(Not Damson) Plum Coffeecake

Food Blog September 2014-0531A few weeks ago, my dad sent an email to me, my mom, and his sisters: a reading recommendation replete with a link to a story from All Things Considered. This is, in itself, not unusual. Dad often sends along news items he thinks are important or interesting. What made this one unusual and, frankly, quite special, was that it was about the acute and wonderful memories food makes for us. It was a story about a baker and a request for a very special cake – an old German cake made with damson plums. The request for this cake threw her back years to her childhood and a cake – the same cake – her opera singer mother used to make. As she watches and smells it baking, she feels like her mother Helga is there too, in the oven with that cake, singing through time and death and all those plums, and she cries tears of grief and nostalgia and joy.

Food Blog September 2014-0498Food Blog September 2014-0501Dad sent it because he thought it was a good story, but also because his mother – my Nana – used to make a coffeecake with damson plums, which made this all sound so familiar. He asked if anyone had her sweet dough recipe, and suddenly the emails were flying. He was not the only one who felt the connection here. My aunts were likewise plunged into memories. Though the cake in the NPR story was a shortbread dough topped with plums, Nana’s cake, like the one her mother made before her, used a yeast dough. It was made in a square pan and she always made two at a time so she could share one with Pap, and have one for the three kids. It had to be damson plums or it just wasn’t right. It called back memories of eating, but also of being in the kitchen with their mother. Nana was with them in that cake.

Food Blog September 2014-0492I knew I had to make it. It had called up too many happy memories for my family to remain simple nostalgia. Besides, I have Nana’s sweet dough recipe, and with the details I collected from my aunts’ emails, I felt like I had enough data to piece it together.

Food Blog September 2014-0491But you know me. I fiddle. I adjust and tweak. I ruminate, and things change. So despite my pure intentions, this is not my Nana’s cake. First of all, I couldn’t find damson plums. Even at the stand at my Farmers’ Market that carries at least six different strains of plums and pluots, there was nothing labeled “damson,” and no one knew what I was talking about. A bit of internet research suggested I might try an Italian plum as a close substitute, but without ready access to those either, I settled on a deep, black-purple skinned variety with yellow flesh. The point seemed to be a plum that was not terrifically sweet, since the cake itself is snack or breakfast fare, not a sugared up dessert. From there, with the main ingredient already an adaptation, I felt freer to play a bit as I constructed the recipe.

Food Blog September 2014-0502From Nana’s original dough, I replaced water with milk, exchanged white sugar for brown, and added a healthy dose of cardamom. I suspect Nana never used cardamom in any of her baked goods, and likely never had any in her spice collection, but its pleasant citrusy aroma and warm spicy flavor go so beautifully with plums that I decided it was a necessary update. Since I was already playing quite a bit with what I imagine was Nana’s original procedure, I decided to go whole hog and add a simple streusel to the top just before baking. This was the right thing to do. A little extra spice, a little extra sweetness, turned crumbly in some places and melted into the plums in others, adding caramel loveliness to the whole thing.

Food Blog September 2014-0504Like Nana used to, I made enough dough for two cakes. Obeying the mandates of memory, I did one in a square pan. I wasn’t sure how it was going to turn out – just a hunk of dough flopped and poked into a pan – so for the other I tried for a twisted coil, laying the flat snail-shell of dough in a springform pan to rise. Interestingly enough, while adding streusel to the top was a successful adaptation, the pan and shape change was not so ideal. The square shape turned out better because it made for a more even distribution of plums. The coil, while it baked into a beautiful puffy spiral, was smaller to start with, which meant I couldn’t load on as many plum slices. When it expanded, both on the counter and in the oven, the plum distribution ended up a bit sparse (though the outcome was still delicious). The square shaped cake, which had nowhere to expand but straight up, retained its fruit coverage for a final product that can only be termed plummier. That, then, was the one I brought to work with me to share. By the time I left campus in mid-afternoon, only a tiny, plum-less corner remained.

