A tale of two tests: The quest for Baking Sheet recipes

When someone writes you a letter that starts “Oh, Obiwan Kenobi of all things, baked, please help me!” there’s really no way you can ignore them.


Thus began a fascinating letter from Jane A. Thomas, who signed herself “A wishful thinker and Baking Sheet reader.”

Here’s the letter she wrote:

“Attached is the recipe for Doris Knutson’s Top Secret Filled Coffee Cake. As a child growing up in Burlington, Wisconsin, my family had been the lucky recipients of these incredible coffee cakes that Doris made and gave as gifts. Much to my chagrin, from the age of 10, I could never get Doris to give me the recipe and neither could anyone else. Over the decades, I have never forgotten about Doris’ coffee cake and have often tried to discover a recipe that matched it but never have. Amazingly enough, when she passed away in March 2013, her family gave it out at the funeral.

Here’s what was written in her funeral program: ‘Doris was an avid baker, and her cream-filled coffee cake was a regional favorite. The recipe was a closely-held secret, and many, many attempts were made to crack the code – by several professional kitchens and chemists. They all failed.’

My one attempt to make it did not taste like I had remembered, which was a very fluffy filling and an airy cake with a slight crunch to the exterior. There are no quantities given for the flour and no baking time specified. It makes three cakes but it would be great to make just one at a time. Finally, after 44 years I am hoping to recreate what I and so many others in my home town cherished.”

Here’s the recipe Jane sent me:



recipe instructions

Now, with a story like that, you know the hunt was on. The same day, I was testing a recipe I found in an old cookbook called “The Best From Midwest Kitchens,” originally published in 1946. Unfortunately for our ever-patient kitchen steward, Julie, the first attempt at both recipes yielded similar results.

First, I converted the coffeecake’s amounts to what I thought was a reasonable starting point (roughly x 1/3). Since I had no idea how much flour it would take, I went through the steps and kept the finished dough on the sticky side. It still took almost 5 1/2 cups of flour, and despite putting it in a 10″ layer cake pan, you can see I was not exactly in the ballpark.

Doris Knutson quest1

The 1946 recipe for “Spiced Nougat Cake” said “bake in one loaf for 1 1/2 hours at 300°F.”  Adding the ingredient volumes at a quick glance came out to around 6 cups, which is the amount for a 9 x 5″ loaf pan, or one of our tea loaf pans, which I thought might look elegant. Yeah.


Not so much.

Back to the drawing board, calculator in hand. The nougat cake got an overhaul for amounts, including cutting the leavening in half. Into the oven it went, and this time things looked much more encouraging.


This shot is taken at the same time in the bake as the first one. Note the sheet pan underneath, just in case…

As for the coffeecake, I cut down the amounts again, and this time decided a springform pan was the better part of valor. Things looked pretty reasonable as I mixed and plopped the dough into said springform for its last rise. Note the greasy stack of recipes on the bench, complete with markups. The white stuff in the saucepan is the flour/milk mixture for the coffeecake’s filling, and as you can see, the nougat cake behaved itself.


The Baking Sheet runs a regular feature called Recipe Makeover, and it’s one of our most popular. Everyone has a story like Jane’s, or a baking wish that they’re not sure how to realize. That’s where PJ and I come in. We’re part mad scientist, part translator, part foot soldier, making the messes and screwing things up so you won’t have to; she for the blog and I in the pages (and in the app) of the Baking Sheet.

“Results!” you say. What happened next?

Let’s just day that Doris’ famous coffeecake is one… exuberant recipe. It’s pretty heavily yeasted, even when converted, and the only springform I could put my hands on was a 9″ diameter. So… here’s what happened to take 2 in the oven:


A lofty, light-textured cake, that resembles… a mushroom. But I figured I was further down the road, so it was time to finish the filling, split and fill the cake, and put it into the employee kitchen. That done, I went to check my email, and came back in 10 minutes. This is what was left.


As you can see from the cross section, the cake itself is very light. One of my co-workers described it as being almost like an angel food cake.

