Exploring the history of coffee cake
When searching the term “coffee cake”, Google pulls up around 2.4 billion results. But the top search results may differ depending on your location.
Around the world, there are several types of coffee cake. Some countries agree the definition encompasses numerous styles of cake which can be consumed alongside coffee, such as streusel crumb cake. However, other regions believe coffee cake should contain some form of coffee – whether brewed, instant, or a concentrate.
To understand more about the origins and variations of coffee cake, I spoke with Frank McGinty, the Director of Marketing for Kaldi’s Coffee Roasting Co. in Missouri, US.
You may also like our article on tiramisu.
The history of coffee cake
Many food blogs describe coffee cake as a cinnamon-infused sponge with a crumbly streusel topping made from butter, sugar, and flour. However, others refer to coffee cake as a coffee-flavoured sponge, often with coffee-flavoured cream and frosting as well.
To understand how these different definitions came about, we must first explore the origins of coffee cake.
According to Food Timeline, the history of coffee cake is not as straightforward as we might think. The modern take on this cake is believed to have evolved from honey cakes that were commonly baked in northern and Central Europe during the 17th century.
At the time, these areas were well known for their sweet breads, so it’s likely that earlier forms of coffee cake had similar textures to bread. They contained yeast, flour, eggs, sugar, nuts, spices, and dried fruits. Streusel crumb toppings were also believed to be common at the time, but recipes soon began to change.
It’s believed that Germany was the first country to pair coffee with cake. By the mid-1600s, coffeehouses were becoming widespread in many German cities – including Hamburg, Dresden, Nuremberg, and Berlin.
By the 19th century, European coffeehouses commonly served sweet breads, small cakes, and cookies with their coffees – often to balance the bitterness of the coffee. As well as Germany, many of these coffeehouses were opening in Nordic countries, as well as in cities such as Vienna, Prague, and Budapest – making coffee cake much more widespread.
Cultural and regional variations
As coffeehouse culture spread across Europe during the 1800s, many countries began to develop their own unique takes on coffee cake.
In Germany, there were a number of cakes commonly paired with coffee, which were referred to as kaffeekuchen (“coffee cake” in English) or kleine kaffeekuchen (“small coffee cakes”). The crumb-topped streuselkuchen (“streusel cake”) and gugelhopf ring cake (similar to a Bundt cake) were also available in German coffeehouses.
Similarly, the practice of enjoying coffee and cake has been prevalent in Nordic countries for some time. In Sweden, it’s referred to as fika, kaffee in Denmark and Norway, khavi in Finland, and kaffi in Iceland. Depending on the context, these all translate to “coffee” or “to have cake with coffee”, and remain prevalent today.
Traditionally, cinnamon or cardamom buns are consumed with coffee in Scandinavia. These sweet breads are made using yeast and often glazed with sugar syrup. Brown sugar glazed cinnamon and cardamom buns are also common in Denmark, as well as the brunsviger – a brioche-style cake made with yeast and covered in brown sugar caramel.
Danish pastries are also popular with coffee. Originally developed from Viennese pastry recipes, Nordic countries still refer to the commonly-known Danish pastry as “Viennese bread” or “Viennese pastry” in their native languages.
Viennese pastries and cakes also inspired 17th century French pastry chefs to develop croissant and brioche doughs, which quickly became popular across Europe – especially to pair with coffee at breakfast. The French also take their coffee with savarin ring cake – a brioche-style yeast cake soaked in sugar syrup, often with rum or liqueur, too.
The Netherlands, meanwhile, is famous for its boterkoek (“butter cake”), appeltaart (“apple pie”), and ontbijtkoek (“spiced breakfast cake”, also known as “pepper cake”). Zeeuwse bolus are similar to cinnamon buns, while the stroopwafel – a crunchy, caramel-filled waffle originating in the early 19th century – was often placed above coffee mugs to soften before consuming.
However, as coffee cake started to become more and more established in European coffeehouses, it also emerged in North America, which developed its own unique approach.
The 20th century and beyond: Coffee cake in the US and UK
In the mid-1800s, many German and Dutch nationals emigrated to the US. Tea houses grew in popularity towards the end of the century, making them a natural place for European settlers to introduce cakes and pastries from their homelands.
Over time, however, people in the US began to adapt these European recipes, and started to include coffee. The first mention of coffee cake in US cookbooks typically included the recipes in bread or cake sections, depending on the dough or batter that was used.
