Thursday, September 2, 2010

Cinnamon Sour-Cream Coffee Cake . . . and Bakers' Intuition

One evening, a couple of months ago, I found myself casually browsing around in a big bookstore. Strolling from section to section, pausing to pick up interesting titles that caught my eye, it wasn't long before I meandered  into the cookbooks. I zeroed in on the baking books of particular interest to me, but hung back a bit as I approached because there was one other woman in the aisle and she, too, was focused on the very group of books I hoped to peruse. I didn't want to invade her space or make her feel rushed, so I busied myself nearby and took a book randomly from one of the shelves. Flipping through the glossy pages, I kept glancing over in her direction, curious as to which books were absorbing her attention so completely.

Eventually she must have sensed my interest because after a few minutes she turned to me with a smile and said, "Do you have any suggestions for good baking cookbooks? I want something new, but I'm not sure what to get." That comment broke the ice and we stood there chatting for a good twenty minutes or more. We paged through a half dozen books together, critiquing their merits. We talked about the kind of baking we each like to do, and what we value so much about baking from scratch. It was one of those rare conversations you occasionally have with a complete stranger that evolves so naturally it makes you feel as if you might have known that person for years.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about that little encounter was that it really wasn't so surprising at all. It seems to me that when you see someone who is immersed in a baking book, you are very likely looking at a kindred spirit. After all, not everyone bakes for fun. Most people, in fact, almost never bake from scratch, and not everyone reads cookbooks purely for pleasure.

But some of us do. In this respect, as devoted home bakers, it's kind of like we're charter members of an unofficial but universal club. We seem to have ways of finding each other. Whether it be through books, or recipe sharing, through food blogs, or chance encounters in person, I'm starting to wonder if we have some sort of magical radar that allows us to scout each other out. Is it just a form of bakers' intuition, or a bakers' psychic connection? I do not know. But, whatever it is, it's delightful, comforting, and ever so slightly mysterious.

About this recipe . . . 

What's not to love about a classic sour cream coffee cake embedded with swirls of cinnamon, brown sugar, and pecans? I'm talking about a moist cake with a soft tender crumb, not a super-dense pound cake texture. Add to that the complementary flavor balance of vanilla and butter, marbled with a generous streak of delicately spicy sweetness, and you can't go wrong.

This sour cream coffee cake formula combines what I think are the best features of two similar recipes found in two fine sources: The Sono Baking Company Cookbook, by John Barricelli, and Carole Walter's Great Coffee Cakes, Sticky Buns, Muffins & More. The most interesting feature of Barricelli's version, I thought, was his direction to mix the baking soda with the sour cream well before it gets mixed into the rest of the batter. This allowed the sour cream time to actually fluff up from the action of the soda, so when I finally added it into the batter, alternately with the flour, it was almost like I was adding in beaten egg whites instead of plopping in heavy wet globs of sour cream. In my experience, speaking strictly as a home-baker, this is an altogether uncommon technique, but one that produces a pretty intriguing effect. Though I don't recall encountering it before, I must admit I was instantly enamored.

From Carole Walter's recipe, I borrowed her advice to use superfine sugar instead of regular granulated sugar in the cake, and  instead of using Barricelli's guidance to go with cake flour, I went with Walter's choice of All Purpose flour, which I decided had better be sifted. I toasted my pecans before chopping them, and I decided to use vanilla bean paste instead of vanilla extract. Why? Only because I 'd never used it before but had recently purchased a bottle and wanted to try it out. This seemed like it might be an appropriate venue in which to do so because this cake can handle a substantial amount of vanilla flavoring without being overpowered by it.

Vanilla bean paste is akin to a dark syrupy version of vanilla extract that also includes visible vanilla bean seeds, along with a little bit of sugar. It can be exchanged for vanilla extract in a recipe on a one-to-one basis, so it's a flexible ingredient to have in one's arsenal.

This is a very solid recipe that I can envision making again and again in years to come. I was completely pleased with the way it turned out.

Cinnamon Sour Cream Coffee Cake

(For a printable version of this recipe, click here!)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter generously the sides and bottom of a 10" tube pan with a removable bottom, and dust well with flour, tapping out the excess.

For the topping:
1/2 cup light brown sugar, firmly packed
2 to 2 and 1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon (use the larger amount if you're a cinnamon maniac)
1 and 1/4 cups pecans, toasted and then finely chopped (toast in 350 oven on a baking sheet for about 12 minutes)

For the cake: 
2 cups thick sour cream (I actually used 1 and 1/2 cups sour cream and 1/2 cup Greek style yogurt and it worked out great; I needed to do this because I miscalculated how much sour cream I had on hand to start with. I think you could safely substitute more yogurt for some of the sour cream if you wanted to do so, but I wouldn't substitute all yogurt for all of the sour cream. I suspect doing that might change the character and/or flavor of this particular cake.)
2 tsp. baking soda
3 and 1/2 cups All Purpose flour, sifted
1 Tbsp. baking powder
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
2 cups of superfine sugar
2 tsp. kosher salt
4 large eggs, room temperature
1 and 1/2 Tbsp. vanilla bean paste or vanilla extract

To make the topping: 
In a little bowl, toss together the brown sugar, finely chopped toasted pecans, and cinnamon, mixing it well with a fork. Set aside.

To make the cake:
In a small bowl, stir together the sour cream and baking soda; set this aside. In another small bowl, whisk the flour and baking powder together; set this aside as well.

In the large bowl of your mixer, using the paddle attachment, cream together the superfine sugar, butter, and salt on medium-high speed until fluffy and light, for 2 to 3 minutes. Halfway through, stop to scrape the bowl and beaters.

Add in the eggs, one at a time, beating after each one. Beat in the vanilla paste/vanilla extract.

On low speed, add in the dry ingredients in three batches, alternately with the sour cream. Beat well after each addition.

Spoon half of the batter into the prepared tube pan.

Sprinkle in half of the topping mixture, taking care to avoid the sides of the pan if possible (easier said than done!). You want to kind of hide the filling within the batter. Use a knife to lightly swirl the topping into the batter.

Add the rest of the batter on top of that, and smooth it out. Sprinkle the remaining topping all over the top of the batter.

Put the cake pan on top of a baking sheet and bake in a preheated oven for 50 to 60 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the cake comes out clean. Be sure to check the cake about halfway through its baking time and rotate the pan. If the top is already golden brown, cover it lightly with foil at that point and leave the foil on until the cake is done.

Cool the cake in its tube pan, set on a cooling rack, until it's almost completely cool. Run a thin knife around the inside edge of the pan to loosen it. Lift it out of the pan, insert the cake quickly onto a flat plate, then re-invert it onto your serving plate (might want to do this over a sink, because some of the topping will inevitably fall off; the faster you do it, the less will have a chance to fall off!).

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