Just to be clear: There is no coffee in coffee cake.
Rather, it’s a cake generally so rich and gooey with butter, cinnamon and sugar — and, if a truly proper coffee cake, crowned with a crumbly streusel — that it’s best nibbled with a mug of strong, steaming coffee within reach.
The origins of coffee cake are both familial and universal. No wonder that it’s a popular baking contest category at the Minnesota State Fair. Many cultures have a tradition of a sweet cake for breakfast or for morning or mid-afternoon coffee breaks — evidence of the comfort found in the presence of butter, sugar, flour and cinnamon. Spicy, streuselly coffee cake seems especially American, though. It’s fair to speculate that many people’s idea about coffee cake came from the recipe that for years was on boxes of Bisquick.
Convenience is lovely, but baking from scratch is fulfilling, especially when the results are as scrumptious as this coffee cake. Just to be clear: You need four bowls, for the streusel, the filling, the batter and the flours. But each component comes together in a trice, and the cake even can be assembled the night before and baked in the morning.
This coffee cake can accommodate some personalization, as well: Add a layer of thinly sliced peeled apples to the filling, or a smattering of blueberries. If streusel for you means nuts, toast a handful of walnuts or pecans in the oven or a skillet, then chop and add to the topping.
Frankly, though, it’s hard to beat the simple combo of cinnamon and sugar in its ability to elicit quiet sighs of satisfaction. But don’t forget the coffee, at least to keep you from nodding off.
Cinnamon streusel coffee cake
Serves 16 to 20.
Note: This recipe is adapted from King Arthur Flour. We swapped in some whole-wheat pastry flour, available in co-ops, for some of the all-purpose flour, but you can make it using only all-purpose, if you prefer. We made ours in a tube pan with a removable bottom — crucial to being able to release the cake — but you also can make this in a 9- by 13-inch pan, which takes less time to bake. (Check if done at 50 minutes for the oblong pan.) You can assemble this batter the night before, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight. Then bake as directed in the morning, adding 5 to 10 minutes to the time to account for the batter being chilled.
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup whole-wheat pastry flour
2 tsp. cinnamon
3 tbsp. unsalted butter, melted
3/4 cup dark brown sugar