Friday, August 28, 2009

Mark Bittman's coffee cake, with blueberries and cardamom

Somehow during a run to Trader Joe's last weekend, we ended up with an extra basket of blueberries. I think it might have belonged to the guy in front of us. We already had picked out a pretty hefty 32-oz basket of berries and were not looking to filch anyone else's. But in the barely controlled chaos of the checkout line, a stranger paid for the basket and we discovered it when we got home. Sorry, buddy. But I'm sure there's some kind of natural balancing that happens at Trader Joe's. He probably got somebody else's Tasty Bite.

I froze a trayful of the blueberries and we've been munching handfuls of them all week, but stirring in my little Hungry Dog brain was the desire for something more satisfying. A little blueberry coffee cake with a crunchy, cinnamony topping.

This morning, I hunted around for a coffee cake recipe for which I had all the ingredients (I am not the kind of devoted morning baker that will make a trip to the store for a recipe--I must have all ingredients on hand to make something for breakfast). Lots of recipes I came across called for sour cream or buttermilk or plain yogurt, none of which I keep around. Finally, I went where I should have gone all along--to Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything.

Now, readers, I have some mixed feelings about Mr. Bittman. Well, not about him. I think he is a great writer and I like his approach to food. But I do not always have the best luck with his recipes, particularly his baked goods.

In any case, I figured that armed with this knowledge I could make the best of the situation. His coffee cake recipe calls for milk, which I had, and not much in the way of flavorings other than cinnamon and walnuts. I decided to add cardamom to the cinnamon mixture, as well as to the batter. I think cardamom is an incredibly underused spice and goes very well with most berries. And of course I added the blueberries, tossing them in flour so they wouldn't sink.

The recipe was a bit strange. First you stir together the topping, pretty standard, although I did opt for the food processor so the butter would clump a bit--a trick I learned from Baking Illustrated. Then you make the dough, which calls for whisking together the dry ingredients and then stirring in cold cubed butter with a fork.

Ok, what?

I knew a pastry blender was needed and so pulled mine from the back of a drawer. But I wondered what an inexperienced baker would do. I don't think a single fork would do the trick. You could do the two knives thing in lieu of a pastry blender, but not a single fork.

Anyway, then you pour in an egg and some milk and mix it up. At this point I added the berries. It then says to pour half the batter into the pan. Here was another failure of the recipe. The batter came nowhere near to pouring. It was super sticky. I dumped about half of it in a giant glob into the pan and spread it out messily with my fingers. Then I sprinkled half the sugar-cinnamon mixture over it, spread over the rest of the dough, and finished with the remainder of the topping. I stuck it in the oven and wandered off to see what the husband and the dog were up to.

Well, the cake turned out just lovely. I guess I should have more confidence in Mr. Bittman. He is a professional, after all. But I still maintain that the recipe was a little weird.

We each ate a good-sized piece, and then I left to hang out with a friend for awhile. When I returned, another chunk of the cake was missing. The husband looked at me and shrugged.

"I took a nap and woke up with a sweet tooth," he said. Another reason I love this man.

The cake was also popular with Frances, the other hungry dog. I busted her nosing up to my piece when I set it down on the table.

Can't blame her for having good taste.


  1. That is indeed a different sounding technique - more like pastry than cake. I love cardamom too, and blueberries - never tried it with coffee though. Looks tasty.

  2. Love the post. Trader Joe's is a fiasco half the time, but it sounds as though you came out ahead!
    The cake sounds delish. How nice the recipe didn't throw you. Great job!

  3. i would be upset if anything involving blueberries, butter, and cinnamon turned out less than scrumptious, so i’m relieved that it all worked out in the end. excellent idea, tossing in some cardamom, which is perhaps the most underrated spice of all time.

  4. shaz: good to know I'm not alone in thinking the technique was surprising!

    Gypsy Chef: Thanks! Yes, TJ's is always a little crazy but totally worth it for the wine and cheese alone...

    Grace: It would be hard to screw up this the very least you could always dump it over some ice cream, right?

  5. Oh, how I miss Trader Joe's. And I agree it's a little weird for a coffee cake to be mixed that way - sounds more like scone dough. But I'm glad it was tasty, at any rate. I'm a big fan of Bittman and I learned a ton from How to Cook Everything when I was just starting out cooking for myself in college.

  6. croquecamille: Bittman is great--I love that he teaches a method and then you feel free to make variations according to your tastes (or what you have in the house). He's the ideal teacher for the home chef!

  7. Love the addition of cardamom. I adore that spice, and only recently did I learn why -- I'm also a ginger addict, and cardamom is in the ginger family. Who knew? ;)

  8. Food Gal: I had no idea! I love ginger too, so now my love for cardamom makes sense.