New York Style Crumb Cake

One of the things I learned in the seventh grade was that I could run. I guess I should clarify that… I knew that I could run, what I didn’t know was that I could run fast. I learned this during PE class when our teacher, after we did warm-up calisthenics, would make us run to the fence and back before starting whatever activity was scheduled.  The fence, from where we stood, was across two full size basketball courts, a small grassy area, and the track and field area. My position during the calisthenics portion of class placed me at the very back of the pack when the run to the fence started and because I never really wanted to come in last place, I ran as fast as I could and would generally arrive back before most of the group.  In fact I arrived back first most of the time, which was especially to the dismay of the kid who ran on the cross-country team. After a good number of runs where I passed all the other kids in the class and arrived back at the start before them, it become a challenge to do it every time. It also became a challenge for several of my classmates who, well I’m not going to say they thought they were better than me in every way possible, but you know… they thought they were better than me… in every way possible… and especially when it came to running… or sports in general… and probably some other things as well.

Funny thing, I actually was terrible in sports and most people knew that.  When we played football they would never throw me the ball because they were sure I would drop it.  When our team had the ball, no one on the other team would even guard me because they knew I would never get the ball.  When the ball was hiked, I would just run around, often standing in the end zone waving my hands yelling “I’m open, I’m open”, but to no avail. Thank goodness too, because I would have surely dropped the ball. In basketball they would never pass me the ball because they knew I could never make a basket… let alone dribble the ball; and in baseball the whole outfield would move up almost to the base lines (usually chanting “easy out, easy out”) because they knew I couldn’t hit the ball very far… if I hit it at all.  Side note here, they were all genuinely surprised on the one day, when I hit the ball and it actually went over the pitchers head… they cheered for me that day and I easily got to first base (only because there was confusion between the second base player and the pitcher about who was fielding the ball). Anyway, back to running. I think the other kids just thought that if I was so bad at all these other sports activities, how could I possibly be good at running? Before long there were several kids that would run as hard as they could right off the bat figuring to give themselves a good lead, only to find out they had little to no energy left by the time they turned around at the fence and could only watch as I sprinted by them in the back half.  After a while some of those kids changed their strategy and would take it easy on the way to the fence and then try to sprint on the return trip, but would find that I was so far ahead of them by the time they got to the fence there was little chance of catching up. 

I can remember about half way through the school year someone stopped me after class to ask me how I did it, as if there was a secret to it and many, many, many years later, while standing in line somewhere (it was a burger joint) a man tapped me on my shoulder and asked “Is your name James?”. “Yes”, I replied. “We went to school together”, he continued, “you always beat me to the fence and back, man you were fast”.  I didn’t know quite how to respond to that so I simply said “Sorry, bout that”. When I was in high school my speed was put to a little good use when I was added to the track and field team for a portion of the year when the coach found out I could sprint the whole way around the track.  I was entered into the 440 yard dash and I was also assigned to the last leg of the 440 yard relay race, where even when my team was last to receive the baton, I could still usually pull out a win. 

I don’t know how we ended up, or even why we were discussing my running one morning at home when my older brother proclaimed that there was no way I was faster than him, just no way. So we decided that we would have to race to find out. Once around the high school track, winner takes all.  So we got in the car and he drove us to the high school and we stood at the starting line on the track … on your mark, get set, go.  We both started off with a rather moderate pace, you know so you don’t burn out too early, side by side, step for step, but just a little less than one quarter of the way around the track, I looked over at my brother and simply said, “bye”… and I just started running.  I quickly rounded the top bend of the track and he may have thought that I might run out of steam and he would catch me, but that wasn’t in the cards.  When I reached the finish line and looked back, he was nowhere to be seen.  I walked back up the track calling for him, thinking he was pranking me, but soon I heard him in the bushes, telling me to stay where I was on the track.  When we got back to the house, I was first through the door and my dad asked, “Well, who won?”. I am certain he was fully expecting me to admit that I had, of course, lost the race.  I said… “I did, and Mike barfed” and continued on to the kitchen for a drink.  I let my brother tell my dad the rest of the story.   

So am I some sort of running “God” you’re asking yourself; Nope far from it. In fact just as quickly as I learned I could run “fast”, I also learned I had a very specific limit: 440 yards. I could sprint full bore for about 440 yards (that’s just once around the track), and that was it, no more (bet my brother wished he knew that 38 years ago). I also learned that I could not run slow. When the class had to jog a mile around the track or if we were told to run the cross-country track I would come in nearly, if not dead last. My lungs would be on fire; my breathing would be so erratic and heavy that people would look at me funny, probably trying to figure out if I was going to die right there on the spot. This of course made the cross-country star in my class very, very happy.  

There came a point, in high school, when I decided to try and train my body to run long distances so I signed up for jogging class. Each day the coach would have us first stretch, to make sure we were properly warmed up and then he would set the day’s course. Most days we were tasked with jogging from the school to the mission and back, which is about a three mile round trip, then once around the track to cool down.  I did not shine in this class; I was the opposite of shining. I was always last.  Many times I never even made it all the way to the mission, I would just turn around when I realized I stopped passing classmates on their way back and that I was the only person still heading north.  Sometimes I was so late (because I had to stop and walk so often), that the class would be dismissed before I got back.  Yes, it only took me a few weeks of jogging class to learn that I never was, nor would I ever be, a long distance runner. Now I have to admit here, there was a perk for taking that jogging class, which I didn’t mind.  About 4 blocks up on the way to the mission there is a small corner market and often… ok almost every day, I would stop into that market on my way back from --- however far I made it to the mission --- and I would buy a pack of hostess donuts (you know those little ones that have 6 small donuts in the pack) and a pint of chocolate milk.  There was something about those little donuts and super cold milk that made me forget all about the cramping sensation in my legs and the fire in my lungs. The only trick was I had to eat them before getting back to the field or the coach would get angry (plus everyone thinks your weird when you show up on the field with donuts and milk).

