Crumb cake is best when it’s mostly crumbs

Photo by Travis Rainey, Food Styling by Liberty Fennell

A good crumb cake, like the ones I grew up with in New Jersey, is very heavy. The simple vanilla cake supports a thick second story of tender cinnamon-brown sugar streusel and a powdered sugar snow top. In New Jersey bakeries, crumb cake is usually sold by the rectangular slice straight from the pan; in delis you’ll often find slices individually wrapped in plastic (which is environmentally friendly, but it creates, in my opinion, the perfect extra-chewy texture). For those who don’t live close enough to purchase such a treat on a lazy weekend morning, I embarked on a quest to develop a recipe for the closest possible iteration that uses no special equipment or ingredients hard to find (you are welcome).

The presumed predecessor of crumb cake is German streuselkuchen, a yeast cake topped with a modest layer of crunchy streusel. Since Americans like to make everything bigger, many of today’s crumb cakes have evolved to a near 1:1 crumb-to-cake ratio – and many are even more generous with the crumb. Some add a layer of jam or flavor the cake with chocolate or warm spices, as they do at Park Ridge Just Crumb Cake Bakery. But overall, the topping isn’t the same crunchy, crumbly streusel you’d find on a crumble or berry tart: it’s thick and chewy, with an almost pastry-like texture. cookies. The general components needed are flour (more on what type in a minute), sugar (mostly brown, sometimes a little granulated or powdered), and fat (much more than one might expect), but it there is no consensus among bakers there. .

Carlo’s Bakery in Hoboken actually uses crumbled vanilla cake in their crumb topping, which reminds me a bit of the method used to make a cake pop. “If you go back to the old traditions of bakers, they never waste anything,” notes Joe Faugno, head baker at Carlo’s Bakery, in a YouTube tutorial on their crumb cake recipe. “They found a way to use leftover cake that they couldn’t serve to customers.” The crumbled cake is beaten in a stand mixer with softened butter, pastry flour, brown sugar, baking powder and salt; then left to sit at room temperature for an hour to firm up. Using cold butter in the filling and/or chilling it before baking can help the crumbs hold their shape while the cake bakes. However, chilling the filling, especially when not mixing it with soft cake crumbs, can result in a slightly dry end result.

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Photo by Travis Rainey, Food Styling by Liberty Fennell

Then how do the breadcrumb topping cooks into a neat layer but remains soft? Some say that baking powder adds volume and tenderness; I found this added unnecessary crunch, when the goal was always to keep things moist. Other bakers swear that cake flour, even a DIY version with cornstarch and all-purpose, is crucial: Jessie Sheehan, author of Pastries to snack on, notes in his recipe for Extra Crumb Snacking Cake that “the sweetness of the crumb topping and the tenderness of the cake owe everything to it.” Cook’s Illustrated Baking Book echoes this in their New York-Style Crumb Cake recipe (although they use melted butter in the filling instead of Sheehan’s cold cubes). I still found the simplest method: tons of melted butter dragged with a fork into a mixture of all-purpose flour, mostly dark brown and a little granulated sugar, and lots of salt, left to hydrate at temperature ambient while mixing. the cake – formed a thick layer of soft and dense crumb. It’s best to divide it into two batches to ensure distinct layers of cake and crumb, the first two thirds in small crumbs on the surface of the cake, the rest in larger pieces.

For the cake layer, you have two options: yeast dough (this version is sometimes called “brioches”) or a simple, thick, yellow cake batter. Many bakeries, like Carlo’s, use the former, as does B&W Bakery in Hackensack, which bills itself as “the home of the famous Chunky Crumb Cake” — but the rest of their recipe is a trade secret. While it may not pay homage to the origins of streuselkuchen, I prefer crumb cakes that follow the direction of the cake batter. I think the texture of the moist cake goes better with the thick, soft crumb than the grated yeast dough, with the added benefit of not wasting time rising. While I experimented with adding cornstarch with all-purpose flour to mimic cake flour according to Sheehan and Cook’s Illustrated, I eventually discovered that a perfectly tender cake was possible with just all-purpose and lots fat (vegetable oil and sour cream). A thick batter was key to ensuring the filling didn’t sink too deep into the base.

Packaged snack cakes have also contributed greatly to the conversation about what constitutes an ideal crumb cake. Sheehan references Drake’s Coffee Cakes in the recipe in his book (the packaged cakes use palm and soybean oil; Sheehan’s cake is enriched with vegetable oil). Entenmann’s offers several variations: Its classic coffee crumb cake and its New York-style crumb cake have nearly identical ingredient lists, including vegetable shortening and vegetable oil. The brand’s Butter French Crumb Cake (unsurprisingly) includes butter and vegetable oil. Strangely, the difference between Entenmann’s classic versions and the New York versions is a larger cake, not a steeper mountain of crumbs like you find in real New York (and other) bakeries and delis. New Jersey!). All the more reason to create your own.

New Jersey Crumb Cake

Rebecca Firkser

Originally appeared on Epicurious

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