There are a few recipes that are my “go to” recipes. They’re so good that I’ve been making them for years or they’re so versatile that I can adapt them to whatever’s in my pantry or scratch that gustatory itch I’ve been having. This is one of them. It’s adapted from a Cinnamon Coffee Cake recipe that a reader, Stephanie Kotniuk, sent in to Gourmet magazine. I’ve modified it somewhat by reducing the sugar a bit, adding blueberries, doubling the vanilla, and sprinkling the cinnamon sugar on top instead of swirling it in the cake but for me, that’s almost no change at all. When I’m in the mood for chocolate coffee cake with strawberries in it, I bust out this recipe and add some cocoa powder and fresh strawberries. Apple season? Just caramelize apple chunks with a little brown sugar, cinnamon & butter and you’re good to go. I’m pretty certain I’m not the only one out there that knows about this keeper. The flour and leavening agents (baking soda and baking powder) ratios are perfect and by mixing the baking soda with the sour cream before mixing it in with the batter you’re actually activating the baking soda. Baking soda, also known as sodium bicarbonate, is basic in pH and when you mix it with something acidic like sour cream or buttermilk it releases carbon dioxide which then acts to puff up the batter making it rise. I know, I’m nerdy but harmless. Anyway, the sequence of mixing the ingredients and ratios are classic examples of how baking is a form of chemistry and this recipe really takes that into account giving you an easy and flawless cake every time. So, Stephanie Kotniuk, wherever you are, thank you. You’ve made countless people happy and maybe a little plumper too 😉
1) Since the baking soda is activated by mixing it with the sour cream before you mix it into the batter the subsequent steps need to be done in a timely fashion so if you think you’re going to be pulled away by life while making this cake don’t mix the baking soda into the sour cream until just before you’re ready to add it to the batter. It’ll still have plenty of time to release carbon dioxide/raise the batter.
2) As always, avoid the temptation to overmix as this will expose more of the gluten from the flour allowing it to create a matrix thereby giving the cake a tough, rubbery texture so once you no longer have visible patches of flour you’re good to go. For those interested, Fine Cooking has a simple and informative look at gluten and baking.
3) Is there a basic guideline for adjusting ratios in baking? Why yes, there is and it’s actually pretty easy. Baking is essentially a series of chemical reactions which is why it’s important not only to keep the ratios of the leavening agents (like baking powder or baking soda) consistent with whatever they’re raising (usually flour) and whatever is activating the leavening agent (ie sour cream). It sounds complicated but basically 1 tsp baking powder will raise 1 c of flour versus baking soda which is stronger so you only need 1/4 tsp per cup of flour. You’ll notice that my Bad Day Chocolate Truffle Cake is a variation on this recipe. Since I was adding cocoa powder in addition to the chocolate sauce inside the batter to increase the chocolatey-ness, I felt I needed more moisture in the form of low-fat buttermilk. By adding something acidic, I needed to add 1/4 tsp baking soda on top of the 1 tsp already present so that there would be enough leavening agent to make the chemical reaction work. In a non-baking analogy, your leavening agents are the fuel you use to make sure that you can make it to your destination, Fluffytown (hehe, I can’t help myself). You’ll notice the extra brown sugar in that recipe which is a reagent for another day [sidles toward door]. Actually, I didn’t credit Stephanie’s recipe with the truffle cake cuz I felt that I had adulterated it so much that I didn’t want her to be considered an accessory to my crimes 😉
4) Why so much vanilla extract? For me, vanilla extract provides a lot of the flavor in baked goods and in the grand scheme of things isn’t that expensive. I figure if I’m going to take the time to bake something, it should have enough taste to justify the extra calories. I consider desserts a perk for all my good living so if I’m going to eat I’m not going to skimp on taste ya know?
5) Is there a quick and dirty conversion for conventional vs convection baking times? Yup. Usually, unless you have a really short, less than 15 minute, cooking time you should reduce the baking time by 25-30% so a 60 minute baking time in a conventional oven would roughly become 45 minutes in a convection oven. I usually decrease my time by 25% and set a timer to check 5 minutes before the decreased time so for the above example I would bust out my cake tester at 40 minutes. And I case you’re wondering, silicone pans also have a faster baking time than metal pans ~ 10% in my experience.
1 1/2 c all-purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1 + 1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda
1 c low-fat sour cream
8 tbsp butter, softened
2/3 c + 1 tbsp granulated sugar
2 large eggs, at room temperature
2 tsp vanilla extract
1 1/2 c (12 oz) frozen blueberries (fresh tastes great too but you will get a bluer cake as the berries smash open easily)
Preheat oven to 350F. If not using a silicone bundt pan grease and flour a 10 inch bundt pan.
Whisk together flour, baking powder, salt, and 1 tsp cinnamon in a large bowl. Set aside.
In a medium bowl combine sour cream and baking soda. Set aside. It will increase in volume and get fluffy and bubbly. This activates the baking soda so if you think you may be interrupted while baking, don’t do this step until after you’ve mixed the first half of the flour mixture into the batter otherwise you may end up with blueberry cinnamon pancake 😦
In another large bowl or stand mixer mix together butter and granulated sugar on medium speed till light and fluffy. Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Mix in vanilla. With mixer on low setting add 1/2 of flour mixture and mix till just combined (no large streaks/lumps of white flour are visible). Mix in half of sour cream mixture. Alternate mixing in flour and sour cream mixtures till just combined. Fold in blueberries. Pour batter into bundt pan and bake for 35-50 minutes or till a cake tester or toothpick comes out clean. With a silicone pan and convection oven this usually takes 35-40 minutes for me. Combine 1 tbsp sugar and remaining 1/2 tsp cinnamon in a small bowl. Let cake rest for 5 minutes then loosen from pan sides with a butter knife with the dull edge of the knife facing the direction that your sliding. In the picture below I’m moving the knife counterclockwise so the dull edge is facing left in the direction I’m sliding the knife.
Turn out onto a plate and sprinkle with cinnamon sugar while cake is still warm. Watch it magically disappear over the next 3 days and hide the scale. Makes 12-6 servings.