And the taste? The filling is amazing. I’ve never had anything like it. I’d seen cooked roux frostings, but nothing like this filling’s technique. The cooked milk/flour mixture gives it a flavor that reminds you of homemade pudding, but much lighter. It’s a little tricky to make without lumps, but after tasting this cake I began to understand that Doris Knutson’s legendary status as a baker was well deserved.

Time for take 3.

All amounts a bit smaller, a better understanding of how to make the filling, and still… it’s clear to me that this recipe just plain HAS to be in a 10″ pan. And a springform one, at that.


So I dug out my 10″ springform from home, and went toe to toe one last time.

Before I show you what happened, I should report that the nougat cake, while vastly improved, was a little dry for mouthfeel after its last go-round. The first one was downright greasy, so I’d cut the butter quite a bit. The recipe also calls for sour cream, which I’d brought down in proportion, but I think it’s worth bumping that up just a bit and taking the recipe around the block just once more.


After putting the coffeecake in the 10″ springform pan, here’s what came out of the oven.


No mushroom, still tall and light. In the 10″ pan you need to wait until the dough has been in there rising for about 20 to 25 minutes before putting the crumbs on top.  I think you could make two 8″ cakes from this recipe, but you’d want to multiply the filling and topping amounts by 1.5 to have all the proportions line up. I can report that I froze one of the cakes over the weekend, and it disappeared just as quickly as its brothers after being thawed.

I think Doris’ coffeecake (for the revised recipe, click here) is truly a masterpiece. Recreating it was a journey into all the unspoken areas where experienced bakers make instinctive adjustments that they may or may not ever put down on paper for others to read. I believe the difference between the formula I arrived at and Doris’ working guideline are the tweaks and measuring and spelling out of at least some of the graceful moves Doris made when she was baking for other people.

I’m hoping that Jane will be as excited about having a working formula for it as we are. And I’m sincerely hoping that our efforts will create those taste memories for her and everyone who cherished Doris’ wonderful baking expertise.

There’s more to say about the nougat cake’s adventures, (including its really, really yummy chocolate cream cheese frosting) but you’ll have to sign up if you really, really want to know. 🙂

Both of these recipes are going to be appearing in the Winter (coffeecake) and Early Spring (Spiced Nougat Cake) issues of The Baking Sheet. If you’re interested in having a regular source of exclusive, original, seasonal, tested recipes, and the stories that go with them, I hope you’ll consider subscribing, to our print, or digital versions (or both).

Subscribers to our app have access to every recipe ever published in The Baking Sheet since its beginnings in 1990. That’s more than 3,500 of them. The first back issue on the app is a comprehensive, searchable index of all of them.

One of our Baking Circle Community members sums it up nicely, when sharing one of her own baking experiments. Mrs. Cindy says:

“I think I know why we all love this site so much. From the beginning KAF has supported our love of tinkering and tweaking recipes. Indeed, look at the Baking Sheet. Every issue begins with Susan telling about finding a recipe, or someone sending her a recipe, or an associate/friend asking for help with a recipe. No recipe is safe from Susan’s tweaking. She encourages us to do the same. We are safe in these environs!”

A lovely thought, and we’d be more than happy to welcome you to our Baking Sheet group of friends.

Susan Reid

Chef Susan Reid grew up in New Jersey, graduated from Bates College and the Culinary Institute of America, and is presently the Food Editor of Sift magazine. She does demos, appearances, and answers food (and baking) questions from all quarters.


  1. Janet

    My Mom – a 2nd generation Italian from Chicago – used to make a cake frosting that used that cooked milk and flour mixture. It was spectacular. Those cream filled coffeecakes are very popular in the Midwest. It you are ever in Harvard, Illinois or Woodstock, Illinois, be sure to stop at the Swiss Maid Bakery and pick one up. You won’t be sorry.

  2. Erin in PA

    Looking forward to these recipes in my copies of The Baking Sheet. In this digital age, I look forward to and savor my paper copies with the recipes and the stories/adventures of how those recipes came to be. It is well worth the price of subscription. If I had a tablet, I am sure that I would really enjoy that access of past issues, but currently, I just keep mine in binders to peruse.I love that I can add my notes right alongside yours and the pictures are helpful too. Thank you King Arthur!