Food Blog September 2014-0503Food Blog September 2014-0506Nana, this is a good cake. I’m glad you made it, and I’m glad it was remembered. I don’t know whether you would have liked my version, and I know you wouldn’t have liked the mess I made in the kitchen while I worked on it. I do think, though, that you’d have liked the fact that I was happy while baking and that I made enough to share. And I think you would have liked that it made us all think about you so fondly. Food Blog September 2014-0534Food Blog September 2014-0533

(Not damson) Plum Coffeecake
Makes two 9-inch cakes – one for you, and one to share
For the dough:
4 teaspoons active dry yeast
1 cup lukewarm milk
½ cup + a pinch of brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
4 eggs
½ cup unsalted butter, soft but not melted
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons ground cardamom
4-5 cups flour
4-5 yellow-fleshed plums, thinly sliced (firm, or even slightly underripe, will be easiest to work with)
For the streusel:
4 tablespoons cold butter
4 tablespoons flour
3 tablespoons brown sugar
1 teaspoon cardamom or cinnamon
pinch salt


  • Add the yeast and a pinch of brown sugar to the lukewarm milk and stir to combine, then set aside for 5-10 minutes for the yeast to burble and get foamy.
  • Meanwhile, combine 3 cups of the flour, the salt and the cardamom in the bowl of a stand mixer. Add the yeast mixture, the eggs, and the vanilla and mix on low speed with the paddle attachment to combine.
  • When the eggs are mostly integrated, add the butter and mix on low speed until it is mostly absorbed into what will look like a wet batter. Add an additional 1 cup flour and mix until combined.
  • Switch to the dough hook and knead for 5 minutes until a soft, elastic dough forms. If the dough looks very loose or sticky and is not coming together, add the final cup of flour ¼ cup at a time, kneading well between each addition. You may not need the full 5 cups of flour – mine took a total of 4 ¾ cups.
  • When the dough is soft and stretchy – a bit like an elastic playdough – lightly oil the bowl, roll the dough around in it a bit, and then cover tightly with plastic wrap and set in a warm place to rise for 1 ½ – 2 hours, until doubled.
  • While the dough rises, slice the plums.
  • After the dough has doubled in size, punch it down by gently depressing your fist into the dough to release trapped air, then let it rest for 5 minutes to get its breath back.
  • Divide the dough into two equal hunks, fold, push, or twist into desired shapes, and settle each loaf into one of two greased or buttered 9-inch square or springform pans. Nana did a simple square, but you could also roll the dough out into a long, wormlike log and then twist it like a rope over and over itself, then wind it up in a coil like a flat snail-shell.
  • Top the shaped dough with plums, slightly overlapping the slices to accommodate for the additional rising time. Adding the plums now allows them to macerate a little and release some juice and flavor into the dough.
  • Cover the cakes lightly with plastic wrap or a clean kitchen towel and let them rise again for 30-45 minutes. They will almost double.
  • While the cakes rise again, preheat the oven to 350F and make the streusel.
  • In a small bowl, stir together the flour, brown sugar, cardamom or cinnamon, and pinch of salt for the streusel. Using your fingers, blend in the 4 tablespoons butter until the mixture is reminiscent of damp sand, and little clumps flatten but cling together when you press them between your thumb and forefinger.
  • Just before the cakes are ready to go in the oven, remove the plastic wrap or kitchen towel and sprinkle on the streusel, using half for one cake and half for the other. It should be enough to cover the surface completely, but don’t skimp! Use it all, as the cakes will rise again in the oven and thus the coverage will decrease a bit.
  • Bake 30-35 minutes until the streusel is golden, the tops of the cakes are nicely bronzed, and they are cooked through. Let cool at least 20 minutes before removing from pans or slicing.
  • This bread, despite how rich it is, bakes up quite light and is best the first day. It will keep three or four days in the refrigerator, well-wrapped, but it does get a little dry. Nothing a quick trip in the microwave and maybe a slick of cream cheese can’t fix, though.

Apricot Coffeecake Ring #TwelveLoaves

Food blog July 2014-0388Things get a little lax in the summer. Example: you’re not getting a sauce this month. What can I say? I’ve been on vacation! I’ll make it up to you in August, though, along with a slew of other delectable options I’ve got pending. I was determined, however, not to fall behind in my Twelve Loaves baking. In my haste to stay on schedule, I merely glanced at the beautiful apricots gleaming up from Lora’s bread this month, and assumed these gorgeous fleshly globes were the theme of July’s assignment.

