Sunday, July 15, 2012

Coffee Cake

I love coffee cake – studded with fruit and nuts, beribboned with streusel topping. I love the idea of coffee cake—a cake it’s appropriate to eat in the morning.  I love the way the smell of a coffee cake wraps my home in such a welcoming, warm, vanilla-laced hug. To paraphrase the immortal Cher Horowitz in Clueless: “You should always have something baking when a boy comes over.” But, unlike Cher, I refuse to limit myself. I prefer to have something baking when anyone comes over!
There's nothing like a coffee cake, fresh from the oven.

My dear friend’s sister Sonja was the guest in question, and she has the distinction of becoming the first non-family member guinea pig to eat a Time Capsule creation. She tried the Mrs. Fields’ cookies to great acclaim in her own home, and assured me she was up for the challenge of eating a T.C. offering, face to face, as it were, with the cook in chief.

There are coffee cakes, and then there are coffee cakes. This recipe was so charmingly straightforward and homey -- with its vaguely goofy measurements, and the trustworthy appeal of a typed, copied, hand-me-down recipe. So I ignored the warnings, which shot out from the ingredient list like bullets from a machine gun:  A box of yellow cake mix (bam!). A box of instant vanilla pudding (bam!). A teaspoon of butter extract (bam!).

But, I mean, isn’t coffee cake like pizza? Even when it’s bad, it’s still pretty good? With true childhood zeal, I pressed on, a bit bemused, but no less enthusiastic, when the instructions called to whip the batter for eight minutes on high. (Bam! Bam! Bam!) Was I making cake or glue?

The gluey, gluey yellow batter.
A dusting of chopped walnuts on the bottom of the pan, and a sprinkle of sugar-cinnamon between the layers of batter, and into the oven it went. The sweet, homespun scent whirled into the summer air, and, 40 minutes later, I slid the cake out, golden and laced with sugar.

It was beautiful, but the proof, they say, is in the (instant?) pudding. The first clue we were in Little Debbie territory may have been how squishy it was to cut – the knife couldn’t get any traction. It was like trying to saw a square of Wonder Bread. Next, even though my toothpick had tested “clean,” the texture made me question if it was still raw. I nibbled a piece from the middle. Nope – it was cooked.  It was just … really, really moist.

After a quick dusting of powdered sugar, I wrestled slices onto plates and laid the offering before my guest. It’s so sweet to watch nice people try to lie. Poor Sonja gamely ate her slice, and concluded, “I like it.” “But?” I prompted, sensing her hesitation. “But, well, it tastes like a cake mix,” she added.

Beautifully marbled, and raising my hopes.
Bingo, Sonja, bingo. And therein lies my problem, as you know, with many of the Time Capsule creations. Here, I was hopeful the addition of vanilla extract would cut the funk, but sadly, even Madagascar’s finest couldn’t compete against the chemical wonder twins of cake mix and instant pudding.

Some things improve with age, and I was hopeful this gift from the Time Capsule would be one of them. I did have, after all, a 13x9-inch dish of it to get through. Strangely, though, what changed was not the taste so much as the texture. It morphed into the kind of unnaturally “fresh," bouncy softness found in goodies at airport coffee shops, or wrapped in plastic and sold in triplicate at Costco.

Still lookin' good, but ...
This recipe won’t diminish my love of coffee cake – good, fresh cake in the morning is still reason enough for me to invite friends over. Next time, though, I’ll ditch the convenience in favor of the tasty.

And I’ll be sure to invite you over, Sonja, when I do.

Coffee Cake
1/4 cup of chopped nuts -- more if you like nuts
1 package Duncan Hines yellow cake mix
1 package vanilla pudding mix
3/4 cup vegetable (or corn) oil
3/4 cup water
4 eggs
1 tsp. vanilla
1 tsp. butter extract
1/4 cup white sugar
2 tsp. cinnamon

Grease and flour 13x9-inch pan. Cover bottom of pan with chopped nuts.

Combine cake mix, pudding mix, oil and water in mixing bowl. Add the 4 eggs ... one at a time, beating after each addition. Add vanilla and butter extract and beat for 8 minutes on high speed.

Divide mixture into 3 parts. Pour the fist third over the nuts; sprinkle one-half of the sugar/cinnamon mixture over the top; add the second third of the batter; again sprinkle the remaining sugar/cinnamon over that. Add the last 1/3 of batter.

Bake 40-45 minutes at 350-degrees ... cool in pan. Before serving, lightly sift powdered sugar over the top.

  • I do like nuts, and would use more of them in the future. I'd also mix them into the batter. Sprinkling them on the bottom, in such low quantities, didn't harness their flavor or crunch.

Why Don’t You …
·      Send me your favorite coffee cake recipe, preferably one without "pudding in the mix."


  1. What the heck is butter extract? Where do you buy it? What is it's purpose in a recipe. I am scratching my head...maybe you can blame the texture changes on that!
    I like Coffee Cake Muffins from Joy the baker. Basically, they're cupcakes, but you can justify eating them for breakfast.

  2. Isn't that crazy? It's in the extract aisle, next to the coconut and rum flavorings. I have another (delicious but old-fashioned) cake recipe that I've used for years that calls for it, which is why I had some on hand -- and sadly, why I can't blame it for the weird texture. Nope, I'm going with the pudding, whipped for 8 minutes.