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Noni Doni’s Kitchen: The Search is Over for the Very Best Sour Cream Coffee Cake

I often joke that someday, if someone wanted to test me for Alzheimer’s (of course, when I’m much, much older), skip the time-place-who’s president questions. Just ask me to recite the Sour Cream Coffee Cake recipe. Seriously, someone could wake me from my deepest sleep and if prompted I could rattle off the Sour Cream Coffee Cake recipe without even opening my eyes: 1 pound butter, 4 cups sugar, 4 eggs, 2 tablespoons vanilla, 4 cups flour, 2 teaspoons baking power, 1 teaspoon salt, 16 ounces (2 cups) of sour cream. And the cinnamon sugar filling, which is just as it sounds: sugar and cinnamon. And make a vanilla icing glaze. That’s it. Easy.

If those quantities sound excessive, it’s because I have always doubled the Sour Cream Coffee Cake recipe. My philosophy is that if I’m going to make a mess in the kitchen, I may as well double (or triple or even quadruple, in the case of English toffee) the recipe and have plenty to freeze or give away. Of course, you’re welcome to halve the recipe and make just one single, sensible Bundt cake. It’s America; full recipe or half a recipe, your choice.

Typically, this Sour Cream Coffee Cake recipe would make two huge coffee cakes in two Bundt pans, but I always divide the batter into six small Bundt pans. Those little Bundt pans make about six servings each (or four … just depends). I hate to admit this, but I found those pans at Walmart.  They make the most adorable little cakes.

I’ve mailed my Sour Cream Coffee Cakes across the country and around the world. Because of their high butter/sugar/sour cream content, they actually travel well and last a long time. The dense crumb reminds me more of a pound cake.

The original recipe called for pecans pressed into the Bundt pan’s creases, as well as pecans chopped and mixed with the cinnamon sugar mixture in the cake’s center. I stopped adding nuts a long time ago, mainly because so many people have nut allergies, but also, nuts are damn expensive. (But if forced to add nuts to this recipe, I’d choose walnuts, not pecans.)

It is no exaggeration to say that I’ve probably baked thousands of Sour Cream Coffee Cakes in my lifetime. Many of those coffee cakes were baked during that insane life chapter some years back when I got a California Cottage Food license and actually sold my coffee cakes to the public. This was still while running this website, which was crazy!

Although the California Cottage Food law allowed me to legally bake in my own kitchen for items sold to the public, for a time I rented a large commercial kitchen space so I could bake many cakes each week. I sold the cakes over the weekend at the now-closed Oregon Street Antique Mall, where my twin and I had an antique booth, another crazy venture. Each Thursday night, well into the wee hours of Friday morning, I’d bake the coffee cakes, weigh them, wrap them, and label them, as per the California Cottage Food law instructions. Then I’d haul them to the Antique Mall, fill the big vintage display case with the coffee cakes, and then head home to work at my day job, running this site.

What the hell was I thinking?!!!!

Selling the coffee cakes en masse quickly sucked the joy right out of the process. The most maddening part was when people would order coffee cakes, and say they’d be in to buy them (can you please set aside three — gosh, make that four — for me?), but they wouldn’t show up to pick them up.

This was also during a time when my twin and I were kitchen helpers for a non-profit that prepared and served breakfast for hundreds of unhoused and down-and-out folks each week. There were many times when I’d serve Sour Cream Coffee Cake bread pudding, or Sour Cream Coffee Cake French toast, or just Sour Cream Coffee Cake. Rave reviews, every time.

Like my recent recipe for Platte County Pie, I also first discovered my Sour Cream Coffee Cake recipe in Bon Appetit magazine’s R.S.V.P. section. A reader requested the coffee cake tasted at the Ramada Inn in Scottsburg, Indiana.

Doni hopes she won’t be judged by her sloppy recipe cards, like this one for Sour Cream Coffee Cake. She points out that this card is vintage.

I have been making this recipe since I was in my 20s, which, let’s just say, was a long time ago. We can leave it there. Of course, I’m never content to leave a recipe alone, and the Sour Cream Coffee Cake is no exception. I’ve messed with the recipe by adding a lot more vanilla (if you can’t smell vanilla in the batter, there’s not enough), and omitting the nuts, and by dividing the batter into small pans. I make Sour Cream Coffee Cakes so often that I make huge batches of the icing glaze and keep it in tightly sealed piping bags, which I keep in the refrigerator. Also, I fill a plastic squeeze bottle with a blend of sugar and cinnamon, shake it up and keep it in the cupboard, ready to fill the coffee cakes. No measuring. Just eyeball it.

Someone recently told me that my Sour Cream Coffee Cake was the best cake they’d ever eaten. That, of course, made me very happy.

Who knew that the keys to happiness were so easily attainable? Now, I pass those keys on to you. You’re welcome.

The Very Best Sour Cream Coffee Cake

4 eggs, room temperature
2 tablespoons vanilla
1 pound butter, room temperature
4 cups granulated sugar
4 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups (16 ounces) sour cream, room temperature

Filling
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 tablespoons cinnamon

Icing glaze
2 cups confectioners’ sugar
4 tablespoons softened butter
2 to 4 tablespoons milk or cream (or hot water) until desired consistency
2 teaspoons vanilla 

Preheat oven to 350.

Generously butter and flour a Bundt pan (or any deep pan, preferable with a hole in the middle). Crack eggs into a small bowl. Add the vanilla to the eggs. Beat with a fork enough to break yolks. Set aside. 