Food blog July 2014-0362Food blog July 2014-0364Food blog July 2014-0365Turns out the theme was “summer fun.” Well. I think I’m still glad I went with apricots. Their beautiful swelling cheeks and slight fuzzy skins remind me of a healthy summery glow. After a week of beaches and bronzed bodies, the peachy simplicity of apricots seemed like the right move.

Food blog July 2014-0366I’ve been auditioning yeasted coffeecake recipes for a while now, sometimes ending up with a stunner, sometimes with something that merits a revisit, and sometimes with something that wasn’t a yeasted coffeecake at all. But for this, I turned to the place I should have looked from the very beginning: Baking Illustrated. This hefty volume from the brains and kitchens of the Cook’s Illustrated crew does all the heavy lifting for me, and if I’m ambitious enough to read the whole story, tells me why and how each item came to be, from a food science, aesthetics, and taste-bud angle.

Food blog July 2014-0356Food blog July 2014-0358Food blog July 2014-0367Food blog July 2014-0369This loaf is slightly adapted from their yeasted coffeecake recipe with an orange-apricot filling. I omitted the orange, used fresh rather than dried apricots, and opted to forgo the heavy streusel and icing in favor of a light sprinkle of almonds and a bit of coarse sugar for an appealing crunch. I took their suggested horseshoe shape and swung it all the way into a circle for a pretty golden ring oozing jammy splotches.

Food blog July 2014-0371Food blog July 2014-0373When this came out of the oven, I – forgive me the overshare – just about drooled right on it. The apricot filling escapes in spots, bubbling and thickening like the filling at the edges of a pie. The dough itself, crusty on top with its sugared almond adornments, is burnished and soft and puffy and gorgeous. Describing the creation to his parents the evening we sampled it, N. called it a giant bearclaw, and though the loaf is a bit denser than a doughnut, the effect of the snipped dough with caramelized filling oozing through is similar.

Food blog July 2014-0374Are you sold? Let me tell you one more thing. This cake is essentially a two-day project. I’m serious. But don’t run off just yet! This is actually an advantage for a summer loaf. Because it has so much butter in it, and a pair of eggs to boot, it takes this dough a long time to rise. For the same reasons, it has to be chilled after its initial rise before you can really work with it at all. It’s quite similar to brioche in that way. But this is an advantage because it means you are not switching on the oven in the middle of the day, when your hair is already plastered to your forehead and you cannot bear to be in the kitchen another instant. It’s a mix in the morning, a long rise in a preheated house, and then you can shove it in the fridge and ignore it until early the following morning, when you finally bake. It means a little planning ahead, but I think it works out better in the long run.

Food blog July 2014-0378Besides, when you taste this, with its sugared crunch and soft elastic chew and golden sunshine-y tart-sweet apricot, I think you’ll decide it was worth it.

Happy midsummer. I wish you heaps of fun.

