Lifestyle & Culture

Kitchen Detail: Death for a Coffee Cake

By Nancy Pollard

After owning one of the best cooking stores in the US for 47 years—La Cuisine: the Cook’s Resource, in Alexandria, Virginia—Nancy Pollard now writes Kitchen Detail, a blog about food in all its aspects—recipes, film, books, travel, superior sources and food-related issues. She and her husband, the Wine Maniac, have recently moved to Italy.

“È LA MORTE SUA,” quoted my son-in-law, who is from the Marche region of Italy, on the Adriatic. He was waxing poetic about the seductive deliciousness of dunking a slice of correctly baked ciambellone into coffee at breakfast. His nostalgia for this tradition totally eluded me, but I got the gist of the proverb: The deliciousness of the combination caused the cake’s own demise.Kitchen Detail coffee cake E la sua morte

And so my daughter Tatiana and I both started baking different coffee cakes to see what made a particular style such perfection for dunking and eating, that in the end it caused its own death. It would be sweet, but not overly so. It should have a spice or citrus zest combination and maybe a few finely chopped nuts and raisins, but nothing over the top like American sticky buns. The cake texture couldn’t fall apart or be too dry during its fatal dives. Crunchy sugar or a glaze wouldn’t be deal-killers for the contestant cake, but restraint was the byword. Also, the crust must be crisp, not sweaty. And, finally, it had to cling to its quality at room temperature. Under a cake dome to be sure, but never in the fridge.

I tried two from Pellegrino Artusi’s classic Italian cookbook, The Art of Eating Well, first published in 1891. Not even repeated dips into coffee saved its nothing flavor and texture. Next we tried one from The Silver Spoon Cookbook (the cookbook every Italian bride used to receive as a gift). It was okay, but certainly not worth wasting a cup of good Italian coffee on. I decided that what I needed (and maybe you do too) were some variations on the proverb’s theme. So here are three equally good dunking coffee cakes that can slowly die in coffee, baby coffee, hot chocolate or even, as my grandsons do it, cold milk.

Going Back to Maida Heatter

Kitchen Detail blog glazed Budapest coffee cake

Kitchen Detail’s version of Maida Heatter’s glazed Budapest coffee cake.

I personally went back to my beloved  copy of Maida Heatter’s Book of Great Desserts. And my choice, Budapest Coffee Cake, is Hungarian in derivation rather than Italian. But, hey, the Austro-Hungarian Empire had terrific cafés and knew a thing or two about pastries and coffee. Even with the glaze and a restrained filling of walnuts, currants and cocoa and cinnamon, it hit the sweet spot and was indeed consumed to its own death with coffee. Should you search out this book, be advised that later versions omitted some of the recipes. The original was first printed in 1965 and had several reprints after that (my copy was a reprint in 1974). Make sure the copy includes this cake and the Buttermilk Lemon Cake (another delicious Maida Heatter classic) so that you know that it is the proper version. Bonnie Slotnick Books is an excellent place to start, but check with other resellers of out-of-print cookbooks too.

Ciambellone As It Should Be

Kitchen Detail blog version of Domenica Marchetti's Ciambellone

The Kitchen Detail version of Domenica Marchetti’s Ciambellone.

The second one, which became “The Test” against classic ciambellone recipes, is the one featured in Domenica Marchetti’s now-out-of-print book, Big Night In. It is her mother’s recipe, which, according to Domenica, she occasionally doubled to fit a 12-cup mold. This recipe fits a 6-to-7-cup ring cake pan. Domenica has written several excellent cookbooks, and I cannot understand  why this outstanding one slipped through the publisher’s fingers and is now out of print. I was looking through my copy and counted several constant repeaters: Sour Cherry-Mascarpone Cake, Sour Cherry Gelato With Bittersweet Chocolate-Cherry Sauce, Beef Tenderloin Alla Bandiera Italiana (a beef fillet with three sauces in the colors of the Italian flag), Slow-Roasted Arctic Char With Sautéed Fennel and Pernod. And there are more. Also check through her website, Domenica Cooks, for her cooking inspirations and tours.

