There’s crumb cake and there’s coffee cake, and in New York never the twain shall meet. Crumb cakes get their name from their special topping—buttery pea-sized crumbs resting atop a fine-textured butter cake. You can drink coffee with crumb cake, of course, but don’t call it coffee cake, a non-specific descriptive of just about any kind of cake to enjoy with coffee.
The main difference between a New York Style crumb cake and any other kind is the size of the crumbs. To make them, you mix the topping ingredients until they gather into clumps, squeeze these clumps into uneven-sized balls, and pinch pea-sized pieces off onto the batter.
The crumb layer is thick, and in some recipes it can even equal the thickness of the cake. I like a ratio of 1 part topping to 2 parts cake, because the cake is also a big part of the show. The cake should be moist, have a fine crumb—no large bubbles in the batter—and have strong vanilla overtones. The recipe here will do just that.
New York Style Crumb Cake
There’s a lot of butter in this cake, which is why it’s so irresistible. Make the topping first to allow the flour to become completely absorbed by the butter. For photographs showing how to cream butter with sugar and beat in eggs to make a smooth batter, see Pound Cake.
1 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
2 ½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour (12 ½ ounces; dip dry measures into flour, fill to overflowing, and sweep off excess level with the cup)
½ teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly
1 ¾ cups unbleached all-purpose flour (9 ¼ ounces; dip dry measures into flour, fill to overflowing, and sweep off excess level with the cup)
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
12 tablespoons (1 ½ sticks) unsalted butter, cold
1 cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
2 large eggs, room temperature
2 large egg yolks, room temperature
1 cup whole milk
Confectioners’ sugar to sprinkle on top of baked cake, optional
Set an oven rack to the center position and preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Butter or coat with cooking spray a 13 x 9 x 2-inch baking pan, dust all over with flour, and knock out excess.
For the Crumb Topping, put the brown sugar into a large bowl and break up any lumps with your fingertips. Add the flour, salt, and cinnamon, and whisk thoroughly—about 30 seconds—to combine well. Add the melted butter and stir with a rubber spatula until the mixture gathers into large clumps. Set aside while you make the cake batter.
For the Cake, cut the cold butter into tablespoon-size pieces and put them into the bowl of an electric mixer. Let stand 10 minutes to soften slightly. Beat with the whip attachment until the butter is smooth and creamy, about 1 minute. Add ¼ cup of the granulated sugar and the vanilla and beat on medium speed 1 minute. Scrape the bowl and beater.
While beating on medium speed, gradually sprinkle in the remaining ¾ cup granulated sugar, taking about 30 seconds to do so. Scrape the bowl and beater. Set the speed to medium high, and beat 4 minutes until smooth and fluffy.
On medium speed, beat the whole eggs in one at a time, then add both yolks and beat 1 minute more. Scrape the bowl and beater.
On low speed, alternately add the dry ingredients in 3 additions and the milk in 2 additions, beginning and ending with the dry ingredients, and mixing after each addition only until smooth. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and spread level.
Grab handfuls of the crumb topping, squeeze firmly to compress, and pinch off pea-sized pieces. You can do this right over the cake in piecemeal fashion or form all the crumbs separately and strew them over the cake all at once. In either case, the crumbs must cover the batter completely. Very gently, pat the topping in place with the palm of your hand to make an even layer. Do not pack it down.
Bake 40 to 45 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean.
Cool completely on a wire rack. Dust with powdered sugar if desired, and cut into squares for serving.
Crumb cake is best when very fresh. Cover leftovers and store at room temperature for a day or two. To refresh, reheat, loosely covered with foil, in a 350 degree oven for about 5 minutes.
Makes 15 servings.