Food blog July 2014-0400

Apricot Coffeecake Ring
Adapted from Baking Illustrated
Makes one 8-10 inch ring
Note: this is, unless you are willing to get up very early in the morning, a two day baking process. I think it’s totally worth it, but be sure to give yourself sufficient time to execute it.
Note: because this is a very rich dough, it is also very soft and sticky. It will be difficult to work with by hand, so I’m only including directions for a stand mixer.
2 teaspoons active dry yeast
3 tablespoons warm milk
¼ cup sugar
2 large eggs
½ teaspoon vanilla
2 – 2½ cups bread flour (you may not need the entire amount)
1 teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons (1 stick, or 4 ounces) unsalted butter, softened but not melted, cut into small chunks
Apricot filling:
1½ cups peeled, chopped apricots (for me, this was 5 apricots)
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 tablespoon rum, optional
1 egg white
1 teaspoon milk or cream
2-3 tablespoons raw sliced almonds
1-2 tablespoons coarse sugar (I used turbinado)
  • Sprinkle the yeast and a pinch of the sugar over the warm milk in the bowl of your stand mixer, stir to dissolve a bit, and let sit for 5-10 minutes until the yeast is bubbly.
  • Add the remaining sugar, the eggs, and the vanilla, and mix on low speed with the paddle attachment until combined.
  • Now, add the salt and 1 ¼ cups of the flour, and again mix on low speed until the flour is incorporated.
  • Increase the speed by one notch so you are at medium-low, and begin adding the butter one chunk at a time, beating until each chunk is incorporated before adding the next. This will take a few minutes, but it allows them to disperse evenly into the dough. When all the butter is incorporated, the mixture will look like thick cake batter.
  • With all the butter incorporated, replace the paddle attachment with the dough hook and add 1 cup of flour. Run the mixer at medium-low for about 5 minutes, kneading until the dough is soft and fairly smooth. If it looks disastrously sticky or does not seem to be coming together, you can add the remaining flour a tablespoon or two at a time, but be sure you knead thoroughly between each addition. This is supposed to be a soft dough.
  • After you’ve kneaded for 5 minutes on medium-low, increase the mixer speed to medium and knead an additional 2 minutes. According to Baking Illustrated, this tightens up the dough a bit.
  • Cover the dough tightly with plastic wrap and let it rise in a warm spot until it doubles in size. This should take 3-4 hours (it’s a rich, heavy dough; it will take the yeast a while to work through all that butter!).
  • When the dough has doubled, punch it down by depressing your fist gently into its center, replace the plastic wrap, and stow it in the fridge overnight (Baking Illustrated’s precise instructions are “at least 4 or up to 24 hours”).
  • When you are ready to make the filling, which also needs to chill thoroughly before being added to the dough, heat a medium pot of water to boiling. Score the bottoms (flower end, not stem end) of each apricot by cutting a shallow x through the skin and just barely into the flesh with a sharp knife. Plunge the scored apricots into the boiling water and leave them for about 60 seconds. Then, remove them, drain them, and set them aside until they are cool enough to handle.
  • Using a small knife, carefully peel back the skins of the apricots starting at the x you’ve scored into the bottom. The skins may already be peeling away, and should separate from the flesh easily. If they prove particularly stubborn, stick them back in the boiling water for another 30 seconds.
  • Remove the pits and chop the peeled apricots, then put them into a pot with the brown sugar and rum, and cook over medium heat for 5-7 minutes, until they collapse into a glorious pulpy mess. Remove from heat and pulse the mixture in a food processor until almost smooth. Or, if you are lazy like me, mash it up with a potato masher. Either way, once your apricots are almost smooth, stow them in the refrigerator until quite cold.
  • When you are ready to shape the coffeecake, remove the chilled dough from the refrigerator and gently dump and scrape it out onto a well floured board. Pat the dough out into a roughly 6×5 inch rectangle, lightly flour the top, then use a rolling pin and some elbow grease to flatten the dough into a smooth, 15×9 inch rectangle (it will be about ¼ inch thick).
  • Spread the cold apricot filling over this large rectangle of dough, leaving at least a ½ inch border on all edges.
  • Using both hands and starting with one of the longer edges, roll the dough up tightly into a long log. Seal the seam securely by pinching the dough, then coax the log into a circle and pinch the ends together to join them in a ring shape. During this process some of the filling will likely ooze out; don’t worry too much about it.
  • Transfer the ring of dough to a parchment paper lined baking sheet. With a pair of kitchen scissors, snip about halfway through the log at 2-inch intervals. Again, you will get some lovely orange ooze. No worries; this will get lovely and caramelized when it bakes. Just drape some plastic wrap or a clean kitchen towel over the whole thing and let it rise again until slightly puffed; about 90 minutes.
  • 30 minutes before you are ready to bake, preheat the oven to 350F with a rack in the middle.
  • When the loaf has risen again, beat the egg white and milk together and brush it over the exposed dough evenly. Sprinkle the sliced almonds and coarse sugar over the loaf, and then slide it into the oven and bake until deeply golden and registering around 190F on an instant-read thermometer. This should take 25-35 minutes.
  • Cool at least 20 minutes on a wire rack (just slide the parchment straight from sheet tray to cooling rack) before slicing and serving.
  • This cake is amazing warm or cold, and though I suspect it would last a week wrapped in foil and refrigerated, we scarfed it within 3 days.