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16 May 2021

Cardamom coffee cake with fruit topping – I don’t want you to think that Liminality is becoming a baking site, but I have been doing more than the usual amount of baking lately, and I thought I would share my latest creation as well. A couple of months back I tried my hand at making a coffee cake, and I thought I would give it a shot again but this time document the process. My first cake used frozen tart cherries, but this time around I decided to use some frozen apricots instead. I think I liked the cherry version better (for reasons that I will explain later), but this one was still good. This recipe is the culmination of my experimentation so far, and I’m fairly confident in it.

“...nobody wants a middling coffee cake.”

Just as I did last time, I am going to jump straight in with the ingredients and a quick(ish) set of instructions, followed by a longer explanation of my process and notes on any issues that came up along the way. (I’ve changed the formatting a bit because this recipe is quite a bit more complicated than the last one and is thus broken up into sections.) Also, I took photos of each step along the way this time around; those will be included in the longer explanation.


Fruit topping

Crumble mixture

Cake batter


Making the fruit topping

Start this at least several hours beforehand or, if possible, the night before baking. Heat the fruit, sugar, lemon juice, and cinnamon in a pot to boiling, then simmer on low heat, stirring constantly, until the fruit is broken down but still retains some of its texture. The time this will take will vary depending on the fruit you use. You may have to add water to get the boil started, especially if the fruit is straight out of the freezer, but add as little as possible—the more water you add, the longer you will have to boil the mixture. Once the fruit has broken down and the remaining liquid looks like a thick syrup, make a slurry of the cornstarch and a teaspoon of water. Drizzle this into the fruit mixture while stirringand then boil for another two or three minutes, stirring constantly, until thickened. Turn off the heat and salt to taste. Once the topping is cooled, refrigerate until you are ready to bake.

Making the crumble

Combine the butter, sugar, flour, and cinnamon in a small bowl and work together with your fingers until all the ingredients are incorporated and you have a crumbly, pebbly mixture. Set this aside.

Making the batter

Before starting the batter, line a 23-cm (or 9-inch) square baking pan with parchment paper, leaving enough extra so that the paper comes up the sides and above the edge of the baking pan (see the photo and my explanation below for more details). Preheat your oven to 170 C. Begin the batter by whipping the butter and sugar at medium speed (speed 6 on a stand mixer) until incorporated, roughly 2-3 minutes. Scrape the bowl down, add the egg and beat on medium until the mixture is roughly uniform. Scrape the bowl down again and add the vegetable oil, yogurt, and vanilla extract. Beat on medium speed until the mixture emulsifies. Once emulsification has occurred, add the dry ingredients (flour, salt, baking soda, and baking powder) and mix on the lowest speed only until combined, approximately 30-45 seconds. Do not overmix!

Putting it all together

Scrape the batter into the baking pan and spread out with a spatula into a thin, even layer. Scatter half of the crumble mixture onto the batter, spoon the fruit topping over this in scattered clumps, and then scatter the remaining crumbles on top. Bake for approximately 25 minutes, or until a toothpick poked into the cake (not through the fruit topping, though!) comes out clean. When the baking pan has cooled enough to touch, carefully lift the cake out by the parchment paper and remove to a wire rack to finish cooling.

The long version

Now that the impatient people are gone, we can take our time and go into a little(?) more detail on this cake. Those of you who followed my “Adventures in cake” from a while back may recognize the batter process, if not the ingredients. This is, in fact, the same recipe I used for the chocolate cake, except that this has cardamom instead of chocolate. I originally wasn’t planning to exhaustively document my process here, as I had already covered it in great detail in that previous entry, and I figured the recipe would still be available on the Milk Bar website for anyone who was interested. However, when I looked back at that entry, I noticed two things. For one, while I did have a number of photographs of the ingredients and the cake, I didn’t have any photographs of the process. Secondly, while the recipe is still technically available on the Milk Bar website, you are now required to create an account and log in if you want to see the full recipe. That is, of course, perfectly understandable, as Milk Bar is a business and they want to create a more lasting connection with their customer base, but it does mean that any readers of Liminality who just wanted to take a quick look at the recipe out of curiosity will not be able to do so. So I decided to document the process in greater detail this time around for the sake of anyone who wants to follow along. So, again, the recipe above is a modification of that original Milk Bar recipe, but credit goes to Christina Tosi for opening my eyes to a new way of making cake, a method that has become my go-to process now.

