- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 7, 2004

It was a brisk autumn morning in Rochester, N.Y. A Tuesday, to be exact. Having dragged myself downstairs and into the kitchen at 6:45, I was feeling glum.

It was my 15th birthday, and instead of getting to sleep late, I had to be at school for a 7:30 orchestra rehearsal. “Life is so unfair,” I thought. But then there was a knock — actually a “yoo-hoo” — at our door. There stood our neighbor, Isabel Buerschaper, with a pan full of freshly baked sour-cream coffeecake.

“I thought I might surprise you with a little something special for your birthday,” she chirped. I couldn’t believe it. She had baked a coffeecake just for me. On a weekday, no less. The atmosphere in the kitchen brightened, and the day acquired a certain glow.

The cake was more than delicious. It was transformative. I had the most wonderful breakfast of my life and went to school the happy birthday girl, ready to blow my oboe no matter how early the hour.

The best way to emphasize the impression this simple gesture conferred is to realize that here I am, decades later, still blown away by the thoughtfulness (and baking skills) of my now-deceased, fondly remembered childhood neighbor … and writing about it.

It’s amazing how powerful a gift of handcrafted food can be. Raspberry jam that you purchase at the supermarket might seem similar to the batch made by a friend, but when she adorns it with a homemade label and ties a red ribbon around the lid, it becomes a distinct and wonderful thing.

I find, however, that I hesitate to eat homemade jams, jellies, curds and preserves that my friends make for me. I appreciate the gesture, but they seem so precious that no occasion ever feels special enough.

The nice thing about the gift of a cake is that it must be eaten quickly or it will go stale.

So the gift becomes an embrace of the moment, which is even more delightful. Lest I become unbearably sentimental, allow me simply to share Mrs. Buerschaper’s classic recipe with several variations. These will permit you to put your own imprint on the gift I hope you will make for your neighbor, or perhaps for the traffic cop on the corner.

Classic buttermilk coffeecake

Nonstick cooking spray

½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened (see note)

½ cup sugar

2 large eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla

1½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour

½ teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/8 teaspoon baking soda

½ cup buttermilk

TOPPING:

2 tablespoons brown sugar

½ teaspoon cinnamon

Walnuts or pecans, optional

Lightly spray an 8-inch round or square pan with nonstick spray.

In a large bowl, beat butter with an electric mixer at high speed for several minutes. Add sugar; beat for several minutes longer. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each, then beat in vanilla.

In a second bowl, combine flour, salt, baking powder and baking soda, slowly mixing them together with a whisk. Add dry ingredients in three installments to the butter mixture, alternating with the buttermilk, beginning and ending with the dry (dry, wet, dry, wet, dry). After each addition, mix from the bottom of the bowl, just enough to blend, with a spoon or a rubber spatula. Don’t overmix.

Transfer batter to prepared pan, spreading it evenly into place. Mix together the brown sugar; cinnamon; and nuts, if using. Sprinkle this on top before baking. Bake in the middle of a preheated 350-degree oven (325 degrees for a glass pan) for 20 to 25 minutes or until a toothpick or sharp knife inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool for at least 15 minutes before cutting and serving. Serves 6 or 7.

Note: Unwrap the butter ahead of time and place it directly in the mixing bowl to soften.

VARIATIONS:

Caramel-nut-crusted coffeecake:

Make the preceding recipe, preparing the pan as follows:

2 tablespoons butter, melted in the pan

3 tablespoons (packed) brown sugar, sprinkled into the melted butter

2/3 cup chopped pecans, sprinkled onto the brown sugar

Invert cake onto a plate after it’s cooled down. Scrape in all the topping that may have stayed in the pan.

Buttermilk-rhubarb coffeecake:

Before making the batter, toss the following together in a small bowl:

2 cups chopped rhubarb (1/4-inch pieces)

2 tablespoons sugar

1 tablespoon unbleached all-purpose flour

Let the mixture stand while you prepare the batter. Increase the sugar in the batter to 2/3 cup, and fold the rhubarb mixture in with the last installment of dry ingredients. Bake the cake for 30 to 40 minutes.

Buried-treasure coffeecake: For a bigger cake that you can fill with extra goodies, double the recipe and use a standard-size Bundt or tube pan. Instead of putting the topping on the top, put it in the center.

To do this, just spoon half the batter into the prepared pan, then sprinkle in the topping (now a filling), then spoon on the rest of the batter. You also can add up to ½ cup of any or all of the following:

Semisweet chocolate chips

Chopped almonds or walnuts

Sliced dried fruit

Shredded unsweetened coconut

Jam or marmalade (spooned in blob by blob)

Bake this larger cake in preheated 350-degree oven for 45 to 50 minutes. Cool it in the pan for 15 to 20 minutes, then rap the pan sharply and remove the cake to finish cooling.

Let it cool completely before removing the cake from the pan. Then invert it onto a plate (if you used a Bundt pan) or pull out the tube and gently lift the cake off and onto a plate (if it’s in a tube pan). Cool for another 10 to 15 minutes before slicing. Makes 12 to 16 servings.

TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES

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