- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 23, 2007

A coffeecake can be all things to nearly all occasions. It can be the star of a sumptuous winter brunch or breakfast with family or friends.

Quick and easy to whip up, it lends a festive, comforting presence to any morning meal. An omelet, a fruit plate, fresh-squeezed juice and cappuccino or lattes will round out the spread to perfection.

Many home bakers shy away from turning out coffeecakes, yet they are truly fast to produce and quite forgiving of the novice. All it takes is some planning and a few timesaving hints.

A cake or two stashed in the freezer can be a hidden asset, ready for breakfast or as an afternoon accompaniment with coffee, tea or hot chocolate. A savory cake can also come in handy at lunchtime or as the end to an evening meal.

Don’t overlook the decorative dessert cakes turned out in Bundt molds or springform pans, all ready for a party.

My passion for baking coffeecakes goes back to childhood in Oregon, where Swedish yeast breads, sticky caramel buns, and hazelnut-laced rings were everyday breakfast fare. Chocolate marble cake, banana loaves, gingerbread and huckleberry cakes were luscious sweets that filled the sideboard for coffee time, as well as for dessert.

Mother had a commercial Hobart mixer that turned out batters and doughs with speed. I soon followed in her footsteps.

Dozens of trips abroad introduced me to other ethnic cakes that I re-created for family and for magazine articles. My great-grandparents had a bakery in Gothenburg, Sweden, in the late 19th century, and a year ago, I trekked that charming waterfront city, visiting every bakery to garner tea ring inspiration anew.

Blessed with a dozen kinds of fruit trees and a wide choice of herbs, including lavender, my Northern California garden supplies the ingredients at close hand. Fluted copper pans, carried back from France, bake cakes to perfection.

For centuries, coffeecakes have been a delicious adjunct to daily dining. Yet the quintessential coffeecake, a streusel-topped butter cake, is said to be truly American.

As I created recipes for “Coffee Cakes: Simple, Sweet and Savory” (Chronicle), I expanded the theme to encompass streusel-topped fruit-filled cakes, fluted bundt cakes, healthy fruit-and-nut loaf cakes, aromatic yeast cakes and dessert cakes.

Coffeecakes are divided into the quick-batter type and yeasted cakes. To save time, have all ingredients at hand on the counter. Plan time to let the eggs and butter warm up to room temperature, unless the butter is meant to be chilled for a streusel topping.

Choose your method of mixing. I am fond of my KitchenAid mixer. (I am now on my third.) But you can easily use a food processor for most recipes or mix by hand.

Preheat the oven. Use your convection oven if you have one, since it is speedy and bakes evenly. (Note that you will probably need to decrease the temperature by 25 degrees below that specified.)

Otherwise use a regular oven, which will work fine.

Line the baking pan with parchment paper. This will aid in removing the cake from the pan, and it also saves pan-washing time later. Or butter and lightly flour the pan bottom and sides.

Measure accurately. Use glass cups for liquid measure and metal ones for dry ingredients. Sifting is no longer necessary with flour, but you should stir the flour to aerate it before measuring.

To measure, spoon the flour into the measuring cup and then level it off with a spatula, rather than dipping the cup into the flour to fill it. A whisk is handy to stir together the dry ingredients.

Unsalted, also called sweet, butter is recommended for the best flavor and because it contains less moisture than salted butter.

When measuring honey, first put a few drops of canola or other oil in the measuring cup and swish it around with your fingers.

Then pour in the honey to measure it. When you pour the honey from the container, it will flow out with ease.

For quick batters or everyday loaf cakes, I often double the recipe and make 2 at the same time. Once cooled, the cakes freeze beautifully for up to one month. I cut one cake into serving size pieces before freezing, then in the morning, I slip a piece out and microwave it for breakfast.

To test for doneness, use a toothpick or wooden skewer and poke it into the center of the cake. It should come out clean without any crumbs attached.

Let the cake cool on a rack 5 to 10 minutes before unmolding it.

Yeast breads are my joy and my therapy. Although they take longer because of the rising time, they are easy to combine in a heavy-duty mixer, and I let it do the kneading, as well.

Often I just leave the flat paddle in place and don’t even bother with the dough hook.

Yeast bread dough is best if you do not add too much flour and make a stiff dough. It should be soft and satiny.

When working with yeast, the most critical item is the temperature. Use baby-bottle temperature to dissolve the yeast, so the water feels warm on the wrist. Use room temperature water of 65 to 75 degrees for rising. Too much heat can cause the dough to rise quickly and get large air bubbles. It can then deflate upon baking.

When baking yeast breads, you need to allow more stay-at-home time than with quick breads. Most take three hours from start to finish. Often I do a double batch, so one cooled loaf goes into the freezer, tightly sealed in a plastic bag. Then when you pull it out and let it thaw, it tastes freshly baked, although it also tastes good reheated.

Both quick-leavened and yeast-based coffeecakes will keep at room temperature, loosely covered, for 2 or 3 days.

Room-temperature coffeecake tends to toughen if reheated in a microwave, so use the oven instead, at 350 degrees for 10 to 15 minutes. Some cakes with chocolate flavoring are best eaten slightly warm, so reheat them at 325 degrees for 10 minutes for best results.

