Comforting coffeecakes for fall days

Rebecca Powers
Special to The Detroit News

Thelma liked to call herself the only Democrat in Spring Lake, the small village a few miles from Grand Haven.

She lived in a clapboard farmhouse, the kind with a cellar door on the outside. It’s a home that survived a tornado, although a prized car in the garage out back didn’t fare so well. (Post twister, she proudly declined a visit from the state’s Republican governor, who was making a photo-op tour of the storm-torn region.)

And Aunt Thelma could bake.

We, the children of her youngest brother, were quite content, though, to stay within the contained warmth of Thelma’s kitchen. There, she did what you might call her bipartisan cooking, combining her own Southern heritage with her husband’s Dutch — along with elements from her many cookbooks.

When we would arrive after a three-hour drive from the city, we entered her large, square domestic domain through the side sun porch of the nearly century-old home. Always, there was brewed coffee and a homemade confection ready to serve — along with a generous dollop of her adoring attention and stories about her childhood days practicing elocution in boarding school.

Even though the dining room was large and gracious, we sat at the oak kitchen table — the one she and Uncle Pete spent a weekend refinishing to distract themselves while they awaited word on the condition of their son (my cousin), a U.S. Marine wounded in the line of duty.

In the old-school kitchen, that pedestal table was the island, a family-inhabited island. But, then, the whole kitchen was that. A bulletin board above the corner desk showcased school pictures, wedding portraits and newborn snapshots of her children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews and neighborhood kids.

That photo gallery mattered more to her than having a dishwasher. (She didn’t.) “Doing dishes is my think time,” she liked to say.

That kitchen is where my uncle died and where my wisp of an aunt stood at the stove, making sausage gravy to fatten herself up after grief left her even thinner.

When she died at 88, her collection of cookbooks went to the village library, where she — a voracious reader — was a regular.

My own Thelma library is composed of a few recipes handwritten on white stationery and index cards. (My inherited stash, a family tree of favored foods, also includes recipes from women whose names reflect an era: June, Shirley, Beverly, Beatrice, Gladys, Doris, Edna. Among my Aunt Thelma recipes is one for her Danish coffeecake.

Variations of her Scandinavian pastry are widely available online, and I suspect that’s because it’s one homemakers probably shared in conversations on their corded kitchen wall phones in the 1950s, when women believed offering coffeecake to morning or mid-afternoon visitors was the hospitable thing to do.

That was the evolution of Germany’s kaffeeklatsch, which became our coffee klatch, and the coffee-break routine of the U.S. workday, which became the American ritual.

Today, nearly two-thirds of U.S. adults drink coffee daily, Gallup polling found last year. And whether that caffeine is sipped from a paper cup with a cardboard sleeve or from handled china with a saucer, it begs for cake.

Coffeecake became a term in this country in the late 1870s and it makes most of us think of cinnamon, nutmeg, sour cream and crumb topping. Aunt Thelma’s recipe has none of those. It also doesn’t use yeast, baking soda or baking powder, although it’s plenty rich in butter, almond extract and eggs.

Hers feeds company for brunch and, with its two layers of different pastry, it’s good enough to hold its own in a retail bakery case. It’s best appreciated, though, in a home kitchen, sliced slim and offered on everyday plates to your family’s younger generation — giving them something sweet to remember you by, before it’s all swept away, like so much confectioners sugar.

Thelma’s Danish Coffee Cake

First pastry layer

1 cup flour

Dash salt

1 stick (1/2 cup) butter

2 tablespoons cold water

In a bowl, combine flour, salt and butter with fingers until crumbly, as if for pie crust. Sprinkle with cold water, tossing mixture with a fork after each tablespoon. Form into a ball, being careful to not overwork the dough. Place dough on a cookie sheet and pat into a 3-by-5-inch rectangle.

Second pastry layer

1 cup water

1 stick (1/2 cup) butter

1 teaspoon almond extract

1 cup flour

3 eggs (best at room temperature)

In a saucepan, boil the water and butter until butter melts. Remove pan from heat and add the almond extract and flour. Stir vigorously until combined. Add eggs, one at a time, stirring until glossy and well incorporated.

Spread mixture over first layer of crust and press gently with the bottom of a glass. Bake 55-60 minutes at 350 degrees. Let cool. Makes 10 servings.

For the frosting

1/4 cup butter (1/2 stick), softened to room temperature

1/2 pound confectioners sugar

2 to 3 tablespoons milk

1/4 teaspoon almond extract

Ground walnuts, if desired

Combine sugar, butter and milk in a bowl and beat (beginning on low) until smooth and creamy. Frost top of cooled pastry. Sprinkle with ground walnuts, if desired. Slice into slim rectangles for serving. Works well in small, finger-food slices for a buffet-style brunch.

Per serving: 639 calories; 26 g fat (15 g saturated fat; 37 percent calories from fat); 99 g carbohydrates; 79 g sugar; 117 mg cholesterol; 215 mg sodium; 5 g protein; 1 g fiber.

Apple Cake with Sambuca

Chopped apples get a nice soak in a sambuca bath before being folded into the batter. The result is a fragrant, tender cake with a subtle anise kick. Use a mix of sweet and tart apples to give the cake a more complex flavor.

From Domenica Marchetti

4 apples

1/4 to 1/3 cup sambuca or other anise-flavored liqueur

4 large eggs

1 1/2 cups sugar

Finely grated zest of 1 lemon

1 cup vegetable oil (I use sunflower oil)

1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

2 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt

2 teaspoons baking powder

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Coat a 9-inch springform pan with 1 tablespoon of the oil. Fit a piece of parchment into the bottom of the pan and lightly oil the parchment.

