisite clothing: a muffin, a cookie, a glistening tart. In one sweeping view, you could take in a gold lamė ball gown and a single sumptuous slice of Maple Walnut Sponge Cake. And like the clothing and housewares, you could expect — and find — quality in the bakery. These cakes and pies, cookies, tarts, brownies and bars, were given as gifts, wrapped as artfully as they had been baked. They were good. They were perfect. They were grand. Bakery worthy of the marble temple in which it was crafted. Just salivating over it made you feel fancy.

This concept seemed to be fading by the mid- or late 1980s, presumably because as supermarkets got bigger and bigger, they rarely ever opened anymore without an in-house bakery. Supermarkets, though, aren’t department stores. Absent are the smiling salespeople and carefully tended aisles, the array of shiny luxury, or grandeur of any kind. This is of course in line with the function of a supermarket — it can be as nice or as well-curated as you could hope, but its purpose is ultimately utility. A great one, these days, can entice you with well-made and thoughtfully displayed mountains of fine bakery, but the grand magic was never part of their formula. You are not intended (nor do you wish) to stroll the aisles at leisure and take in the store itself. Department stores — at least in those days — were a special experience all their own.

Just salivating over it made you feel fancy.

Down the rabbit hole, I eventually tumbled across a very cool (if you’re into that sort of thing) website, The Department Store Museum, where I found a thread that mentioned McCurdy’s and their Maple Walnut Sponge Cake. My parents don’t remember this cake; perhaps one of my grandmothers secretly indulged me in a slice. I could see the cake in my mind, and taste it; I could feel those delicate bits of walnut in their cinnamon cages softly snapping apart between my teeth. However I came about this cake as a kid, as soon as I read about it, I knew it had been the cake I had been trying to recreate (even if I’d forgotten about the maple). Mystery solved!

In testing, one thing I felt sure would be key in achieving the texture I wanted in the crumb was the distribution of butter among the dry ingredients, rubbing it into them as you might in a scone or biscuit dough. A crumb cake, sort of. The water in each particle of butter would have the opportunity to steam in place and open up the crumb in concert with the leavening. And while I knew I wanted it springy, I also knew I wanted it velvety. Enter cultured dairy. Buttermilk and sour cream lend batters exactly the smooth richness I was looking for.

After several rounds of testing and tweaking, I was satisfied enough to call this recipe Department-Store Coffeecake. I’ll put a slice of it on my nicest plate, and relive that retail magic.

Recipe: Department-Store Coffeecake

For a 9” x 9” square pan — reduce by 1/3 if using a smaller pan. This seems like a long recipe but it truly comes together in about 10 or 15 minutes. Preheat oven to 375°F.

Ingredients (streusel topping)

  • Butter: 8 T (4 oz)
  • Sugar: 2/3 c (5 oz)
  • Kosher salt: 1 t
  • Flour (AP): 3/4 c (3.75 oz)
  • Cinnamon: 2 t
  • Walnuts (crushed, see NOTES): 1 1/4 c (5 oz)

Ingredients (cake):

  • Flour (AP): 3 c (15 oz)
  • Sugar: 1 c (7.5 oz)
  • Baking powder: 1 T
  • Kosher salt: 2 t
  • Butter (cold): 12 T (6 oz)
  • Eggs: 3
  • Vanilla: 2 t
  • Sour cream: 3/4 c (6 oz)
  • Buttermilk: 1/2 c (4 oz)

Ingredients (glaze):

  • Confectioner’s sugar: 1 c (4 oz)
  • Milk: 2 T (+)
  • Salt: pinch

Instructions:

  1. Make the streusel first: gently melt the butter. Meanwhile, combine the dry ingredients.
  2. Pour the butter over the dry ingredients, and toss with a wooden spoon. Boom, streusel. Set aside.
  3. Prepare your pan: Use a small paper towel to wipe out the container in which you melted the butter, and then apply that remnant-butter to the bottom of your cake pan. Place a square of parchment on the bottom — the slight coating of butter will help it adhere. (You can skip this step if you are planning on serving the cake directly from the pan, a fine option.)
  4. Mix together the dry ingredients of the cake batter with a dry whisk.
  5. Cut the butter into cubes, and toss them around in the dry ingredients.
  6. With both the butter and your fingertips well-coated in the flour mixture, pinch each cube of butter into a flat(-tish) shape.
  7. Toss the mixture again, and then further incorporate the butter by picking up small handfuls of it in cupped fingers, and use your thumbs to gently, thoroughly grind the mixture forward across your fingertips. Do not grind back and forth; with each forward grinding motion allow the mixture to fall back into the bowl. Pick up new handfuls of mixture and repeat, until the butter is indiscernible and the entire mixture looks like grated parmesan cheese (the kind from the can).
  8. IF AT ANY POINT the mixture becomes sticky or you can feel the butter beginning to melt, STOP, and chill the mixture for a few minutes before you proceed.
  9. Whisk the eggs together with the vanilla, then whisk in the sour cream and buttermilk.
  10. Empty the wet ingredients into the dry, using a rubber spatula to scrape. With this same spatula, fold the batter together, avoiding any vigorous stirring or mashing action, until the dry ingredients appear to be completely incorporated.
  11. Place about half the batter into your prepared pan, and spread it somewhat evenly — go slowly and be patient!
  12. Distribute just less than half the streusel topping across the batter, and press very lightly so that it adheres to the batter below (this will make the next step easier).
  13. Place the remaining batter around the pan in several mounds, so it’s easier to spread. Spread somewhat evenly, and top with the remaining streusel.
  14. Place into the oven, and reduce heat to 350°F. Bake for approximately 45 minutes — this will vary depending on the temperature of your ingredients. A finished cake should be set and springy, and a toothpick will come out clean. Check often — a toothpick will also come out clean from a very-overbaked cake.
  15. To make the glaze, combine the ingredients and whisk with a fork. I find I need just over 2 T of milk. You can glaze in the pan, if you’ll serve from it; see NOTES for alternatives.

NOTES:

  • If using finer salt, like table salt or fine sea salt, halve all the salt quantities listed.
  • I find chopping walnuts to be extremely annoying because they go everywhere and the process creates a lot of walnut-dust. Much easier is to place walnut halves on a solid surface, and simply crush them with the heel of your hand until you’ve created the perfect size piece. (You can also just purchase “walnut pieces” and use those; I like to have halves on hand for a more diverse array of uses.)
  • In spreading this batter in a pan, there is hardly anywhere I could more strongly recommend the tool called an offset spatula (/offset spreader). It’s inexpensive and it’s a dream for jobs like this. If you don’t have one, you can certainly use a rubber spatula; it will require a bit more patience on your part.
  • When I have preferred to serve this cake a little more elegantly, in nice, neat pieces, I have found that cooling it and then thoroughly chilling it is the way to go. Directly from the refrigerator, run a knife around the sides; the parchment on the bottom should give you a perfect release there. Gently turn the cake out, remove the parchment, re-invert onto a rack, and then glaze it. Allow the glaze to set for 10 or 20 minutes, and then slice. Using a sharp knife, keeping it clean, and having a cool cake will help facilitate clean edges. Allow to return to room temperature, or warm slightly, and serve.

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