Swans and Streusel

I moved my Mother-of-the Bride frock to the guest room closet last week. Its lines, a concoction of curves and cinches, reminded me of my mother's coffee cakes -- that childhood whiff of streusel supplanted for a blessed moment the memory of me busting my middle-aged moves to "White Wedding." Because midnight blue sequins would have morphed me into the Mother-of–the-Undead (on a slab, wearing a toe tag) I'd run out of formal options. Knowing one thing was true -- I couldn't afford Carolina Herrera – I took a trip to Joanne Fabrics to find a dress pattern.

There it was: Vogue Vintage 2401, circa 1952. It's vaguely New Look, sporting the same face-framing collar of my mother's wedding gown, three-quarter sleeves, and more darts than a pub in Paddington. No zippers or buttonholes, praise God, but some severe structure. I looked at the sketch: the dress was Nancy Mitford; Kay Kendall; Eloise's absent mother -- my mother. My mother's girlfriends.

They were slim, those ladies. I can't figure out how my mother and her girlfriends remained soignée swans rather than dumpy ducks, because they ate, best as I can recall, six meals a day: Breakfast, Coffee, Lunch, Tea, and Dinner; finally, late-night grilled cheese sandwiches and beer with Johnny Carson. They never exercised, except for a twirl around the dance floor at the Country Club or nine holes of hit-and-giggle on the Ladies' Nine.

My mother's breakfast might have been wheat germ, blackstrap molasses, and a cup of coffee. That left her an hour to bake a coffee cake, restore the kitchen to its alien gleam, don careful makeup, a pair of capris and a saucy sweater. Her girlfriends were coming for Coffee with a capital C. Entemann's Raspberry Swirl in a foil pan wouldn't do; that would be announcing that you were a slut. It was home-baked and Maxwell House all the way. The swans left about eleven-thirty so they'd have enough time to greet the cob and the cygnets for lunch.

With those time constraints, yeast and almond paste were out of the question when it came to quotidian coffee cake. Whipped up in the Mixmaster, then baked in an eight-inch pan, sporting a sugary streusel or glaze, they had the wholesome allure of the smart girl in the old baggy sweater who was a guy magnet in tenth grade: the appeal of modesty.

Modest, and thrifty too. The day after I relocated my dress, I baked my mother's go-to recipe. I found it tucked away in the pocket of a ring binder, scribbled on the back of a souvenir postcard from my parents' first trip to the Uffizzi. "Lois's Coffeecake": Mummy wasted no words -- she couldn't very well scribble over Botticelli's Venus – and Lois didn't waste time on measurements for the streusel. The ingredients cost less than a scone at Starbucks and the cake took thirty thrifty minutes from mixing bowl to mouth. (Research makes me suspect that Lois owned a copy of The Joy of Cooking -- her recipe is a near-clone of the Rombauer Ladies' "Quick Coffee Cake.") Wrapped tightly and zipped in the microwave for ten seconds, it's as good with Thursday's coffee as it was with the Sunday papers.

Just as speedy is Dorie Greenspan's "Swedish Visiting Cake" from Baking From My Home to Yours. The Swedish friend who shared the recipe with her told her that if you started when you saw your girlfriend turning the corner, the cake would be on the table as soon as the coffee brewed. (Well, maybe if the corner were half a mile away). Baked in a skillet, fragrant and crunchy with almond extract and almonds, I don't dream of streusel. I conjure Carl Larsson's kitchen.

Brownies and blondies were stirred in a saucepan, to the accompaniment of Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. We kids counted these confections cheap -- common currency for dessert. What we lusted for was the solitary square of coffee cake our friends' mothers had left uneaten.

Why did we crave those cakes, so much plainer than the fudge-frosted brownies and Nanaimo Bars whose presence on the sideboard sustained us through the thousand Brussels Sprouts my mother insisted we eat every single day? Was it the tender, cakey crumb, the cinnamon crunch of streusel, or the guilty pleasure of spreading a chunk of cake with butter? Perhaps it was the seductive scarcity of the four-inch square remaining in the pan -- a tease, a whiff of the frivolous feminine society we kids could never join. They weren't baked for us -- they were the property of the sisterhood of swans.

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From My Mother's Recipe Card:

Lois's Best Coffee Cake

Oven: 375 F Butter one 8" x 8" square pan

1/4 C butter
1/3 C sugar
Beat in:
1 egg
2/3 C milk 1 t vanilla
Sift and add:
1-1/2 C flour
1/4 t salt 2 t baking powder
Spread into the pan. Top with a layer of brown sugar, cinnamon, pea-sized dabs of butter and coconut or nuts if you have them. Bake 25 minutes. Serve hot, spread with butter.

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From Dorie Greenspan's Baking From My Home to Yours (Houghton Mifflin 2006; by kind permission of the author):

Swedish Visiting Cake
1 C sugar, plus extra for sprinkling
<br />Grated zest of one lemon
2 large eggs
1/4 t salt
1 t pure vanilla extract (optional)
1/2 t pure almond extract (optional)
1 C all-purpose flour
1 stick (8 T) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1/4 C sliced almonds, blanched or not
Getting Ready: Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter a seasoned 9-in cast iron skillet or other heavy ovenproof skillet, a 9 inch round cake pan or even a pie pan.

Pour the sugar into a medium bowl. Add the lemon zest and blend the zest into the sugar with your fingers until the sugar is moist and aromatic. Whisk in the eggs one at a time until well blended. Whisk in the salt and the extracts if you're using them.. Switch to a rubber spatula and stir in the flour. Finally, fold in the melted butter.

Scrape the batter into the skillet and smooth the top with a rubber spatula. Scatter the almonds over the top and sprinkle with a little sugar. If you're using a cake or pie pan, place the pan on a baking sheet.

Bake the cake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until it's golden and a little crisp on the outside; the inside will remain moist, even slightly damp. Remove skillet from the oven and let the cake cool for five minutes, then run a thin knife around the sides and bottom of the cake to loosen. You can serve the cake warm or cooled, from the skillet or turned out onto a serving plate.

September 18, 2008