Peel the apples and cut them into bite-size pieces. Put them in a bowl with the sambuca as you go to prevent browning. Toss gently to make sure the apples are thoroughly coated and let sit while you mix the other ingredients.

In a large bowl, whisk the eggs and the sugar until light. Whisk in the lemon zest, oil, and vanilla extract. In a separate bowl, stir together the flour, salt and baking powder. Stir the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients. Fold in the apples and sambuca. Pour the batter into the prepared pan.

Bake until the top is golden-brown and a cake tester inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean, 60 to 75 minutes. If the top is browned before the cake is done, gently lay a piece of aluminum foil over the top and finish baking. When done, transfer the cake to a wire rack and let cool 20 to 30 minutes. Use a sharp knife or metal spatula to loosen the sides of the cake from the pan. Remove the ring from the pan and let the cake cool to room temperature.

Invert the cake onto a plate, remove the springform bottom and peel off the parchment. Re-invert the cake onto a serving platter. Dust with confectioners’ sugar just before serving. Serves 8.

Per serving: 662 calories; 30 g fat (4 g saturated fat; 41 percent calories from fat); 88 g carbohydrates; 54 g sugar; 93 mg cholesterol; 305 mg sodium; 7 g protein; 4 g fiber.

Minute Coffee Cake in a Mug

For the cake

2 tablespoons white or brown sugar

1 tablespoon butter

2 tablespoons Greek yogurt

1/8 tablespoon vanilla

1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

Dash of nutmeg

1/4 cup all-purpose flour

1/8 teaspoon baking powder

Pinch of salt

For the topping

1 tablespoon cold butter

2 tablespoons flour

1 tablespoons brown sugar

1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

Dash of nutmeg

Place the butter in a microwave-safe mug. Microwave 10 to 15 seconds to soften the butter. Remove mug from the microwave and stir in all ingredients, except the flour. Mix until well combined. Then, fold in the flour, making sure to not over-mix. Using your spoon, gently push the batter together into the bottom of the mug. Set aside.

To make the topping, use your fingers to mix the butter, flour, sugar and spices together to form a crumbly mixture. Add to the top of the cake.

Microwave the cake for 60 seconds (the time may vary depending on your microwave, but it should take anywhere from 50-90 seconds). Serve immediately with milk or coffee. Makes 1 serving.


May be reheated for 30 seconds in the microwave.

To make a pumpkin version of this cake, reduce the Greek yogurt to 1 tablespoon and add in 2 tablespoons of pure pumpkin puree.

Per serving: 546 calories; 24 g fat (15 g saturated fat; 40 percent calories from fat); 77 g carbohydrates; 40 g sugar; 61 mg cholesterol; 329 mg sodium; 8 g protein; 2 g fiber.

Carrot Cake Power Bites

For the power bites

4 medium carrots (1/2 pound), peeled and sliced into 1/2-inch pieces

1/2 cup (3 ounces) coarsely chopped Medjool dates, firmly packed

1/2 cup (128 grams) unsalted creamy almond butter

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

1 1/2 cups (180 grams) almond meal, firmly packed, divided

For the icing

1/4 cup (30 grams) powdered sugar

1/8 teaspoon ground vanilla beans or vanilla bean paste, or 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

3/4 teaspoons water (plus more if needed)

Place the sliced carrots in a medium (2-quart) saucepan, then cover them with water by an inch. Bring up to a boil over medium heat, then turn down to low and simmer until the carrots are fork-tender, but not falling apart, about 10 minutes. Drain in a colander and set aside to cool to room temperature.

In the bowl of a food processor, combine the cooled carrots with the dates, almond butter, cinnamon, nutmeg and salt. Process in one-second pulses until chopped dates are fully processed and incorporated into the dough, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed.

Transfer the mixture from the food processor into a medium mixing bowl. Add 3/4 cup of the almond meal to the bowl and mix with a sturdy spoon or spatula, until just combined. Chill for at least two hours, or overnight, in the fridge.

When ready to roll the bites, make the icing. In a small mixing bowl, combine the powdered sugar with the ground vanilla beans and water. Stir until all of the powdered sugar is absorbed, forming a very thick, pasty icing. Transfer the icing to a sandwich bag. Push the icing to one corner, squeeze out as much air as possible, and seal the bag closed.

Line a baking sheet or large tray with wax paper. Place the remaining 3/4 cup of almond flour into a small bowl.

Use a sturdy metal spoon (the flatware kind, not a measuring spoon) to scoop up a heaping tablespoon of chilled dough. With another spoon, scrape the dough sideways off of the first spoon; the dough will stick to the second spoon. Continue passing the dough back and forth between the spoons a few times until it is roughly ball-shaped.

Scrape the shaped dough off of the spoon and drop it into the almond flour. Sprinkle more almond flour on the sides and top of the dough to coat completely, then pick it up and use your hands to gently roll it into a ball. Do this quickly, without too much pressure, to avoid pressing the almond flour into the dough too much.

Once you have rolled all of the dough into power bites, drizzle the tops with icing. Snip off a tiny corner of the baggie, and squeeze the bag to dispense a thin squiggle of icing onto each power bite.

Store the bites in the fridge, packed in single layers with sheets of wax paper in between. Alternatively, freeze on the baking sheet and then transfer to a freezer container once solid. Bites will keep in the fridge for 3 to 5 days or frozen for 1 month. Makes 24 bites.

Per serving: 84 calories; 5 g fat (0.5 g saturated fat; 54 percent calories from fat); 8 g carbohydrates; 4 g sugar; 0 mg cholesterol; 100 mg sodium; 4 g protein; 1 g fiber.