OK, now let’s dive into the detailed step-by-step version of the process. As I mentioned above, when I made the first version of this coffee cake I used frozen tart cherries, but this time I used frozen apricots. I like both cherries and apricots, but I think in terms of coffee cake toppings cherries work better—and it all comes down to moisture content and texture. Cherries have a much lower moisture content and a sturdier structure than apricots and thus lend themselves better to being boiled into a sauce or jam without completely falling apart. My cherry topping had a thick, jammy aspect to it, but there were also clearly distinguishable pieces of cherries in it, and that textural contrast was nice. The apricots, on the other hand, broke down rather quickly into an almost completely uniform jam. Part of this was my fault; when I made the cherry topping I added 50 ml of water before boiling, and the second time around I did the same without considering the difference in moisture content between the two fruits. As a result, I had to boil the apricots for longer than I had intended in order to get them to thicken up, and I still ended up with a topping that had too much moisture. This did not affect the taste of the final product, but it did affect the texture, as the crumbles on top of the fruit ended up moist rather than maintaining any sort of crispiness. Moist crumbles are not ideal. All things considered, I am going to stick to cherries whenever I make this in the future.

At any rate, I did end up with a reasonably suitable topping, as you can see here.

I let this chill in the refrigerator overnight, but it did not thicken up as much as I had hoped it would. Again, this was my fault, because I was not conscientious about stirring the mixture while I was adding the cornstarch slurry. As a result, I ended up with little “pearls” of cooked cornstarch and lost a lot of its thickening power. I don’t know why I made this mistake; I hadn’t made it the first time around. I can only assume that I was distracted in the moment. It is definitely harder to concentrate on a recipe when you are trying to document every step of it. But this is why I added the italicized note in the instructions above to stir as you add the slurry. Learn from my mistakes!

Before we move on to the actual baking of the cake, a few more notes are in order. You may have noticed that the recipe specifies “Ceylon cinnamon.” It may surprise you, as it did me, to learn that there are actually different types of cinnamon—and by “different types” I mean that there are completely different species of trees within the cinnamomum genus. The cinnamon that I grew up with is Cinnamomum burmannii, also known as “Indonesian cinnamon.” This is the cinnamon most common in the US, and it is what you get if you just go out and buy “cinnamon.” Ceylon cinnamon, on the other hand, is from the Cinnamomum verum tree and thus is also known as “true cinnamon.” Ceylon cinnamon is not quite as sweet and has a more subtle flavor and aroma than Indonesian cinnamon; I’ve seen it described as “floral.” We started using Ceylon cinnamon a few months back, and I have since become a convert. If you can get your hands on some, I would recommend giving it a shot. That being said, Indonesian cinnamon will work fine here, too.

I also want to address the amount of sugar used in the recipe, particularly in the fruit topping. If 30 grams of sugar to 300 grams of fruit sounds like very little, that’s because it is; recipes for jam or preserves that you find online can go as high as a 1-to-1 ratio of sugar to fruit. I find that most fruits are sweet enough to not require too much additional sweetness, but if you like your preserves sweeter, feel free to add more sugar than the recipe recommends. More sugar does help with the jamification process, which is why I resort to the cornstarch slurry in this recipe.

Finally, and related to the sweetness of the topping, I want to briefly discuss the importance of salt. It may seem odd to add salt to a sweet element, but the salt will in fact kick the sweetness up a notch. Salt is a flavor enhancer, which means that the right amount of it will make the other flavors in a dish more prominent without making the dish as a whole taste salty. You always have to be careful with salt, though, because you can’t take salt out of a dish once you’ve added it. What you can do, though, is apply the principle above, but in reverse: Adding some sugar (or honey, agave syrup, etc.) to a salty dish will cut down on that saltiness. It’s still going to have all that sodium in it, of course, so it’s not an ideal solution, but it may save a dish that has otherwise been rendered inedible.

OK, moving on. The next day, when it came time to make the cake itself, I got out our 23-cm pan, which we originally got for dishes that begin on the range and then are finished in the oven, but which I have since discovered is also a good size for a coffee cake. A quarter sheet pan is a bit too large for this recipe, but it is also too small for a double recipe; due to the presence of the single egg, it’s difficult to do anything but double this recipe without changing the proportions. The baking pan turned out to be just the right size, but it has the downside of having very high sides. This is why I lined it with parchment paper long enough to stick up over the sides—twice, in fact, with one sheet of paper going north-south and the other going east-west.

If you look closely at this photo, you’ll see that I made a slight mistake—the longer sheet of parchment paper is on top, while the slightly-too-short sheet is on the bottom. You would ideally want to lift the cake out by the bottom sheet, so that should be the longer one. I could have switched them around, but I had lightly greased the pan (more out of habit than actual necessity, which is why I didn’t include the step in the recipe above) and it would have been a hassle. I knew that even the shorter sheet would be enough to lift the cake out of the pan, though, so I left it as it was.