These days I don’t eat a lot of donuts, and I would probably pass out or have a heart attack if I tried to sprint even to the end of the block (and my house is almost at the corner already), but every now and then (especially if I do any exercising at all) I still think about stopping at that little corner market way back when, and I’ll get a craving for something cake like and sweet.  When those cravings hit, this crumb cake is what I turn to. 

This recipe comes from the America’s Test Kitchen TV Show Cookbook, which you can get here and is one of the best crumb cake recipes I have found. The cake has just the right texture and the crumb topping really satisfies your sweet cravings. Best of all it’s pretty simple to make.  The forming of the crumb topping will be the most tedious task in the process but the results are really well worth taking your time to do it right. I think this cake is best served the day it’s made but if you want to make it late the evening before, so it’s ready for you first thing in the morning, that’ll work too. just re-heat it for a few minutes while you’re making your coffee (or chocolate milk). I am going to be upfront about this cake though - you’ll need to use cake flour (I use Swan’s Down) as regular all-purpose flour will make a dry, heavy cake which will not be satisfying at all and you’ll also need buttermilk. Don’t try to use buttermilk powder or substitute regular milk (even if you sour it with lemon juice). Equipment-wise it’s good to have a stand mixer for this, fitted with the paddle attachment. You’ll also need an 8 x 8 square cake pan with 2-inch high sides along with some cooking spray and parchment paper to line the pan with and lastly, if you have one, a kitchen scale to weigh your ingredients for the perfect results.  

Here is how I make it:

Ingredients:

For the Crumb Topping:

  • ⅓ cup granulated sugar (2⅔ ounces)

  • ⅓ cup dark brown sugar (2⅔ ounces)

  • ¾ teaspoon cinnamon

  • ⅛ teaspoon table salt

  • 8 tablespoons unsalted butter (1 stick) melted but still warm

  • 1¾ cup cake flour (7 ounces)

     

For the Cake:

  • 1¼ cups cake flour (5 ounces)

  • 1½ cups granulated sugar (3½ ounces)

  • ¼ teaspoon baking soda

  • ¼ teaspoon table salt

  • 6 tablespoons unsalted butter (¾ stick) cut into 6 pieces, softened but still cool

  • 1 large egg

  • 1 large egg yolk

  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

  • ⅓ cup buttermilk

  • Confectioners sugar for dusting

Directions:

Start with setting up your oven and preparing your cake pan.

Place a rack in the upper middle position and pre-heat the oven to 325°F.

Take a 16-inch long piece of parchment paper and fold it lengthwise into a rectangle that is 7-inches wide. 

Spray your cake pan with cooking spray then press the folded parchment into the bottom of the pan, pressing it into the corners and allowing the excess to overhang the sides.  This effectively makes a sling so you can lift the cake out of the pan easily when it’s done.

Next make the crumb topping

Whisk together, in a medium sized bowl, the granulated sugar, the brown sugar, the cinnamon, the salt, and the butter until they are well combined.

Add in the flour and using a wooden spoon or rubber spatula mix until you have a thick, cohesive, and uniform dough with no hidden pockets of flour. It might seem like there’s too much flour at first but it will all be absorbed as you stir.

Set the topping dough aside and allow it to cool to room temperature, which will only take about 10 minutes or so… just enough time to get the cake together.

For the cake

Add to the bowl of your stand mixer (fitted with the paddle attachment) the flour, the sugar, the baking soda, and the salt.

Turn the mixer to low and allow the ingredients to mix together until blended.

Add the butter, one piece at a time and allow it to incorporate into the flour before adding the next piece. 

When the last piece has been added in, let the machine run until the mixture looks like moist crumbs and you can’t see any chunks of butter remaining, usually between 1 and 2 minutes.

Stop the mixer and add the egg, the egg yolk, the vanilla and the buttermilk then slowly turn the mixer to medium-high speed and beat until light and fluffy, about 1 minute. The batter will almost look like icing at this point.

Scrape the batter into your prepared pan and smooth it with your spatula.

Take your now cooled crumb dough and break it apart into pieces, compressing it slightly between your fingers and forming it into crumbs about the size of large peas.  When all the crumbs have been formed sprinkle them in an even layer on top of the cake, starting along the edges and working your way towards the middle. 

Bake the cake for 35 to 40 minutes until the crumb is golden and a wooden toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean.

Allow the cake to cool for 30 minutes on a wire rack, then using the parchment paper overhangs lift the cake from the pan and transfer to a cutting board.

Dust the cake with confectioners sugar just before serving. In New York the cake is covered like crazy with powdered sugar, but you should use what you like. I just put a light dusting on mine.

 

That’s it… a moist, light cake with a crunchy, cinnamon crumb topping that will go perfectly with a cup of coffee or tea… or chocolate milk (if that’s your thing!). 

Crumb cake is a darn good “breakfast in bed” meal and Riley wasn’t going to miss out.