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.

jane'sletter

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:

originalrecipepart1

 

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.

Spicedcakelavaflow

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.

nougatcake2

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.

workdayinprogress

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:

Doriscake2baked

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.

tastingDoris2

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.

round3

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.

spicecakeround2

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

lastpass10inchpan

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
About

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.

comments

  1. Kyle

    Hello,

    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!

    Reply
  2. 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.

    Reply
  3. 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.

    Reply
    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

  4. 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!

    Reply
    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

  5. 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.

    Reply
    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

  6. 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!

    Reply
  7. Kyle

    Hello.

    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.

    Thanks!

    Reply
    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

  8. 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

    Reply
  9. 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

    Reply

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