In a standing mixer, or with an electric hand mixer, cream the butter with the sugar until light and fluffy, for about 5 minutes. Pour in the egg/vanilla mixture. Set that bowl aside.

Sift the dry ingredients – flour, baking powder, salt – together (I usually sift onto one of those flexible cutting mats, then you can just make a spout of one end and slowly add it to the wet mixture).

Gradually, with the mixer running (or with a wooden spoon or rubber spatula), introduce the dry ingredients to the sugar/butter/egg/vanilla mixture, mixing until everything is incorporated. Do not over beat. Dump in the sour cream, using the lowest mixer setting to blend well enough that the batter is one color. Do not over beat.

Dollop some batter into the bottom of the pan. Smooth with a spoon or spatula. Sprinkle some of the sugar/cinnamon mixture over the first layer of batter. Carefully dollop more batter over the topping, using a spoon or spatula to completely cover the sugar/cinnamon topping with batter. Sprinkle more topping over that second layer of batter. Dollop the rest of the batter onto the topping. Finish with whatever cinnamon/sugar mixture remains. (Note: Don’t be overwhelmed with the business of layers. It’s just batter, topping, batter, topping.) The mixture should fill about two-thirds of the pan.  

Place pans on a cookie sheet in the center of the oven. Bake in 350-degree oven for about 1 hour if baking two large coffee cakes. For smaller cakes, check at about 25 minutes: Lightly touch the top of the cake. It should spring back slightly, and not leave an indentation. Also, administer the toothpick test: Insert the toothpick into the cake, pull it out to ensure the batter’s baked through. If the toothpick comes out wet, the cake isn’t finished, and should be returned to the oven. If the toothpick comes out clean, or with a few crumbs, then the cake is ready.

Let the cake rest in the pans for about 5 minutes. Invert onto a wire rack to cool.

While waiting for the coffee cakes to cool, make the icing by beating all the icing ingredients together. If the icing is too thick, add more hot water, milk or cream. If it’s too thin, add more powdered sugar. 

When coffee cakes are completely cooled, lightly sift some powdered sugar over the cakes. Then drizzle the icing over the cakes. The glaze should harden.

Stand back and bask in the compliments.

Makes two large Bundt cakes, or six small.

P.S., Pan math

Some readers have asked about which pans to use for this recipe, and how much batter this recipe makes, and exactly how much batter Bundt pans hold.

Please, do not stress about these points. The only thing I’d ask is that you choose a pan with a hole in its center. The hole is to ensure even baking. This batter is quite thick and makes for a relatively deep, dense cake. Without the hole, a pan of that depth would burn the cake on the outside before the cake’s center was baked through.

That’s why Bundt pans are great for this recipe.

Photo source: webstaurantstore.com

Bundt pans come in all sizes, but the average, traditional American Bundt pan has an approximate 9-fluid cup capacity. But you won’t fill a pan with nine cups of batter, or you’d have a mess all over your oven as your cake baked and rose right over the rim. Instead, fill the pans to approximately the 2/3 mark. This is true for most cakes and cupcakes.

As I wrote above, this recipe is doubled, and makes two large Bundt cakes. Here are my two favorite large Bundt pans.

This recipe makes approximately 10 cups of batter, so each of these pans would receive five cups of batter, which should fill the pan up to about the 2/3 mark. If it’s a little higher than the 2/3 mark, or a little less than the 2/3 mark, please to not worry about this. Your resulting cake will either be a bit higher, or a bit shorter, respectively. Likewise, the approximately 10 cups of batter makes six of my 7-inch diameter little fluted pans. Each pan receives about 1 2/3 cups of batter.

This recipe can be halved, in which case it would produce about five cups of batter, enough to make one large Bundt cake. Or, that same amount of batter will fill three, 7-inch-in-diameter fluted little pans with about 1 2/3 cups batter each.

So, if you halve the recipe, you can make three small cakes, each filled with about 1 2/3 cups of batter.

These pans are 7-inches in diameter. Doni has had them for years, and purchased them at a long-gone kitchen store.

Not to confuse things, but I often use vintage steamed-pudding pans, which I’ve collected for years.

I’m not a fan of steamed pudding, which is really more like a very moist cake, and less like an  American pudding. But I love the steamed-pudding pans for their variety of patterns and sizes. I also like that the steamed-pudding pans make fairly tall cakes, with straighter sides than a traditional Bundt or fluted cake pan.

This little sour cream coffee cake was baked in a vintage steamed-pudding pan. Notice the cake’s height, and its straight sides.

My collection of steamed-pudding pans are not all the same size. They range anywhere from 5 inches up to 8 inches in diameter. See the little metal clasps on some of the pans? They’re to hold the lids on during steaming. I’ve since ditched all the pans’ metal lids.

Please don’t let the pan sizes and batter volume throw you. Just make sure that each pan is generously buttered and floured, so the cakes glide beautifully from the pans. And make sure each pan is about 2/3 full of batter. Finally, remember that bigger cakes will take longer to bake; as long as an hour. Smaller cakes will bake more quickly; as quickly as 30 minutes. Just keep an eye on the baking process, and adjust the baking times accordingly. (See the recipe above instructions on how to test for a cake’s doneness.)

While you’re waiting for the cakes to bake, you might check out the Bundt cake’s history. Fascinating!

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Doni Chamberlain

Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded A News Cafe in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke. Chamberlain holds a Bachelor's Degree in journalism from CSU, Chico. She's an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She's been featured and quoted in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, L.A. Times, Slate. Bloomberg News and on CNN, KQED and KPFA. She lives in Redding, California.

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