Coffee Cakes

After having such success making a 1940s orange coffee cake last week, I thought I’d try my hand at making coffee cakes from the 1902 Mrs. Rorer’s New Cook Book. Unfortunately, this attempt was not successful…whether it was the fault of an over-complicated recipe, using too many substitutions, or just my general ineptitude, I’m not sure. Read on to find out how NOT to make coffee cakes.

Mrs. Rorer’s coffee cakes are yeast-raised, and actually look much more like cinnamon rolls than like what I would think of as a coffee cake. Luckily, she included a picture in her cookbook so that you can see what the coffee cakes are actually supposed to look like.

The instructions are complicated and over a page long; you can find the entire recipe here. First, she says to dissolve a compressed yeast cake in warm water, mix in flour to form a small biscuit, and then drop the biscuit in a pitcher of warm water until it rises to the top. Then the yeast biscuit is taken out of the water, combined with the other ingredients, kneaded lightly, and left to rise overnight.

In the morning, she writes to roll out logs of dough the thickness of your little finger and one and a half yards in length. Mrs. Rorer’s table must be a lot longer than mine; the best I could do here was to roll out pieces two feet long and then pinch them together.

Once the dough is rolled out in pieces, each piece is folded in half and twisted together like rope. The ropes are coiled up in a spiral and left to rise for another 45 minutes.

Finally, before going in the oven, Mrs. Rorer says to brush the cakes with an egg wash. This is a very important step that I completely forgot to do…I blame this on waking up too early to roll out pastry.

The cakes are baked in a 400 degree oven, and topped with a simple powdered sugar icing.

Tasting notes:

Although I followed Mrs. Rorer’s instructions to the best of my ability, these did NOT come out well. They have very little flavor and are extremely hard. The texture reminds me of bread sticks. When trying them, my boyfriend commented that he thought they would go well with garlic; this is not what you want to hear about a breakfast pastry.

So what went wrong?

I have some ideas…first, I did have to make some substitutions to the recipe. I used active dry yeast instead of a compressed yeast cake, which may have made a difference. I also didn’t have any pastry flour, so I used a mix of half cake flour and half all-purpose. I’ve read that this is a good substitution for pastry flour, but maybe in this case the real thing would’ve worked better. Plus, I realized later that my cake flour was super old and had passed its expiration date. Mrs. Rorer does warn in the recipe that using a good quality flour is crucial to make a delicate dough.

Secondly, I’m just not sure that this recipe needs to rise overnight. When I checked on it in the morning, the top part of my dough had dried out and formed a crust. This made the dough difficult to shape and could be another reason why the cakes turned out so tough and dry. Keeping the first rise to only an hour or so might solve this problem.

As for the issue of flavor…there are no seasonings in this recipe beyond a very teensy amount of sugar, and the icing. Maybe if the dough had turned out as delicate as Mrs. Rorer promised, I wouldn’t want any other flavorings. Still, it seems odd to me to have a coffee cake without spices such as cinnamon or nutmeg.

And finally…I shouldn’t have forgotten the egg wash! That would’ve at least made them look better.

I do want to try this recipe again sometime to see if I can get it right, but…I might need a while to recover from this embarrassing attempt first.

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