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  • Writer's pictureEmma M

The Challenge of the Crumb Cake

I am not the baker of the family. Out of the three women that dominate the McCormick family of four, I am the only one who despises baking. It’s always been that way. Of course, I can bake when duty calls, but in most cases, my mother and sister control the sweet side of cooking. My kitchen etiquette is that of a scatter-brained grandma, committing to lawlessness and improv in the kitchen, while my mother is more akin to a pastry chef: precise and recipe-abiding, with her measuring cups and scales, and much less chaos. She adores her treasure-trove of recipes and executes them exactly.

However, baking is the skill that was never meant to be for me. I’m a sinner of the baking world: going to the grocery store and picking up some Entenmann's or Lofthouse, then plating it with a pretty plate and some powdered sugar, and handing it off to the host of the evening.

However, over my recent break, I dug deep into the catacombs that are my mother’s family recipe boxes and found the crumb cake recipe of my childhood, created by my great-grandma in the 1930s. While it had been largely adapted to the finances of the Great Depression, the coffee cake has always been a recipe that has warped and adapted at the hands of bakers over the centuries.

The origins of coffee cake can be traced back to Germany, specifically in Dresden. But, the Danish are to be credited with the earliest versions of eating a type of sweet bread while having coffee, so the coffee cake is a mixture of several different cultural traditions. When coffee was introduced to Europe in the 1600s, the Scandinavians quickly took up the pairing of coffee and sweetbreads full of spices and nuts. However, the modern idea of coffee cake wasn’t formed till the late 1800s.

As immigration grew rapidly during the 1800s, Dutch and Germans immigrated to America, bringing with them their recipes for coffee cakes. Of course, Americans fell in love with the influx of new recipes, especially desserts, and coffee cake quickly exploded into one of the most popular of treats. Notably in New York, New Jersey, and Delaware, bakers ate up the novel coffee cake and warped it into a pastry treat alongside the sweet bread counterpart. With time and a whole lot of cravings, the modern coffee cake was formed into the array of cozy and sweet flavors that we connect with it today.

The recipe I chose was an heirloom recipe of my family’s since the 1930s, created and perfected in the DeLalio family farmhouse in Long Island during the Great Depression. Using a surprisingly little amount of ingredients and a whole lot of shortening, the span of five steps made this recipe ridiculously easy, even for me.

And of course, I deviated just a bit from the recipe to make it a little more modern (Sorry great-grandma) by sneaking in some dashes of vanilla, replacing some granulated sugar for brown sugar, and switching out some of the shortening with butter. (Because who on earth wants a cake with 1 ⅓ cup of shortening?) With the crumb creation process, I also put my own stamp on it by adding more cinnamon, and when it cooled, enough confectioners sugar to cover over all my baking sins, much to the chagrin of my mother.

By the time this cake was finished, it took me over two hours to create despite its easy-enough directions. Personally, I blame this on having an entire judging panel consisting of my mother and sister watching me and critiquing my process, making it painfully obvious that I don’t have a career in baking in my future. But, despite my chaotic work and the quips from the peanut gallery, the cake survived and prospered during dessert that evening.

While my cake certainly didn’t resemble the flavor profile of the popularized Entenmann's New York Style crumb cake, it absolutely thrived within its own right as a crumb cake. To begin, my cake was denser and had a stronger, darker flavor compared to the light, superficially sweet cake of Entenmann’s. The crumbs also took more priority on my cake, with almost a solid inch of crumbs laying on the cake, and stronger flavors of cinnamon, brown sugar and butter all intermixed with the layer.

A horizontal image of a close up shot of the DeLalio Coffee Cake, with a slice sitting on the glass serving dish. Behind it, the remaining coffee cake sits in it's glass baking tray, with the layers of sugar, crumbs, and cake visible. The cake is surrounded by decorations of little doves and ferns, adding green contrast the brown cake.
Moments later, this slice of cake was devoured.

I can’t claim that it looked prettier than Entenmann’s crumb topping, but it certainly challenged it flavor-wise, feeding into that cozy flavor profile of being perfectly sweet and spiced. A bite of the cake confirms its own success, with the rich, moist cake blending perfectly to contrast with the light, spiced crumbs topped with the delicate sweetness of the confectionery sugar, all creating what my mother calls a “dream-bite”- everything eaten in perfect balance through a single bite.

If I, the anti-baker extraordinaire, can make a crowd-pleasing crumb cake without too much hassle and struggle, I have full confidence that anyone can succeed with creating their own crumb cake.

DeLalio Crumb Cake (circa 1934)

This recipe is based on the one made by my Great-Grandmother during the Great Depression, but with some modern suggestions by me!

A horizontal image of all the ingredients laid out with a white background. Flour, sugar, salt, shortening, butter, baking powder, eggs, milk, and cinnamon.
Yes, it can be lactose-free with any milk substitute. Get excited!

4 cups stiffed flour

2 cups sugar (I did one cup brown sugar, one cup white)

1 ⅓ tsp salt

1 ¼ cup shortening (can be lightly substituted with some melted butter)

2 ½ tsp baking powder

2 beaten eggs

1 cup milk

3 tsp cinnamon (add more to taste)

3 tbs butter, melted

Mix first 4 ingredients. Put aside 3 cups of mixture for crumbs. Add baking powder to above mixture (the original bowl). Add eggs + milk. Pour into a large (9x13) greased pan.

A horizontal image of the unbaked cake on a white background. The mixture sits in a rectangular glass baking dish.

Add cinnamon and butter to 3 cups of crumb mixture. Spread crumbs evenly over batter in pan. Bake at 325०F for about 30 minutes. Mix cinnamon w/ confectioner’s sugar and sprinkle on top.

A horizontal image of the finished Coffee cake with a white background. The cake sits in a rectangular glass baking dish and the cake is dusted with confectionary sugar. Around the cake, little decorations of leaves, plants, pinecones, and white ceramic doves add color to contrast the brown cake.
*Insert applause*


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