    You’re most welcome, Erin! Susan

  3. jms2

    This is a great article. Thank you. I’m actually going to try to make this and take it to the office. It is a lovely story and one I will continue to think about for some time. joan

    I’m glad you enjoyed the story,Joan. And I’m sure you’ll enjoy the cake. Best to you…Susan

  4. gaa

    Susan- This coffeecake looks amazing! And so very different from anything I have ever seen. Thank you for all you do to help bring these recipes to life.Thanks for the heads up about these two recipes’ planned appearance in upcoming editions of The Baking Sheet (to which I subscribe in both paper and digital format). I was going to print the coffeecake recipe and put in the stack of current “Recipes to Make” which is, as always, quite high. Now I can let it go until it is published in The Baking Sheet. In the meantime, I can try to make some headway on that stack of recipes. Currently on the top … the apple cake recipe makeover in the current issue of The Baking Sheet apples and cake YUM! …

    I have to say, when we tasted the first one that was close, we knew we were all in trouble! Thanks for writing and you’ll be happy with the apple cake, I promise! ~Susan

  5. AnneMarie

    That icing is the same exact icing that my great grandmother put on all her scratch chocolate fudge cakes, which by the way, it is AMAZING ONE!

    She’d be over 100 now, if she was still with us, but that cake gets made several times a year 😀

    Hi, AnneMarie. This is the first time I’ve had any success with a cooked roux frosting. I’ve found the secret is not to cook the flour and milk for too long; just until it’s thickened. Don’t you love keeping traditions like this alive? Susan

  6. AnneMarie

    Absolutely! I’ve never had a problem with the roux. GGrandMother, Mamie, used to stand over her bowl with a hand held electric mixer for a good 20 minutes! The lumps in that cream were a treat for us. Fast forward, and I toss the whole mess into my 6qt kitchenaid, first with the scraper beater on it, then with the 22 tine whisk, I’m done in under 5 and NO lumps 😀 OH and it’s the same filling we use in whoopsie pies. Tradition. Can’t beat it!

  7. glpruett

    What a lovely story about a fondly remembered friend and her baking prowess. It is so true that some of our best memories come from special foods in our past, both in their taste and smell.
    Years ago my sister gave me her recipe for a cooked roux frosting, and it has become a family favorite. You are so right that the trick seems to be in cooking the roux just enough to be rid of the raw flour taste, but not nearly so much that the mixture gets thick and clumpy. You should have seen my first attempt at the frosting, after I had cooked it to death! We live and learn!
    I went to the revised recipe link for the coffeecake, and I think there may be an error in the topping list of ingredients. In addition to the brown sugar, butter, salt and cinnamon, both milk and flour are called for. Neither is mentioned in the topping instructions, so that leads me to believe that they don’t belong in the ingredient list.
    Finally, Susan, thank you for the writing you do for “The Baking Sheet”. I look forward to receiving every edition, and like Erin in PA, I thoroughly enjoy having mine in a print version which I can hold in my hands and read in bits and pieces. iPads just don’t fold the way paper does! Your blog entry is a kind, gentle invitation to subscribe to a worthy publication. Thanks!

    Ahh, thanks for the correction. We check before going online, but sometimes miss the obvious. I will go do the repair now. And thank you for your kind words, story and memories, too! Susan

  8. sharon

    Looks great. I have a question about using 2 8 inch pans. Do those have to be springform pans or regular cake pans? I don’t really see how it could work in regular 8 inch cake pans. I’m guessing you mean springform. Can you clarify.

    I love getting recipes from all of the country. I have never seen a cake like this. I can’t wait to give it a try. thanks for all of the hard work on this recipe.

    Susan actually used two 8 inch cake pans for the smaller versions! This cake really is quite unique and it is very hard to eat only one piece.-Jon

    Yes, it works fine in an 8″ cake pan; the trick is to keep the dough amount the same while multiplying the filling and topping amounts by 1.5. Susan

  9. Keri in FL

    I can’t wait to attempt the coffee cake! Thank you for doing all the hard work 😀

    This cake is to die for, so I think you will enjoy it!-Jon

  10. Trudy Haines

    I wonder if “Aunt Doris” used what my mother called wedding cake or fruit cake pans. They were about twice the height of regular cake pans. Unfortunately, my mother’s have disappeared and only one of the square set became my heritage.