May you enjoy indulging family and friends with a delectable coffeecake or two this winter.

The following recipes are from my book “Coffee Cakes.”

Blueberry streusel coffeecake

This easy-to-bake cake flaunts a crunchy sweet topping of toasty pecans and brown sugar streusel.

STREUSEL TOPPING:

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus more for greasing pan, if desired

1/4 cup all-purpose flour

1/3 cup packed light brown sugar

2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

1 cup walnuts, chopped

COFFEECAKE:

½ cup canola oil

½ cup firmly packed light brown sugar

½ cup granulated sugar

2 large eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 cup whole-wheat flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 cup buttermilk or yogurt

2 cups fresh or frozen (keep frozen) blueberries or mixed blackberries, blueberries and raspberries

Lightly grease a 9-inch springform pan or line it with parchment paper.

Combine butter, flour, brown sugar and cinnamon in a bowl or a food processor. Cut butter in with your fingers or process until mixture forms coarse crumbs. Add nuts and set aside.

In a bowl of an electric mixer, combine oil, both sugars, eggs and vanilla and beat until smooth. In another bowl, combine both flours, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Add to creamed mixture alternately with buttermilk or yogurt. Beat about 1 minute, or until smooth.

Mix in fresh or still frozen berries. Turn into prepared pan and sprinkle with topping. Bake in preheated 350-degree oven 35 to 40 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Remove to a rack and let cool. Makes about 10 servings.

Cranberry-oatmeal walnut loaf and muffins

Scarlet berries dot this healthful cake that is loaded with toasty oatmeal and walnuts.

Butter and flour for preparing baking pan, if desired

1½ cups organic oatmeal

2 large eggs

½ cup packed light or dark brown sugar

½ cup canola oil

1½ cups buttermilk or low-fat yogurt

1/4 cup dark molasses

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour

1 cup whole-wheat flour or whole-wheat pastry flour

1 teaspoons baking soda

1 teaspoon baking powder

½ teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons ground cinnamon, divided

2 cups fresh cranberries

½ cup chopped walnuts, pecans or toasted hazelnuts

Grease and flour a 9-by-13-inch baking pan or line bottom with parchment paper.

Place oatmeal on a baking sheet with rimmed sides and bake in oven for 8 to 10 minutes, or until lightly toasted. Let cool.

In a large bowl, beat eggs, sugar and oil until blended and stir in buttermilk or yogurt, molasses and vanilla. In another bowl, stir together both flours, oats, baking soda, baking powder, salt and 1 teaspoon cinnamon.

Add dry ingredients to buttermilk mixture and beat about 1 minute, or until smooth. Stir in cranberries. Spread evenly in prepared pan. Toss nuts and remaining cinnamon together and sprinkle over top.

Bake in preheated 350-degree oven for 25 to 30 minutes, or until golden brown and a cake tester inserted in center comes out clean. Let cool in pan on a rack for 10 minutes, then turn out of the pan. Serve warm, cut in squares or strips. Makes about 12 servings.

Muffin Variation: Using an ice cream scoop, scoop out mounds of batter and drop into greased large muffin cups. Bake as directed. Makes 12 large muffins.

Rosemary-lemon polenta cake

This golden pound cake with a cornmeal crunch is imbued with a hint of rosemary. Cut it into thin slices and serve with coffee as a breakfast bread or an afternoon treat, or top with raspberries and whipped cream for an inviting dessert.

CAKE:

Butter and flour for preparing baking pan, if desired

1 cup buttermilk

2 tablespoons minced fresh rosemary or fresh lavender blossoms, or 1½ tablespoons dried lavender blossoms

½ cup finely ground polenta or cornmeal

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature

11/4 cups sugar

4 large eggs

1 tablespoon grated lemon zest

1½ teaspoons vanilla

21/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

3/4 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon salt

ROSEMARY-LEMON SYRUP:

1/3 cup sugar

1/3 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice

Water

2 tablespoons minced fresh rosemary or fresh lavender blossoms or 1½ tablespoons dried lavender blossoms

Butter and flour a 10-inch Bundt pan or tube pan.

In a small saucepan, combine buttermilk and rosemary or lavender. Heat over low heat until bubbles form around edges of pan. Pour over polenta or cornmeal in a small bowl; let stand for 1 hour to soften.

In a large bowl, beat butter and sugar with a wooden spoon or an electric mixer until light and fluffy. Add eggs, lemon zest and vanilla and beat until blended.

In a medium bowl, combine flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Stir to blend.

Add dry ingredients to butter mixture in 2 increments, alternating with buttermilk mixture, mixing until combined.

Add batter to prepared pan and smooth the top. Bake in preheated 350-degree oven for 50 minutes, or until cake is golden brown and a cake tester inserted in center comes out clean.

Meanwhile, make the syrup. In a small saucepan, combine sugar, lemon juice, 1/3 cup water and rosemary or lavender. Bring to a simmer over low heat and cook for 5 minutes. Remove from heat. Let cool for 30 minutes and strain through a fine-meshed sieve.

Let cake cool in pan for 10 minutes. Unmold right side up on a wire rack. While cake is still warm, drizzle it with syrup. Cut into slices to serve. Makes about 16 servings.

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