Coffee Cake is a North American, informal, everyday cake. It is not layered or decorated for fancy presentation.
Despite the name, it doesn’t have coffee in it, and is not a coffee-flavoured cake (though it used to be.) Rather, it is a cake meant to be eaten while having coffee.
Coffee Cakes are usually bread-like, made from a yeast dough, or dough risen with baking powder or baking soda. Extra ingredients such as fruit, nuts and spiced sugar can be stirred in, swirled in, or made as a middle layer. Some sprinkle cinnamon sugar in the middle of the batter; some sprinkle it on top.
The emphasis used to be on richness, with sour cream and cream cheese included in many recipes, but now the trend is for low-fat versions of them, which tend to be quite dry. Consequently, some people have started spreading butter on the sides of their piece of Coffee Cake.
Coffee Cake can be glazed or iced, or served plain, warm or room temperature, for breakfast, or when people drop by during the day or evening.
Coffee Cake evolved over time in North America from sweetened bread recipes brought over from Europe, particularly by Germans and Scandinavians, as ordinary people had more leisure to visit and have coffee with friends and neighbours. The bread-like ones came first, then more cake-like ones.
By the 1880s, the term “coffee cake” had entered popular usage.
Early recipes called “Coffee Cake” often did actually include coffee in them.
Fannie Merritt Farmer (in The Boston Cooking-School Cookbook. Boston, Little, Brown And Company. 1896) listed 3 recipes for Coffee Cake. One was a glazed, sweetened brioche flavoured with lemon or cardamom seeds (page 65); the other two recipes (page 425) actually called for coffee as an ingredient. Following are the two recipes that actually call for coffee:
1/4 cup butter.
1/2 cup sugar.
1/2 cup raisins seeded and cut in pieces.
1/2 cup molasses.
1/4 cup boiled coffee.
2 1/2 cups flour.
3 teaspoons baking powder.
1/2 teaspoon salt.
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon.
1/2 teaspoon allspice.
1/2 nutmeg grated.
Follow directions for mixing butter cake mixtures.
Rich Coffee Cake.
1 cup butter.
2 cups sugar.
2 tablespoons molasses.
1 cup cold boiled coffee.
3 3/4 cups flour.
5 teaspoons baking powder.
1 teaspoon cinnamon.
1/2 teaspoon clove.
1/2 teaspoon mace.
1/2 teaspoon allspice.
3/4 cup raisins seeded and cut in pieces.
3/4 cup currants.
1/4 cup citron thinly sliced and cut in strips.
2 tablespoons brandy.
Follow directions for mixing butter cake mixtures. Bake in deep cake pans.