    Well, Trudy, that is intriguing. I’m constantly cruising antique shops and flea markets for old cooking and baking dishes. I have a pre-springform pan that clips together that’s almost 4 inches tall. May be along the same lines. Susan

  11. Beth Pearson

    I am anxious to make this recipe and have concern about pan? I favor a square pan as it so easy to cut a nice square piece of cake . I have a 9″ springform square pan. If I extended the height of sides with parchment paper do you think that would eliminate the muffin top? Thanks, Beth
    I think it may worth a try, Beth. What do you think Susan? Elisabeth

  12. sharon

    If I use 2 regular 8 inch pans, how do i get the cake out of the pan without losing the topping. I really see the value of a springform pan for this recipe, but I’d really love to make the 2 smaller cakes. I just think if I flip the cake out of the cake pan, I’ll lose the topping. I have the same issue with some coffee cakes.
    this has to come out of the pan , so I can do the filling. Would I be best off using a off set spatula to get under the cake and lift it out? How did you do the 8 inch pans in the test kitchen.
    For less headache, spring form is the way to go. But, you could try using some 8″cake pans. When unmolding, place dinner plate over the top of the cooled cake. With both hands on either side, flip the cake pan over so now the cake is upside down. Remove the cake pan. Place another dinner plate on what is the bottom of the cake. While holding onto both plates, flip once more. Remove the plate that is on top and hopefully the crumb topping is still in place! Elisabeth
    The dough is soft enough that the streusel cooks on to the top; flipping it out of the pan and back over will loosen up a crumb or two, but it still works. Susan

  13. Susan

    Susan –
    I hate to say this, but I found a typo – “Let’s just day that Doris’ famous coffeecake is one… ” – shouldn’t it be “Let’s just say that …”?
    I love the blogs you all write and post and I have learned so much from KAF!

    Thanks for letting us know, I will see if we can get this typo fixed!-Jon

  14. Sheila

    Your revised instructions don’t make reference to flour in the Topping, although the ingredients list does. Doris does, too, so I’m assuming that it’s correct after the last change, but the instructions should mention it to avoid confusion. I hope that the amount isn’t an error as I’m now 1/2-way through making the coffeecake!
    Thank you, Shelia. Yes, I believe flour should be included in Step 4. Thanks! Elisabeth

  15. JuliaJ

    The filling is referred to as a cooked roux filling but on reading the recipe, the method of combination is very different from how I make a roux-based white sauce. In making a roux, I melt the butter, stir in the flour to make a paste, and THEN add the milk (and other ingredients for this filling recipe), heating until thickened. No lumps. Is there a reason for the different method described for this filling?
    Yes, you are correct Julia. Your explanation of a roux is classic. Because there is flour and liquid and cooking until thickened involved, the beginnings of this frosting is much like a roux, too. You are trying to achieve the same thing. Cooking the starches out and thickening. Both yield tasty outcomes as I am sure you will agree! Elisabeth

    Hi, Julia! There’s no fat in the “roux” for the filling; it’s more like you’d do in the old days with water and flour to thicken a gravy. The hard part is to deny your training and not cook out the flour for too long; that’s where things start to look curdled when you combine with the butter/sugar mixture. Susan

  16. Chloe

    @Sharon: When I don’t have the right size springform for a recipe like this, I line the pan with foil that goes about an inch or two over the side of the pan. Then I use the overhanging foil as handles to lift the cake out without having to invert it. Maybe that will help here?

