by Marykate Smith Despres, Salem Depot
I am very picky about crumb cake. First of all, I don’t like any cake – crumbed or not – unless it’s exceptionally moist. For some reason, crumb cake tends to be one of those cakes that is often and easily too dry. Maybe this is why I won’t sit down to a piece of crumb cake unless I have a good mug of hot coffee or a tall glass of very cold milk. Most importantly, a good crumb cake must have a good crumb. (And, for the purpose of this week’s blueberry focus, it’s got to have blueberries!)
Every Sunday morning when I was a kid, my dad would go to Dixie Lee bakery to get us breakfast. It was the same bakery he had been going to since his family moved from the city to the suburbs when he was a kid. It was the same bakery we stopped at to pick up pastries before any family birthday or holiday party, any time of night or day. It must have been open close to 24 hours a day, because many a late night playing cards at my grandma’s, someone would suddenly get a craving for Dixie Lee and send my dad or one of the uncles on a bun run. And I’m not talking bread, I’m talking crumb buns. Perfect, moist squares of crumb cake that were at least half crumb, if not more. The perfect midnight snack or Sunday morning breakfast.
Growing up and moving away, I’ve learned not to try to replicate food memories as the replacement will always fall short. In searching for a crumb cake that is different enough from the crumb buns of my childhood, yet still sufficiently moist and crumby, I found Dorie Greenspan’s Blueberry Crumb Cake. The addition of blueberries to the cake and walnuts to the crumb make her cake seem to me like a slightly more grown-up version perfect for a slightly more grown-up me. The following recipe is adapted from Greenspan’s own, which you can find in her indispensable cookbook, Baking.
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temp
1/4 cup sugar
1/3 cup packed light brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
1 pint fresh blueberries
2 cups + 2 teaspoons all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
2/3 cup sugar
Grated zest of 1/2 lemon or 1/4 orange
3/4 stick (6 tablespoons) unsalted butter, at room temp
2 large eggs, at room temp
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/2 cup buttermilk
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F and grease an 8-inch square cake pan.
For the crumbs, in a food processor, pulse all ingredients except the nuts until you get a clumpy, wet-sand-like crumb that stays together when pressed between your fingers. Press the crumb mix down into a bowl, cover, and refrigerate.
For the cake, use your 2 teaspoons of flour to dust the blueberries. In a separate bowl, combine the rest of the dry ingredients, except the sugar. Using your hands, mix the sugar and zest together until the sugar is well infused. Add butter and beat until light, about 3 minutes medium speed. Add eggs one at a time and vanilla extract. Turn down your mixer speed to low to avoid messes and over-mixing and slowly add your dry mix and buttermilk. Once the batter is fully combined, carefully fold in your blueberries.
Pour your batter into the greased pan, let settle, and sprinkle your crumb on top. (I should note here that I am an advocate of extra crumb, making and using 1.5 times the suggested amount. Any more than this may weight down the batter too much, but feel free to experiment and let me know.)
Bake until knife comes out clean and crumbs are cooked but not burnt, about 55 to 65 minutes. Cut and serve cake when it has cooled to warm or room temperature.