Streusel Cake

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Could this possibly be the ugliest cake I have ever made?

Sure, the turd-like monstrosity you see before you has some hot competition. Let’s review: October’s date-chocolate cake sure wasn’t winning any beauty contests. Neither was September’s pineapple upside-down cake, at least once I flipped it out of its pan, revealing its gooey, oozing, bronze underside. One could say, in fact, that every cake I’ve ever made for this blog is ugly, up to and including the one haphazardly shaped like a football. (Except, maybe, this one.)

And on the whole, I’m okay with that. Maybe one day I’ll learn how to smooth icing and pipe pretty designs like a champ, or at least a Stepford Wife; until then, I can take comfort in the fact that disastrous as most of these cakes have looked, all of them have been perfectly tasty.

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And really, as bad as it looks—that speckled, burnt sienna surface; that sunken middle; that bulbous growth in the center, rising over the horizon like a buttery teratoma—this cake, too, gets the job done. It’s moist and tender and dense but not too sweet, a neutral snacking cake with rich undertones of caramel and toffee.

It is not, however, what it was sold as: a streusel cake, topped with light, sugary crumbles that offer a textural contrast to the moist base below. Why, exactly, didn’t it work? I’ve got a few theories.

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Streusel Cake

2 cups firmly packed brown sugar
2 cups unsifted flour
1 cup butter or margarine, cut into small pieces [This implies that Nonnie wants you to use cold butter, since softened butter is difficult to cut into pieces; I completely missed that implication when I made my cake, which might be why it was such a disaster. Then again, maybe not; more on this below]
1/2 cup chopped walnuts [I’d say this could easily get bumped up to a full cup, if you’re feeling a bit nutty]
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup buttermilk

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Combine sugar and flour. Add butter, and rub together, with fingers, until mixture is reduced to fine crumbs. Stir in nuts. Spoon out one cup of mixture and set aside. Add soda and salt to remaining crumbs.

Beat egg slightly into a small bowl. Stir buttermilk and vanilla into egg. Pour mixture into crumb mixture and stir until well blended. [For this to work, your butter will need to be soft, as mine was—otherwise, you’d be left with a batter spiked with bits of cold butter, which will negatively affect the texture of the cake. So the temperature of butter you’re using in the cake itself is at odds with the temperature of the butter you need for the topping, at least as far as I can tell.]

Pour into greased 8″x11″ cake pan. Squeeze crumbs that were set aside into large nuggets and sprinkle evenly over top of batter. Bake in 350 oven for 40 minutes. [I didn’t have an 8×11 pan—who does?—so I used a round 9″ pan instead, and baked the cake an extra 15 minutes, since it was still completely wobbly at 40.]

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The verdict: Maybe this disaster cake was my fault, and not the recipe’s. After all, I didn’t use cold butter; I didn’t have the right sized pan; I also used a combination of yogurt and milk instead of buttermilk, because I didn’t feel like running out to the store. (Although from what I’ve read, that last one shouldn’t have had such a huge effect on the texture or flavor of the cake.)

After doing some research, though, I really do think that this outcome wasn’t entirely my doing. As far as I can tell, there’s just too much butter in this cake, compared to the amount of sugar and flour that it calls for—which led to a dense block covered with failure streusel that simply melted into the dessert it was meant to stand apart from. That’s also, I think, why it sunk in the middle: there just wasn’t enough flour to keep the cake standing tall. Maybe the issue would have been mitigated if I’d started with cold butter, like Nonnie told me to—but considering the sheer amount of fat the recipe calls for, I have my doubts.

So, in conclusion: turd cake. Decent taste. Dud recipe. Not gonna make it again. Anyone want to come over and help me finish this?

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