    Great tip, it should work well if you are using a heavy duty tin foil!-Jon

  17. Chris

    I have a similar recipe that I found in our local free paper about 7 years ago and the woman lived near West Bend, WI and now lives in northern Wi. This recipe makes 3 cakes and I bake them in 8inch regular cake pans. I divide the dough into 3 portions and pat into the pans and sprinkle the topping on. I haven’t had trouble with the topping falling off. The cakes aren’t as tall as yours but they do rise over the pan. I use a small spatula to get them out. After cooling and frosting, I freeze 2 and eat one. After many years of collecting recipes that was the first time I had ever found a cream filled coffee cake. A must have recipe. Good luck to all.
    It really is one of the best I have tried, a must try.-Jon

  18. Margy

    The filling recipe reminds me of a one that I got from a Wilton decorating yearbook many years ago. I think they referred to it as French buttercream. That recipe calls for cooking the flour and milk with granulated sugar, not adding powdered sugar after cooking, but otherwise the same. Almost a whipped cream consistency and not too sweet. I beat it in my Kitchenaid and no lumps. Use it as the cream filling of a chocolate cupcake, chocolate ganache on top and hey, presto!–faux Hostess cupcakes!

  19. Trish Parker

    Hello KAF Bakers, Well I was so excited to try this cake. I followed the recipe exactly… and ended up using a 1 3/4 cup of flour after the initial resting. I baked for 55 minutes toothpick dry.. but the cake DID NOT have an “angel food quality/texture” It definitely had more of a bread than cake taste but honestly found it a bit dry. The cream is heaven sent.. over the top delicious and helped with the dryness. Working with a 10″ springform pan the cake had a slight sinking after cooking, which I tried to prevent with the 55 minute cook time. Where did I go wrong that my cake/bread is on the dry side???
    LOVED THE RECIPE otherwise 🙂 Great share!!!
    Live Delicious,

    Hmm, it sounds like it could have been a measurement issue. We suggest to either measure by weight or with this method.-Jon

  20. Meg

    I was also excited to try out this cake. I measured by weight to be accurate, and this recipe reminded me more of making bread (since that’s mostly what I bake) than a cake recipe. I only had a 9″ springform pan, so I extended the pan lip with a ring of foil in case the dough rose too high. It looked beautiful after it rose in the pan and I put the topping on it, but for some reason the cake dramatically sunk in the center while it baked in the oven. My family sampled it and agreed that it tastes fine and the filing is wonderful, but the cake texture is dry and seems more like a bread than a normal cake. Does this recipe live or die by the 10″ pan requirement?
    Hi Meg,
    The pan size can make a very big difference in the outcome of a cake. It isn’t just the rising up, but the total surface area of the pan that makes a difference in how the cake bakes, especially the center. So, check around for a 10″ pan and give the recipe a try again, you should see a pleasant difference in the cake texture. ~ MJ

  21. Trish Parker

    Thanks Jon for the suggestion.. I always sift the flour before measuring, is that correct? I also turn the Cake in oven 1/2 way through, could that be causing the slight caving of the center? I plan to retry the cake over the weekend! Thanks for the help!
    Try fluffing the flour up instead of sifting. You may be getting too little flour per cup, so that your cake doesn’t have enough flour in it. ~ MJ

  22. Kyle


    Doris was my Grandmother – and I am the one who put her recipe in the bulletin at her funeral. About 8 years ago, she compiled a book of all her favorite recipes, and gave it to all the children and grand-children. It is a treasure – filled with pictures and recipes I remember working on with Grandma. My favorite was the sweet rolls (which is the recipe for the bread). She had a “wooden counter” that was lower than normal counter height – because she wan’t very tall – and so that the young ones could help. I remember pulling a small wrought iron chair up to the counter – and she taught me how to shape the rolls. This past week, my daughter pulled the very same chair up to our counter as we made rolls for Thanksgiving, and it was an amazing opportunity to talk about Grandma, and the impact she made on my life.

    But, you’re not here for that – you want the secrets of the recipe. 🙂

    I have not made the cream-filled coffee cake recipe yet. But, the bread portion is the roll dough recipe. Grandma did not give us the amount of flour. And, I’ve not really counted. I think it’s about 8-10 cups for a full recipe. (A full recipe will yield 46-52 ish rolls, or 4 pans of cinnamon rolls).

    The bread is dense – it’s a heavy bread. The coffee helps soften it up.

    It’s an honor to see so many interested in Grandma’s recipes.


