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New York Crumb Cake

Makes one 9- by 13-inch cake, serving at least 12
 
 

A few years ago, William-Sonoma introduced a mix to make what they call New York Style Crumb Cake. The mix, which is sold in a can, is made by a family-owned bakery in the Bronx that claims it is “a heritage recipe brought to New York by German bakers in the late 19th Century.”

This may well be. Certainly, Crumb Cake is German. But who knew it was particular to New York? New Yorkers so much take this cake for granted that until William-Sonoma said it was from New York we all thought everyone everywhere in America loved Crumb Cake.

I dared doubt William Sonoma. I called Marion Cunningham in San Francisco. The reviser of Fannie Farmer, the cooking teacher and writer who has been called the Grandmother of American Gastronomy, said, oh, she knew about crumb cake, but it wasn’t something a West Coast person would never crave. It’s definitely an East Coast thing. In Kentucky, they never heard of it. “We don’t have a bakery culture down here,” drawled my friend from Lexington. In Chicago, a friend said it wasn’t a bakery item in the Midwest either, but she was familiar with Drake’s Coffee Cake.

That’s when I remembered that Drake’s was originally a Brooklyn bakery. (There is a photo of a horse-drawn Drake’s delivery truck in the book.)

Besides that good Crumb Cake is still sold in a few of our bakeries, bad Crumb Cake is sold at the counter of nearly every Korean-owned grocery in the city – alongside the equally inferior versions of Black and Whites – and everyone in New York had a mother, a grandmother, an aunt, a cousin, or a neighbor who was famous for her Crumb Cake. Somehow, this German cake even insinuated itself into the Italian-American culture. Specialists in this cake tend to be named Rose or Anne Marie. My father doted on it so much that one of our neighbors, Theresa Carrera (who was an Irish woman married to an Italian, the most common New York “intermarriage”) used to bake him a sheet of it for his birthday, and present it to him in a ribbon-tied shirt box.

Crisp, large crumbs are what everyone seems to want out of this cake. Today, in fact, there is less cake and more crumbs than there used to be in the bakery versions. I use dark brown sugar for the crumbs because they produce the crispest product. The trick to getting big crumbs is to make tight balls of the crumb mixture by compressing them in your fist, then breaking these large crumbs over the batter in the pan.

For the topping:    
1   cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter
     
cups all-purpose flour
     
  cups packed dark brown sugar
½ teaspoon salt
     
  teaspoons vanilla extract
     
2   tablespoon ground cinnamon
     
For the cake:    
  cups sifted unbleached or bleached all-purpose flour
     
2 teaspoons baking powder
     
¼   teaspoon baking soda
     
½   teaspoon salt
     
10   tablespoons unsalted butter
 
1 cup superfine or strained sugar
     
2   large eggs
     
1   teaspoon vanilla extract
     
1   cup sour cream

To make the topping:
Melt the butter in a medium saucepan over a low flame. Remove from the heat and cool for about 5 minutes, but do not allow the butter to become cold.

Add the flour, brown sugar, salt, vanilla extract, and cinnamon. Stir with a table fork until the mixture forms small crumbs. Set aside.

To make the cake:
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees with the rack in the lower third of the oven.

Butter a 9- by 13-inch pan. Dust the pan with all-purpose flour, then invert pan over the kitchen sink and tap to remove excess.

Combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a large bowl, then whisk together. Set aside.

Cut the butter into 1-inch pieces. Place them in the large bowl of a standup electric mixer fitted with beaters or a paddle attachment. Soften the butter on low speed. Increase the speed to medium-high and cream until smooth and light in color, about 1 1/2 to 2 minutes.

Add the sugar, 1 tablespoon at a time, taking about 6 to 8 minutes to blend it in well. Scrape the sides of the bowl occasionally.

Add the eggs, 1 at a time at 1-minute intervals, scraping the sides of the bowl as necessary. Beat for about 1 minute longer. Blend in the vanilla.

Reduce the mixer speed to low. Add the dry ingredients alternately with the sour cream, dividing the flour mixture into 3 parts and the sour cream into 2 parts, starting and ending with the flour. Mix just until incorporated after each addition. Scrape the sides of the bowl as necessary and mix for 10 seconds longer.

Turn the batter into the prepared pan, smoothing the surface with the back of a tablespoon or rubber spatula.

Take a handful of the crumb mixture and make a fist to press the mixture into a large clump. Then separate into smaller clusters, scattering them on the top of the cake batter. Repeat until all of the crumbs have been used. There should be enough to coat the cake all over.

Gently pat the crumbs into the batter with the palm of your hand; but do not press hard.

Bake in the preheated oven for 30 minutes, or until the cake is golden brown on top and begins to come away form the sides of the pan.

 
 
 
From Arthur Schwartz's New York City Food: An Opinionated History with Legendary Recipes
 
 
 
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