This is so much more than a recipe. It’s a memory incarnated.
A memory poured into worn aluminum baking pans, warm with the smell of cinnamon and coffee, ‘that’s just about right’ measurements, and love. My grandmother, the namesake of this blog, is the picture of hospitality. No matter the time of day, conversations are to be had around a kitchen table covered in newspapers, and good food. Even an unannounced visit is met with a plate of hand cut vegetables and fruit, fresh coffee, and something baked. As a young girl, that something was most often this coffee cake.
If it hadn’t already been baking, I would stand on a kitchen chair and help measure flour with an old brown melamine 1 cup. It looked more like a toy coffee cup than a measure, and I remember being so anxious it wouldn’t turn out, it didn’t seem precise enough. But Momma Z was never worried, and most certainly made up for over-measure of dry ingredients by adding a glug of extra milk without my knowing. The cake was a little different every time – sometimes darker or lighter in color, or a touch more dense, or with bits of crunch from the occasional walnut. The wet ingredients varied – sour milk (which most would have long since thrown out), sour cream, yogurt from my grandpa’s breakfast, whatever was in the refrigerator.
But warm out of the oven, it was, and still is, love on a plate. Imperfectly delicious. Grandpa would almost immediately appear in the kitchen from wherever he was, sometimes from all the way across the street getting the latest on a neighbor’s family, sit down with a cup of coffee and the paper and eat two pieces. At least. It is dense and sweet and rich, but so incredibly humble compared to the donuts and pastries of today’s common breakfast. With a fresh cup of coffee, you really can’t go wrong.
I cherish my grandmother’s recipes and the memories in her kitchen. She taught me to cook for the love of food and the ingredients at hand. Use a recipe, but don’t give up halfway through because you don’t have the exact dairy it calls for. Use what’s in your fridge, let your knowledge of ingredients and how they work, how they taste (by dipping a pinky in of course), what’s in season or what’s on sale. Hand write recipe cards to share with friends and family. And always have a warm hug and a warm treat handy for the ones you love.
This is the the only cake I’ll tolerate mixing by hand, certainly because working butter into flour brings back the joy. I’ve found this list of ingredients to be my ‘go-to’ version of Momma Z’s coffee cake, but please, by all means use what’s in your kitchen. I have it on good authority it will turn out just fine.
- 2 cups all purpose flour
- ½ cup (1 stick) cold unsalted butter
- 1¾ cup brown sugar
- ½ tsp salt
- ½ cup whole milk
- ½ cup sour cream
- 1 tsp white vinegar
- 2 eggs
- 1 tsp vanilla
- 1 tsp baking soda
- 1 tsp cinnamon
- ½ cup chopped walnuts or pecans (optional)
- Whisk together flour, brown sugar and salt in a large mixing bowl. Cube up the butter and then cut it into flour mixture using a fork or pastry cutter.
- Reserve ⅓ of the flour butter mixture, add the cinnamon to this, and set aside for the topping.
- In a 2 cup measuring pitcher - whisk together milk, sour cream, vinegar, eggs, and vanilla. I like to add the milk, then the vinegar, and then just add enough sour cream to bring the total up to 1 cup (saves dirtying another measuring cup!), then add the eggs and vanilla and whisk.
- Pour wet ingredients into dry and mix until just combined, try not to overmix as this can make the cake less tender. Add the nuts if you are using them.
- Pour into a buttered 9x13 or 9x9 glass pan. Sprinkle with topping.
- Bake on middle rack at 350 degrees, 35-40 minutes for a 9x13 or 45-50 minutes for a 9x9, until center is no longer jiggly and a toothpick comes out clean.