When I was a child, my father was in charge of getting my sisters and me ready for school in the morning. Amidst the madness of missing socks and unfinished homework, breakfast usually consisted of mushy oatmeal from a packet, charred cheese toast, or (if we were lucky) a straight-from-the-freezer coffee cake from none other than Ms. Sara Lee.
Years have passed since I last had that frozen pastry delight, but the memories of that tender, buttery cake seemed to linger on. With age, however, my tastes had become more refined than that of my childhood. Instead of craving a processed, frostbitten version of itself, I longed for an heirloom recipe passed down to me on a tattered index card, the ink smudged from a single forsaken splatter of vanilla.
I poured through my old cookbooks – full of others’ family secrets – with a fervor that only a cook understands, and then I found it, described just as I envisioned it to be: the perfect moist, crumbly coffee cake. I set forth on a mission. I lovingly stirred the dense, cakey batter with my old wooden spoon and gave it a heavy-handed dusting of brown sugar streusel in all the right places. Into the oven it went. And then I waited the most slow and painful of waits. The sweet and savory aroma of cinnamon intoxicated me as I pulled the steaming cast iron skillet from the oven; I hurriedly scooped a steaming slice onto a delicate tea saucer and poured a glug of milk. The first bite brought back memories of a carefree youthfulness long forgotten. But the second bite, oh that glorious second bite, far surpassed anything my father ever brought to the table (sorry, dad!).
Although this recipe may not have come from my grandmother, you can rest assured it came from someone’s. I look forward to the day when I can pass these cherished memories down to my own children, and they to theirs. It is that good. I think even Ms. Lee might agree.
BROWN SUGAR COFFEE CAKE
Source: The Cast Iron Skillet Cookbook
2 sticks unsalted butter, at room temperature, cut into 8 pieces
1 cup light brown sugar (I used white sugar because I only had enough brown for the topping. Worked like a charm)
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3/4 cup sour cream
2 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
TOPPING (I made double of this. What can I say, I’m a streusel junkie.)
1/2 cup all purpose flour
3/4 cup light brown sugar
1 tsp ground cinnamon
3/4 stick chilled butter, cut into 4 pieces
1 cup chopped walnuts
Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees.
For the cake: Place the butter in a large mixing bowl. Add brown sugar and beat with an electric mixer until light and fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating after each addition. Blend in vanilla and sour cream. With a rubber spatula, fold in flour and baking powder until completely blended. Generously butter a cast iron skillet and spread the batter evenly in the pan.
For the topping: Mix the flour, brown sugar, cinnamon and chilled butter with your fingers until well blended. Sprinkle evenly over the cake batter. Sprinkle with walnuts over the top. Place the skillet in the oven and bake for 35 – 40 minutes (mine took just a few minutes longer). Serve warm.