so, i’ve got some super strong childhood food memories: many of the packaged variety (ie: memories of devil dogs, “double stuf” oreos, baskin robbins mint chocolate chip ice cream, pepperidge farm frozen raspberry turnovers) and a handful – but by no means a ton – of the home-made variety (ie: memories of my grandmother’s lemon cake and her perfect and very tiny chocolate chip cookies, my mother’s apple brown betty). because i did not grow up in a home where the scent of freshly baked pie greeted you at the door (as noted here – and i think it’s probably safe to say that a pie has actually never been baked in the home in which i grew up) my memories of the store-bought treats of my girlhood far outweigh the memories of anything baked from scratch. and so it should come as no surprise that, although these chocolate-crusted pecan tassies (ie: mini pecan pies) were technically inspired by a food memory of the home-made variety, in this instance “home-made” does not describe a sweet baked-in-my-childhood-home-by-someone-related-to-me. to the contrary. the inspiration for my tassies was a treat made from scratch by a petite hungarian grandmother living in chicago. the story is this:
black-bottom coconut cream pie. kind of a delicious-sounding sweet, no? like even over-the-top delicious-sounding. at least to me. i adore coconut, particularly when coupled with chocolate and as such, have had a recipe from fine cooking, for a pie combining both, in my possession since 2010. but despite that fact, i had never actually made a coconut cream pie until quite recently, when i developed this one. now don’t get me wrong: there were other coconut desserts in my past, such as this one and this one, developed for baked occasions, and this one and this one (housed right here on this blog and developed just for you). but a coconut cream pie? never (and this is kind of even extra scandalous cause such a pie is basically my husband’s favorite dessert – oops). but here’s the good news: it may have taken me longer than some of us would have liked (ahem) but i kind of think this particular pie was worth waiting for. like really worth it. and my harshest, and therefore most valued, critic (aka my husband) adores it. phew.
my thing with reese’s peanut butter cups goes way back. like we’re talking childhood. yes, back in the day i flirted with nestle crunch and krackle bars (i do really dig the chocolate/”crispies” thing – see here for evidence of that). but my true love has always been the combo of peanut butter and chocolate. not only did guests at my wedding receive mini reese’s peanut butter cups as a favor (and, no, they were not homemade), but to this day when i trick or treat with my children, i buy myself a bag of them to stuff in my purse as we walk. this way i can happily eat my favorite candy all halloween night without getting into trouble with my kids for stealing their’s (i’ve trained them well and a reese’s peanut butter cup is kind of their most beloved treat, too).
do you know anyone who doesn’t like coffee cake? and by “coffee cake,” i mean something extremely specific: super moist, tender, not too sweet, vanilla-infused cake, with a tight-ish crumb, and a pale yellow hue. ideally, there is a brown-sugar/cinnamon swirl running through said-cake, and an uber buttery, sugary, and yet slightly salty, crumb topping it. full disclosure/big surprise, the recipe for – dare i say, “perfect?” – coffee cake, that i am sharing with you here, produces a cake that fits the above description flawlessly, and will garner no haters. yes, i am a coffee cake fanatic from back in the day (can you say, “drakes coffee cake?”). so, yes, it’s possible i’m just a tad biased. but here’s the thing: some serious coffee cake research was conducted in pursuit of my recipe for brown sugar cream cheese coffee cake and it’s the research that gives me the confidence to throw around words like, “perfect.”
i had three coffee cakes in mind, when my research began. 1) the aforementioned drake’s, 2) the sour cream coffee cake at baked; and 3) a recipe i discovered in the nyt a hundred years ago (and, of course, so did deb perelman – will i ever (sigh) discover anything that doesn’t eventually end up on smitten kitchen??), melissa clark’s big crumb rhubarb coffee cake. i loved all of these cakes for different reasons. drake’s: cause who doesn’t love (or love the memory of) a small, hand-held buttery cake with an equally buttery crumb? baked’s: for its soft, moist cake, chocolate-y swirl and tasty pecan crumb. and, melissa clark’s: for its huge crumb, tangy fruit filling, and sour cream-based cake. my own cake, i knew, would share tasty traits with, and yet be different from, my three all-time faves. my cake would be uber moist, but not too sweet; my swirl would be sweet and dark and intense (a perfect foil to my cake); and, my crumb would be buttery and sweet – but not fussy (no nuts and no crumb-making techniques required).
i tackled the cake element of my coffee cake first, as i already knew there would be cream cheese in my cake – and not as some kind of a filling. it would serve as the fat and would make my cake slightly tangy, rich, and tender. a little research revealed, however, only a handful of cream-cheese based cake recipes, such as chocolate chip cream cheese coffee cake, “after the opry coffee cake,” streusel coffee cake, and cream cheese butter cake. moreover, all of these recipes combined cream cheese and butter, and although i did the same in the initial testing of my cake, the result was a touch too dense. i replaced my butter with oil (a super mild olive oil – whose incredible moisture/tender-crumb producing powers i have described here) and achieved moisture/tender nirvana. with the fat squared away, i turned to sugar. and just like i’d known all along that i wanted cream cheese in my cake (full disclosure: the name of the cake came before the actual recipe) i also knew my cake would have the unadulterated molasses-y sweetness of light brown sugar (not to mention the added moisture) – not a grain of granulated in this baby. as for the cake’s flour, i was torn. cook’s illustrated swears by cake flour in its new york style crumb cake, ina garten uses it in her sour cream coffee cake, and melissa clark, in her aforementioned big crumb rhubarb one.
but i wasn’t feeling cake flour. or all purpose, for that matter. i was feeling self rising (a flour that includes leavening and salt and is a staple in southern baked-good recipes). super bold choice, i know, and one that causes many (read: purists/”diy-ers”) to balk. but the more i perused recipes that used it (like this one, this one, and the aforementioned “after the opry coffee cake”) the more intrigued i became. and then when i turned to my bible, to see what shirley corriher had to say on the subject, i was sold. she may literally be the only person out there touting the exceptional qualities of self rising flour (ie: its perfectly distributed leavening and the “fine” (ie: soft and tender) texture it produces). indeed, she even acknowledges that rose levy bernebaum is decidedly NOT on board. and corriher readily admits that self rising flour will not work in every cake, but it works here, producing an even, “perfect” crumb that i love. and once swirled with a cinnamon/sugar swirl and topped with a crumb of butter, sugar, flour and a bit of spice, i’m not kidding: we’re talking about something close to coffee cake perfection.