Published January 1, 2010.
A rich cream cheese filling adds a twist to ordinary coffee cake—unless it breaks away and sinks to the bottom of the pan.
This breakfast staple is fraught with pitfalls—from dry, bland cake to lackluster fillings that sink to the bottom as they cook.
We wanted a rich, moist cake with a texture that could support a tangy swirl of cream cheese filling and was somewhere between the soft, dense crumb of yellow cake and the coarseness of quick bread.
With so many versions of this cake circulating, our first task was pinning down the perfect mix of ingredients. We assembled a batter of flour, granulated sugar, salt, butter, eggs, whole milk, and baking powder and settled on a straightforward creaming method: Beat softened butter with sugar, then add the eggs, milk, and dry ingredients. The resulting cake was full of flavor and capable of supporting our cheese filling—but it was also a bit dry. To add moisture, we replaced the milk with tangy and rich sour cream and upped the amount of butter. Our cake now had a lush texture as well as subtle acidity—a perfect backdrop for the cheese filling.
We wanted the cake’s flavor to complement, not overpower, the cream cheese filling. We stuck with granulated instead of brown sugar, which lent a distracting caramel flavor to the cake. We also added a generous amount of vanilla, which contributed complexity, and increased the amount of salt, which sharpened the flavors of the butter and vanilla. A touch of lemon zest offered a pleasant citrus note.
Before we could move on to the filling, we had to choose a leavener for our cake. Now that we had sour cream in the mix, baking soda was an option, as the soda would react with and neutralize the acidic sour cream. Since browning occurs best in an alkaline environment, adding baking soda would promote browning—and therefore, flavor development—in the cake. This small addition led to our best cake yet.
For the filling, we settled on a base mixture of softened cream cheese and sugar and added lemon juice to cut the richness and a hint of vanilla extract for depth of flavor. We knew that if cheese is exposed to high heat, its proteins bind to each other and shrink, releasing moisture and potentially causing graininess. To prevent this, we incorporated some of the starchy cake batter into the cheese. The filling not only stayed creamy, but it fused to the cake during baking, eliminating gaps that had afflicted our earlier tests. Tapping the pan on the countertop before and after baking also helped burst any renegade bubbles.
Our cake was nearly finished, but it was missing an important garnish: the requisite topping. We switched from a Bundt pan to a tube pan to ensure a flat top that could support a topping and decided upon a crisp yet delicate coating of sliced almonds, sugar, and lemon zest. As it baked, the topping formed a glistening, crackly crust on our now-perfect coffee cake.list of recipes