New York-Style Crumb Cake
At 16 months, my sweet Baby C has officially been upgraded to Little C. Although with the way this girl is trucking through pant lengths (I cringe on the playground--I swear I'm not trying to make my kid look like a hapless geek with highwaters on purpose, people! They fit fine yesterday!) we may have to come up with another nickname. Anyway, she's already developing her own particular brand of logic like all little kids do, funny ways of getting from point A to point B that leave us highly intelligent, efficient grown-up types chuckling and shaking our heads, because, you know, we're so smart and all that we don't need to invent gimmicks to complete a task.
Like how I got all seven years old with myself other day, pretending I had been recruited to an Olympic Tiny Dough Ball-Rolling Team in order to get through the incredibly arduous, albeit delicious result-yielding, task of making the topping for this really great crumb cake. I hope you're happy with it. I did it for you.
So as I've said before, I am totally obsessed with PBS's America's Test Kitchen. It appeals to my detail-loving, Type A side. Recipes from this show and its cookbooks rarely fail, if ever, and if they do, you can be pretty sure that it's you that sucks, never the recipe. I like that. I can appreciate the authority of an ATK recipe, even if I know that it will probably never involve the easiest way of getting to a finished product. So I went into this crumb cake with the knowledge that one of the steps would take some time. The kind of time that allows you to contemplate big, Oprah-esque Life Questions while rolling tiny dough balls, like, Hmmm, whatever happened to that turquoise v-neck sweater? I really liked that sweater! I need to figure out where that thing went. The sleeves were the perfect length.
But happily, the rest of this cake is actually really easy--basic, even--and the end result is certainly worth the trouble.
That cranky, needy, relentless bowl of hand-formed pebble-sized crumbs bakes up into a fantastically thick layer of crunchy-yet-tender edible cobblestones, like a blanket of little brown sugar shortbread cookies. And underneath is a dense, moist, buttery cake, rich with vanilla. It's reminiscent of the mile-high crumb cakes you'll find in old world, family-owned bakeries, the kind of thing that just feels so nice with a cup of coffee.
You really can't go wrong with this cake. It's the perfect kind of All-Day Cake to keep on the counter--a piece with breakfast, a bit with afternoon tea, a little extra sliver after dinner, etc. And if you have kids around that aren't of the age where everything, regardless of origin, is deemed fit for eating, then their curious little hands will be perfect candidates for forming the crumb topping for you. Just tell them they could be an Olympic medalist if they do it fast enough! It worked on me, anyway.
For the crumb topping:
1/3 cup granulated sugar 1/3 cup dark brown sugar 1/8 teaspoon salt 3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted, still warm 1 3/4 cups cake flour
For the cake:
1 1/4 cups cake flour 1/2 cup granulated sugar 1/4 teaspoon baking soda 1/4 teaspoon salt 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature 1 large egg 1 large egg yolk 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract 1/3 cup buttermilk, at room temperature
Set an oven rack to the upper-middle position and preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Spray an 8-inch square baking dish with nonstick cooking spray and line it with a strip of parchment paper or aluminum foil that is just shy of the width of the dish and long enough to overhang the sides of the dish. Spray the parchment paper with nonstick spray as well.
In a medium bowl, stir together all the ingredients for the crumb topping until they form a smooth dough. Let the dough rest for 10 minutes while you prepare the cake.
In the bowl of an electric mixer, stir together the cake flour, sugar, baking soda and salt at low speed. With the mixer running on low, add the butter chunks one at a time, letting each one incorporate into the dry ingredients before adding another. When the mixture resembles even, moist crumbs, add the egg, egg yolk, vanilla and buttermilk, and increase the speed to medium. Beat until the batter is light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan.
Break apart the crumb topping into large pea-sized pieces, rolling them slightly in between your fingertips to get them to hold their shape. Spread the crumbs in even layer over the batter. Bake until the crumbs are golden and a cake tester inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean, 35 to 40 minutes. Cool on wire rack at least 30 minutes. Lift the cake out of the pan using the parchment handles. Dust with confectioners' sugar just before serving.