The crumble mixture came next, and this was of course fairly straightforward. If you’ve never made a crumble before, don’t worry. All you need to do is work the mixture with your fingers until all the butter is incorporated and you end up with something like this.

Keep in mind that a crumble is nothing like pastry. With pastry, you don’t want the butter to melt, so you want to minimize the time the ingredients are in contact with your hot little hands. With a crumble, though, the butter melting from the heat of your hands is all part of the process. In fact, you could even add melted butter to the dry crumble ingredients if you wanted, but that is not necessary.

With the crumble ready, I moved on to the most complicated part of this whole process: the cake batter itself. Having the different ingredient groups ready in separate bowls made it easier to document the process via photographs, but I normally do this anyway because it makes everything go much more smoothly. This is especially true when it comes to the dry ingredients: Because you want to mix the wet and dry ingredients as little as possible (to avoid gluten formation), it makes sense to make sure that the dry ingredients are fully incorporated before you add them to the wet ingredients.

Those tiny black flecks are the ground cardamom seeds. I imagine that they probably sell ground cardamom seeds, but I’ve only ever had whole cardamom pods in the pantry. If you don’t usually use cardamom but want to try this recipe out and are wondering what you’re going to do with the rest of the cardamom, never fear! Cardamom is a very versatile spice; it is used in both sweet and savory dishes. It is a “warm” spice and thus goes well with other warm spices, such as cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, allspice, etc. You can find a ton of cardamom recipes online, but for some quick-and-easy uses think beverages. Try adding it to your spice mix for mulled cider, for example. A personal favorite of mine for winding down at the end of the day is cardamom milk. Crush a few pods, add them to a pot of milk, and heat the milk (but don’t boil it). Cover the pot and let the pods steep in the milk for a while, then pour the milk into your cup(s) through a strainer to catch the pods. Add a little honey and you have a luxurious twist on the traditional “glass of warm milk before bed.” (You can save the pods from this recipe and later steep them in your milk, or in water for a cardamom tea, too.)

Of course, not everyone likes cardamom. I happen to like it a lot, so I put a healthy amount of it in the recipe. If you don’t like cardamom, just leave it out and the cake will still taste great. If you do like it but not quite as much as I do, feel free to reduce the amount you add.

Oh, yeah—don’t forget to sift your flour to avoid lumps in the batter! I used AP flour for this instead of cake flour, mainly because I wanted a different texture. Cake flour is good if you want a light, fluffy confection, but I wanted something a little more toothy and firm to provide a good base for the topping. AP flour does have a higher gluten content than cake flour, but since we are not mixing the batter enough to work the gluten structure to any real extent, we don’t have to worry about the cake becoming too tough or chewy.

With my dry ingredients fully mixed and standing by, I moved on to the “wet” ingredients. I use quotation marks here because only some of the ingredients are actually wet (sugar and butter are usually thought of as solids!), but all of the ingredients belong to the wet moiety that will eventually be married with the ingredients in the dry moiety. I cut up the butter and added it to the bowl of my stand mixer in advance, along with the sugar.

I also measured out the vegetable oil, plain yogurt, and vanilla extract into a separate bowl, ready to scrape into the mixing bowl when needed. I should note here that if you have vanilla powder rather than vanilla extract, you can use that instead. Just use a half teaspoon of powder and mix it into the dry ingredients. The difference in liquid is negligible, so you don’t need to adjust the recipe any further.

(Also, is it just me, or does this look like an angry ghost spewing out vanilla extract?)

Now, finally, we can begin the process of making the batter. This starts out with a few minutes of whipping the butter and sugar together—I used the paddle attachment for my stand mixer for this.

If you look closely, you’ll notice that you can still see the individual grains of sugar in the butter. This is fine! There is not enough moisture in the butter to dissolve the sugar, so it’s unlikely that it will ever fully disappear at this stage.

I scraped this down and then added the egg. After another few minutes of mixing, I ended up with something that was a little wetter but still looked just as unincorporated as after the previous step. This is still fine, though!

To the mixture you see above I added the vegetable oil, yogurt, and vanilla extract and once again set the stand mixer to speed 6. The goal here is to create an emulsion, with the oils and other liquids coming together into a uniform mixture. The important thing to remember is that, for the majority of the mixing time in this step, it will not look like it is coming together. It will be a wet, speckled mixture that sloshes around in the bowl. Don’t worry. It just takes time, although it will take less time than you think; things always seem to take longer when you are worried about the outcome. For me, this time around, it only took about three minutes, but it may take more or less time depending on a variety of factors. Just let the mixer do its thing until the mixture starts coming together in something that looks like mayonnaise. When it does happen, it will happen quickly, and you will know that it has happened because you will end up with this.