By the time of the First World War, US cookbooks started to feature German coffee cake, and by the 1920s, it was labelled under its own headings in recipe books. As far back as the late 1960s, some cookbooks solely dedicated to this type of cake were published – indicating its mass appeal in the US.
The original recipe for US coffee cake has changed little to this day: in its classic form, it is a cinnamon-spiced sponge cake with a crumble topping. These cakes can be purchased from most supermarkets and bakeries in the US. Starbucks even sells its own version of “traditional” coffee cake across the country.
The UK also has its own spin on coffee cake, often referred to as “coffee and walnut cake”. It’s unsure as to when the UK version first emerged, but it’s believed that it started appearing in cookbooks during the 1920s.
Coffee cake in the UK is typically a two-layered, coffee-infused sponge cake, which is filled and topped with coffee buttercream and decorated with walnuts. It has become commonplace in supermarkets and on afternoon tea menus nationwide. Similar types of this cake are also widely available in Australia.
Should you add specialty coffee to coffee cake?
For the most part, the majority of mass-produced coffee cake contains low-quality coffee. So what about adding specialty coffee to it?
Frank tells me that Kaldi’s Coffee Roasting Co. includes specialty coffee in its recipe.
“The taste is balanced, with a blend of sweetness and added depth, alongside more buttery notes,” he explains.
He adds that developing the coffee cake for Kaldi was a long process.
“We went back and forth about whether the cake should include coffee, or if it is something sweet to enjoy while drinking coffee,” he says. “We tested a few different ways to include the coffee: using grounds, brewed coffee, cold brew concentrate, and espresso.
“We landed on adding strongly brewed drip coffee once it had cooled.”
But how was the coffee selected?
“We tried a number of different roasts, blends, and beans,” Frank tells me. “We landed on our 700 Blend, which is roasted for espresso, but also performs well as a drip coffee.
“The coffee brings the same balance that the overall cake recipe provides: sweetness, nuttiness, and a light touch of acidity.”
Frank provided me with Kaldi’s specialty coffee cake recipe below (it’s recommended to double check your measurement conversions before starting).
Streusel crumb topping
- 3/4 cups pecans or walnuts (about 110g)
- 3/4 cups sugar (150g)
- 1 tsp cinnamon
- 3 1/3 cups all-purpose flour (about 450g)
- 1 1/2 tsp salt
- 2 tsps baking powder
- 1 tsp baking soda
- 3/4 cups buttermilk (about 180ml)
- 3/4 cups concentrated cold coffee (about 180ml)
- 2 tsps vanilla extract
- 1 1/2 sticks soft unsalted butter (about 150g)
- 1 3/4 cups sugar (350g)
- 3 large eggs
- 1/4 cup concentrated cold coffee (about 85ml)
- 2 1/2 cups sifted powdered sugar (about 280g)
- Brew the coffee for both the cake and the glaze and allow it to cool. Set aside.
- Finely chop or pulse pecans or walnuts, then mix with the cinnamon and sugar to make the streusel crumb topping.
- Combine all dry ingredients for the cake and mix together.
- Combine the coffee for the cake with buttermilk and vanilla extract and whisk together.
- Preheat the oven to 350°F (176°C) and lightly butter the baking pan. Kaldi’s uses a 9 inch x 13 inch pan.
- Beat together the sugar and butter until light and fluffy.
- Slowly mix in one egg at a time.
- Add the dry and wet ingredients in the following order, stirring after every step: 1/3 dry mix, 1/2 wet mix, 1/3 dry mix, the remaining wet mix, the remaining dry mix.
- Pour half the batter into the baking pan and add half the streusel topping in an even layer. Top with the rest of your batter and the remaining streusel.
- Bake for about 35 minutes, but baking time can vary based on the pan used.
- Allow the cake to cool completely.
- Mix glaze ingredients together and drizzle over cake.
“The feedback from customers about our coffee cake is great,” Frank explains. “It’s an easy recipe to follow for those who want to try it at home.”
However you prefer coffee cake – either made with coffee or simply paired with it – there’s no denying how popular it is around the world.
If you consider making your own, try adding in or pairing it with different origins and processing methods. You may be able to find a recipe or a pairing which allows the unique flavours of the coffee to shine through.
Enjoyed this? Then read our article on four coffee desserts you can make at home.
Photo credits: Phipp’s Bakery, Kaldi’s Coffee Roasting Co.
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