The section on coffee cakes in the 1931 Joy begins with the following:
“Is there anything better than a good coffee cake? I’m told the King of Spain ‘dunks’. Perhaps that affords him some comfort.”
It’s phrases like these that make the old Joy so fun to read. I mean would anyone writing a cookbook nowadays think to talk about whether or not a royal personage dunks his/her coffee cake? Not only that, but I’m pretty sure she’s alluding to politics with the ‘perhaps that affords him some comfort line’. I had a quick Google search and found out that in 1931 the king of Spain was King Alfonso, but his reign ended in April of that year due to the founding of the Second Spanish Republic. So I assume that’s why he needed comforting. Whether or not he dunked his coffee cake – or even ever ate coffee cake, as it doesn’t seem very Spanish to me – remains a mystery.
So that’s the history. Now on to the cake.
First a terminology note: in the U.S. coffee cake does not refer to a cake that is flavored with coffee. It is a cake, often with crumbs on top, that is meant to be eaten with a cup of coffee (not to worry a cup of tea will also work!). In reality it means that it’s probably not as moist as other types of cake.
There are several coffee cake recipes in the Joy: with and without crumbs, spiced, with baking powder, and with yeast. For this recipe I’ve gone with crumbs and baking powder. The original recipe produced a dense cake – almost stodgy – with very dry crumbs. After a few permutations, I’ve come up with a lighter cake with a slightly chocolatey, dry, but not floury, crumb. Its quick to make and goes wonderfully with coffee (surprise, surprise). Perfect for elevenses.
King Alfonso Chocolate Crumb Coffee Cake adapted from the Crumb Coffee Cake recipe in the 1931 Joy of Cooking
1/4 C + 2 Tbs sugar
1 & 1/2 C all purpose flour
2 oz. butter (= 4 Tbs)
1 Tbs baking powder
1/2 C milk (I use whole milk)
For the crumbs:
1/2 C ground almonds
1 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
1/8 C cocoa powder
1 oz. butter
1/8 C packed brown sugar (light muscavado in the UK)
Preheat the oven to 190C/375F. Grease a 9×9 pan or a round springform pan.
In a large bowl whisk together the flour and sugar. Then drop in the butter in chucks into the bowl and rub in with your hands. You want to smash the butter between your fingers and thumb aiming to mix them together. Do this until the mixture looks full of small crumbs – and there are no chunks of butter bigger than a very tiny pea. Take out 1/2 C of this mixture and place in a small bowl to use for the crumb topping.
To make the crumb topping add the almonds, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cocoa to the small bowl. Whisk to combine. Then rub in the 1 oz. of extra butter. This time you want to end up with pea sized crumbs. Then add the brown sugar. Mix it in with your hand so it’s evenly distributed amongst the crumbs.
Back to the large bowl. Add the baking powder and mix it in. Whisk the egg and milk together in a small bowl and pour into the large one. Mix together with a wooden spoon. It will come together very quickly and will be a thick slightly lumpy batter. Pour this into your greased pan and spread it to the edges of the pan. Sprinkle the crumbs on top. You should have a generous amount of crumbs so you can put a thick layer over the whole cake.
Bake at 190C/375F for 20 minutes until a toothpick comes out clean. Cool on a rack and serve with a hot drink.
The crumbs actually taste better after a day or two so you may want to make it ahead.