See? It looks just like mayonnaise, although it smells a lot better. With my emulsion complete, I scraped down the bowl and added the dry ingredients. This is another crucial stage, because you do not want to mix the batter any more than you absolutely have to. Thirty to forty-five seconds (maximum!) at low speed is all you will need. Some of the flour mixture is usually left stuck to the paddle or on the upper sides of the bowl, and this time was no exception. I did as I always do, though, and used a spatula to scrape everything off the paddle and the bowl and then stirred gently until everything was incorporated. I ended up with a very thick batter that looked like this.

This batter is so thick that it will not pour out of the bowl. I scraped it out into the pan and then used my spatula to spread it into a smooth, thin layer. Don’t worry about getting it perfectly smooth, as it will even out as it cooks. Something like what you see in this next photo is fine.

With the batter in the pan, I sprinkled half the crumble over it. As you can see here, I wasn’t perfectly consistent with my scatter, but that’s OK. This coffee cake is not about being perfectly uniform—in fact, you want a little non-uniformity.

Next comes the fruit topping. As I mentioned above, my apricot topping turned out a little wetter and thinner than I would have liked, but this is where the very thick cake batter does its job. Had I used a thin batter that would spread out and fill the pan on its own, the topping would have sunk right into it. Then it would have become a middling and not a topping, and nobody wants a middling coffee cake. But the topping stayed on top as I spooned it out, so all was well. A corollary of my apricot topping being too thin, though, was that there was also more of it than there had been of the cherry topping. I like to have about a 50-50 ratio of topped to untopped cake, meaning that you get some bites with just the fluffy cake and other bites with the fruit (beneath which the cake doesn’t rise quite as high). I don’t think I achieved that ratio this time around. I did consider leaving some of the topping off, but in the end I decided to put the whole lot on.

The final step is to scatter the remaining half of the crumbles over the cake. As usual, consistency and uniformity are not the goal.

I baked this for 25 minutes and it was perfect, although your time may vary depending on your oven and other factors (like the pan you are using); use the toothpick test—poke it with a toothpick and see if the toothpick comes out clean—to figure out your ideal baking time. If you’ve baked sheet cakes (that is, thin cakes in a sheet pan for stacking into a layer cake later) in your oven before, whatever time you used for that recipe is probably a good time to aim for.

Once the pan had cooled a bit, I quickly lifted the cake out by the edges of the parchment paper and transferred it to a wire rack. The cake does sag when you lift it, of course, since it is still warm, but this won’t affect the final product in any way; if you are nervous about that, you can support it with a spatula (or have someone else support it for you if you don’t happen to have three hands) while moving it.

For me, this coffee cake is done. You may like your coffee cake with a glaze on the top; if so, you can make a simple glaze or icing from powdered sugar and a few spoonfuls of milk. Just drizzle that over the top and you are good to go. As I noted above, though, I don’t have too much of a sweet tooth, so the sugar from the cake and the sweetness of the fruit is plenty for me.

This cake was brought to HJ’s father’s house the next day, which happened to be Parent’s Day. We had it for dessert after lunch, and (mostly) everyone enjoyed it (I didn’t get any close-up, artistic shots of the cake after it was cut because I was too busy serving it). The crumble had gotten a little soggy due to the high water content of the topping, which was disappointing to see and affected the texture of the cake, but it did not affect the flavor. Nobody said anything about it... but I knew that it wasn’t ideal. I discussed it with HJ later and we both agreed that the tart cherry version had been better, not simply because of the lower water content but also because the cherries had retained something of their original form, making for a more interesting textural experience.

The cardamom flavor came through quite nicely in the cake, and it wasn’t overpowering. Or, at least, the adults didn’t think it was overpowering. My young nieces, though, did not like it, but that’s OK—I wasn’t expecting them to like it. Trying to make something they like is a challenge. One time I made pancakes for them, which they liked just fine until I poured on some clover honey and then they wouldn’t touch them. The slightest flavor that they are not used to will cause them to completely abandon a dish—which I guess is typical for little kids, but I’m not used to having to cook for little kids. I’ve since given up trying to cook or bake things to their tastes, and now I make whatever I think tastes good. I love my nieces dearly, but they’re just going to have to deal with it.

The adults liked the cake just fine, though, and we divided up the leftovers accordingly. I did recommend that the cake be refrigerated if it was going to be left until the next day, due to the fruit topping (especially considering how much moisture this topping contained). This is not a cake I would leave out for too long, especially as the weather starts to get warmer.

And I think that wraps it up for this latest adventure in cake. I’ve done a lot of dessert baking lately—in between the peanut butter pie and this coffeecake I also baked a cheesecake—and I think it’s probably time for a little break. My next entry, whenever it may come around, will probably (hopefully?) be about something other than baking!

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