Time for Cinnamon Cake

Show Some Love

Come early November I start cleaning out my freezer. No more cooking big batches of chili and freezing the leftovers. No more buying pork tenderloins on sale and stashing them for later or roasting a chicken then making and freezing the stock. I plan menus around what I already have frozen.

It’s not about a clean slate for a new year. It’s about making room for my holiday bake-fest.

Come December each year I bake scores of batches of cookies and holiday cakes to bring to parties and give as gifts; if I don’t bake ahead and freeze some I’d never keep up. I didn’t have to do that this time around. No parties to attend. Most of my gift exchanges suspended. A sadly diminished holiday in this age of Covid.

So getting an invitation from my friends Deborah and Geoff to visit them in the Catskills, where they have been safely weathering the vicissitudes of the pandemic, meant, among other things, I’d have a chance to bake for somebody.

Every season I try to bake something new (another tradition that’s gone with the corona wind) and I was glad for the chance to resurrect it. Since Geoff is a big fan of coffee cake and I’ve never made one, I decided to bake one for him. It may not offer the challenge of, say, a Bûche de Noël, but give me a break, it’s been a tough year.

As I browsed coffee cake recipes, I found some with the note “Best served the day it’s made.” Maybe I was taking this too literally, but I wanted something that would still be good if I made it ahead. I turned to one of my most reliable sources: Lake Isle Press’s vintage baking bible, “Jim Fobel’s Old-Fashioned Baking Book.” Though each of his coffee cake recipes notes that it should be served warm, I hoped that if they were made in advance and would respond well to a gentle reheat.

I chose Jim’s cinnamon cake because I thought it would travel best (not to mention it would use up some leftover sour cream). I wanted it to be as fresh as possible, so I got up early the morning I left for the Catskills and made it.

I followed the recipe to the letter with two small deviations: I subbed in some lovely macadamia nuts in place of pecans, and topped it with a dusting of confectioner’s sugar.

It’s an easy recipe, but I was a bit unsure about the marble effect at the end, which is made by spooning a cinnamon-sugar mixture evenly on top and then swirling it through the batter. Since I used a metal pan, I couldn’t see anything but the top of the cake, so I had no idea what kind of marbling I was getting. I’d have to wait until the cake was served to find out.

As you see from my picture, I may have gone a little overboard, but the cake was marbled and pretty and very tasty. It remained moist and delicious even a few days after I baked it.

Since I didn’t tell them I was baking them a cake, Deborah had bought a coffee cake from a bakery (like I said, Geoff is a fan). We did a taste test, and my cake won. I really don’t think they were being kind. It was a damn good cake.

I took such pleasure in the whole process: choosing the recipe, then baking the cake and packaging it along with the basket of cookies I made. It drove home how much we are all missing as the pandemic rages on, and offered a timely reminder of how baking is a chance to show love and nurture others, even in a small way.

It’s something I don’t get to do on a daily basis since I live alone — and that’s especially true during these isolated times. I suppose that’s why baking, cooking, and entertaining have come to be so meaningful to me. So thanks to Deborah and Geoff for the chance to share this most elemental of gifts, and to Jim Fobel for helping me make it so sweet.

Click here for printable recipe.

Makes one 8- or 9-inch square cake

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
3/4 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup sour cream
1/2 cup (2 ounces) finely chopped pecans
4 teaspoons ground cinnamon

1. Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 350°F. Grease an 8- or 9-inch square pan.

2. In a medium-sized bowl, stir together the flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt.

3. In a large bowl, combine the butter with 1/2 cup of the sugar; beat with an electric mixer until blended. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, and then the vanilla. Beat in half of the dry ingredients just until blended. Beat in the sour cream and then the remaining dry ingredients. Stir in the pecans. In a small bowl, stir together the remaining 1/4 cup sugar and the cinnamon. After turning the batter into the pan, spoon the cinnamon-sugar evenly over the top and use a butter knife to swirl the mixture down into the batter for a marbled effect. Bake 30 to 35 minutes, until the top springs back when lightly touched and a toothpick inserted in the center emerges clean. Cool in the pan on a rack for 15 minutes, then cut into squares and serve warm.

Recipe from “Jim Fobel’s Old-Fashioned Baking Book,” Lake Isle Press, 1996

Originally published at https://www.lakeislepress.com on January 14, 2021.

Dara O’Brien is the Creative Director of Lake Isle Press. When she isn’t cooking or writing about cookbooks, she writes plays and sometimes acts in them.

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