    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Thank you for sharing her recipe with us! It is certainly a favorite here as it is with your family. Jon@KAF

  23. robinwaban

    This turned out to be a very impressive cake. Susan, I don’t recall if I gave PJ the credit somewhere by accident. Sorry if I did. I also posted pics. The filling was delicious and I wish I had made more to make a thicker layer because the cake was so high. I loved the challenge of this cake. I think it wasn’t difficult to make, but a little time consuming. I made the dough in my Zo and it came out great. Someone mentioned it is supposed to have an angel food texture. While mine was moist, it had a crumb that resembled a bread more than a cake. All in all, delicious. I will make it again. Thank you for doing all the leg work!

  24. Jocelyn

    Grandma never gave out how much flour to use because its not an exact science, as she told me “some recipes you just know how much to use”
    As many times as I made this recipe with her, it still took me years to get right. And a while longer to figure out the filling.
    Now keep in mind I have not tried this version of the recipe yet, but it is on my to do list. But here are some suggestions that I have figured out in my trials and errors of the original recipe.

    Some suggestions:
    If the dough seems too dense use less flour, and don’t knead it as long.
    Also grandma always used a deeper pie dish for the coffee cakes.
    I know how health concious everyone is these days, but this is an old recipe. I have found using the fattiest milk I can find turns out the best.

    We often ate it as just a roll, like Kyle previously stated, so please give it a try sometime. Make the dough the same but form it into smaller balls (keep in mind it rises).

    Hopefully you will enjoy this recipe as much as those of us fortunate enough to grow up with it.

    1. Susan Reid, post author

      Grandma was right, Jocelyn, as is so often the case. You really have to let your hands tell you how much flour to use, but touching the dough. It’s always a good idea to start with less than you think you’ll need, because for sure you can’t take it out! I like the idea of making individual rolls and filling them. Thanks for writing! Susan

  25. Lisa B

    I am very interested in baking this recipe but would like to make it in 2 8″ pans. I have the winter 2004 Baking sheet & have searched on web site for that info. Is it available? I love the baking sheet & KAF products!

    1. MaryJane Robbins

      Hi Lisa,
      I know that Susan make a few of the filled coffeecakes in smaller pans, so your idea of two smaller 8″ rounds should work out just fine. ~ MJ

  26. Lorna Ivey

    Would a pastry cream work for this coffee cake instead of the rue based filling? I didn’t want an overly sweet filling. Pastry filling is my weakness anyway.

    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Lorna–I think a pastry cream would work perfectly fine to dress up this coffee cake a bit. It would be like a giant Boston-cream donut, yum. My only recommendation would be to make sure that your pastry cream was a bit more firm than a light airy mouse so that when you assemble the two halves of the cake, the cream does not go squirting out the sides. Here is a link to our standard pastry cream, which is just as tasty as you’d imagine: http://bit.ly/1ydHDF1 To make the pastry cream sliceable and hold up to this task, don’t fold in the whipped cream. The recipe will yield 3 cups of pastry cream in that case. Good luck and happy baking! –Kye@KAF

  27. Carolyn T

    I made this cake yesterday. It was an interesting experience since there’s not much about it that’s like a coffee cake, but as many have mentioned, it’s bread instead. It had just the right amount of sweetness. I baked mine in a 10-inch springform, it rose beautifully, and yes, some of the topping fell off or broke off when I removed it from the springform pan. I used my Thermapen and removed the cake/bread when it reached 198°F. My only recommendation – I thought there wasn’t enough cream filling, and if I were to make this again I would probably TRIPLE the cream filling and I’d slice it into 3 equal sections. If you only put filling in once, you’ll have a big tophat that’s a bit on the dry side with no filling. You could also serve this with butter on the side, as I ended up eating my slice holding it in my hand. That would not work, however, if you put in 2 layers of filling. What this is is very different, and I liked that about it.

  28. Kyle


    I wrote in earlier – (2 years ago, actually). I’ve actually been making the cakes for about 2 years now – and while I have not quite mastered the topping, I’ve gotten really close at the cake itself.

    The original recipe will actually make 4-5 cakes in a 9″ pan (not springform). You were probably having so many problems because the recipe grandma gave us didn’t divide the dough properly.

    I just read a comment about butter. My aunt always has the cake with butter. I don’t. 6 in one hand, half a dozen in the other.

    Glad so many have tried this recipe and have discovered the treasure that Grandma created!


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