Why Sour Cream Coffee Cake Is Quintessentially Jewish
Below is an excerpt from the Zingerman’s Bakehouse cookbook. Zingerman’s is a special bakery dedicated to fine desserts that’s been serving the community of Ann Arbor since 1982.
Sour Cream Coffee Cake (or Lemon Poppy Seed)
Makes one 9-inch (23cm) bundt cake
This is our most popular coffee cake and possibly our most popular sweet item. It is adored as a daily treat and is definitely a Deli standard. Many Ann Arborites enjoy it regularly and send it to friends and family all over the country for holiday gifts.
Our cake is unassuming in appearance yet deeply satisfying in flavor. As you can see, it’s full of tasty fat—half a pound of butter, half a pound of sour cream, and three whole eggs—which yields a mellow and moist cake crumb. Contrasting this mellowness is the distinctive flavor of the cinnamon nut swirl created with Indonesian Korintje cinnamon, brown sugar, and freshly toasted walnuts. Consider grinding your own cinnamon for this recipe to get unmatchable cinnamon flavor.
Why is the sour cream coffee cake considered a Jewish dessert? Yeasted coffee cakes, baked in kugelhopf pans, were somewhat common in Eastern European Jewish baking, as was the use of sour cream. Without refrigeration, most milk was consumed in some fermented form. Sour cream, along with buttermilk, became an element common to their baking.
Fast forward to 1950 Minnesota, when a group of Jewish women wanted to bring back some of the old Jewish recipes. To be successful they needed the right fluted pan with the tube in the center, which wasn’t available in the United States. They approached a local pan-making company and asked the owner to create one. He generously obliged, and that first version was the inspiration behind the classic Bundt pans we are now all familiar with, branded as Nordic Ware. The ladies, thinking the European yeasted cakes were too time consuming, transformed them into a more American pound cake style, and the sour cream coffee cake as we know it was born.
Walnut halves – 1 cup plus 2 Tbsp
Brown sugar – 3 Tbsp (packed)
Ground cinnamon – 2 tsp
Granulated sugar – 2 cups
Unsalted butter, room temperature – 1 cup
Large eggs – 3
Sour cream – 3/4 cup plus 3 Tbsp
Vanilla extract – 11/2 tsp
All-purpose flour – 21/3 cups
Baking soda – 1/2 tsp
Sea salt – 1 tsp
Preheat the oven to 325°F. Spray a 9-in Bundt pan with nonstick cooking spray, coat with flour, and set aside.
Toast the walnuts on a sheet tray for 10 to 15 minutes, or until they’re a deep golden brown. After they are done, turn the oven down to 300°F.
In a small bowl, mix together the toasted walnuts, brown sugar, and cinnamon. Set aside.
In a large mixing bowl, combine the sugar and butter. Cream by hand or with the paddle attachment of an electric mixer on medium speed. Mix until the color lightens. Add the eggs, one at a time, creaming thoroughly after each egg until the mixture is homogeneous. Add the sour cream and vanilla. Mix briefly until light and creamy. Scrape the sides of the bowl to make sure all of the ingredients are evenly incorporated.
Combine the flour, baking soda, and salt in a separate medium bowl. Mix to combine. Add the flour mixture gradually to the creamed mixture and mix by hand or with a mixer on low speed until smooth and homogeneous.
Scoop one-third of the batter into your prepared pan. Smooth it evenly over the bottom of the pan with a spoon. Sprinkle one-half of the nut mixture evenly over the batter. Cover with another third of the batter. Smooth it evenly over the nut mixture and to the edges of the pan. Sprinkle the remaining nut mixture evenly over the batter. Spread the remaining batter evenly over the nut mixture.
Bake for 60 minutes, or until a skewer comes out clean. Cool for 15 minutes. Do not leave the cake in the pan for much longer than this. The brown sugar in the nut filling might stick to the sides of the pan and make it difficult to release the cake.
Put a wire cooling rack on top of the Bundt pan and then invert the pan to release the cake. Cool to room temperature before eating.
STORAGE: This cake is so rich that it keeps very well at room temperature for at least two weeks, if wrapped well. It also freezes nicely. Wrap it carefully in plastic wrap and then put it in a plastic freezer bag or airtight container. It will hold well for up to three months in your freezer.
VARIATION: Lemon Seed Coffee Cake The second coffee cake we made was lemon poppy seed. If you’re a fan, simply make the sour cream coffee cake batter and add 1 tsp of lemon oil and 1 cup [130 g] of ground poppy seeds at the end of the mix. Bake at the same temperature and for the same length of time as the sour cream coffee cake. The nut filling is not a part of this version.
LEMON OIL: At the Bakehouse, we love intense flavors and are always looking for ways to increase the flavor in our recipes. With citrus flavors it’s not always possible to get the intensity we want with only fresh juice or zest. Fortunately, many years ago we discovered a line of citrus oils from a company called Boyajian. According to Boyajian, they are “natural essences that are cold pressed from the rind of the fruit.” They are considerably more intense than extracts and are used in small quantities. Boyajian suggests starting with 1⁄2 tsp per cup of dry ingredients, plus 1⁄4 tsp per cup of liquid ingredients. We often use some fresh juice and zest and then a little oil just to bump up the flavor.