How We Found the Soul of Coffee Cake

Lifting the lid on CHOW.com's Test Kitchen to reveal the process behind the recipes.

What defines a coffee cake? How is it different from a regular loaf cake or quick bread? These were the questions in the CHOW Test Kitchen as we sat down to decide what recipes to develop for an upcoming Mother's Day feature.

Unlike our experience getting to the bottom of meatloaf, defining a "classic" coffee cake seemed easy. CHOW's recipe developers—Amy Wisniewski, Christine Gallary, and Lisa Lavery—all knew it as a rich cake with lots of nuts, sugar, and cinnamon on top. We all remembered Entenmann's crumb coffee cake—how hard would it be to take that model and push it? But then things got complicated. What about yeasted types? Do they count? What shape should our cakes take?

Thing is, "coffee cake" is a blanket term, not a specific recipe. It designates cakes that aren't particularly fancy—it's pretty much a category for cakes that don't have a home anywhere else. After some research, we came up with a broad definition: They should be on the dense side, not light like a chiffon cake. They can be yeasted or not, baked in square pans, Bundt pans, tube pans, or braided into fancy shapes. And we felt that the cakey part shouldn't be too sweet but a nice complement to fruit or sugary nut fillings and often a glaze.

With that as a guide we started developing a range of recipes. On the more impressive end of the scale is a vanilla cake swirled with dried cherries simmered in port, topped with crunchy almond streusel. (We're still debating what differentiates a streusel from a crumble!) We're coming up with a classic sour cream cake with cinnamon and nuts (a version of my mom's recipe) and, finally, the pretty yeasted braid you see above, with a peppy ginger-apple filling.

Next week, CHOW.com's Chris Rochelle will photograph the results of our coffee-cake research. Check back to see the recipes featured on CHOW.com's home page!

Photo by Roxanne Webber

Roxanne Webber is the former senior features editor at CHOW.com.