An American Ciambellone

Kitchen Detail Blog Chocolate Chip Ciambellone

Chocolate Chip Ciambellone.

Tatiana made some happy changes to the ciambellone recipe from the Wednesday Chef. Her family loves it for breakfast or a mid-afternoon snack. She removed the lemon zest and added chopped chocolate to make it more interesting (and let’s face it—we Americans can’t resist a hit of chocolate chips. It’s wonderfully versatile and holds very well for up to a week, especially if stored in a domed cake stand or covered in plastic wrap. Her final touch is that she butters and sugars the cake pan interior to help it unmold easily and to give this cake a delicious crystallized-sugar finish.

Some Final Thoughts on Cake Pans

I use my copper molds for baking, and they release beautifully. All the cakes baked for this post were done in these molds from Birth-Gramm in Switzerland or Christian Wagner in Germany. I have reservations about non-stick coatings on baking pans, not only for the serious environmental concerns in their manufacture, but for two added  reasons. Once the coating inevitably scrapes off, the baking pan gets tossed away and just ends up in a landfill. And second, you are always advised to butter and flour the pan anyway, so is it really “non-stick”? Anodized aluminum pans by Fat Daddio’s (which you can find through online sellers) will give you excellent baking and release results as well. Without any environmental or ethical hazards.


Budapest Coffee Cake

Serves 12
Maida Heatter’s version of a Hungarian cake that is delicious with coffee, tea or hot chocolate. A great-keeping cake at room temperature under a dome.
Recipe by Maida Heatter.
Adapted from the original 1965 Maida Heatter’s Book of Great Desserts.
For the nut filling:
  1. ¾ cup (150gr) Dark Muscovado Sugar
  2. 1 tablespoon (7.5gr) cinnamon
  3. 1 tablespoon (7.5gr) unsweetened dutched cocoa powder
  4. 2 to 3 tablespoons (14 to 21gr) currants or raisins, coarsely chopped
  5. 1 cup (125gr) very finely chopped walnuts
For the cake batter:
  1. Butter to grease the pan
  2. 3 cups (330gr) sifted all-purpose white flour
  3. 1½ teaspoons (6gr) double-acting baking powder
  4. 1½ teaspoons (6gr) baking soda
  5. ½ teaspoon (3gr) fine sea salt
  6. ¾ cup (170gr) unsalted butter
  7. 2 teaspoons (10ml) vanilla extract
  8. 1½ cups (340gr) caster sugar
  9. 3 large eggs
  10. 2 cups (500ml) sour cream
For the glaze:
  1. 2 cups (220gr) confectioners sugar
  2. 1 teaspoon (5ml) vanilla extract
  3. 2 to 3 tablespoons (30 to 45ml) hot milk
  1. To make the nut filling, stir the Dark Muscovado Sugar, cinnamon, and cocoa powder to mix thoroughly. Stir in the currants or raisins, then the walnuts. Set aside.
  2. Adjust the rack to mid-level in the oven and preheat to 375F.
  3. Butter a 12-to-14-cup tube pan.
  4. To make the cake: Sift together flour, baking powder, baking soda, and sea salt. Set aside.
  5. In the large bowl of an electric mixer, cream ¾ cup butter, adding the vanilla and caster sugar.
  6. Add the eggs individually, beating thoroughly until incorporated.
  7. Beat at high speed until smooth and creamy, using a rubber spatula to scrape down ingredients to keep all the mixture smooth.
  8. On lowest speed, add the dry ingredients in three additions, the sour cream in two, alternating. Do not overbeat—just beat until all is incorporated.
  9. Spread a thin layer of the batter in the bottom of the pan.
  10. Sprinkle one-third of the nut filling evenly on this layer.
  11. Create another layer of batter, then a third of the nut filling, twice more. The top layer should be batter. (It is easy to spread the batter by small amounts and spread with the back of a spoon or spoonula.)
  12. Bake 50 to 60 minutes, until a cake tester comes out dry or the cake’s internal temperature is around 205 to 210F on a Thermapen.
  13. To make the glaze: Prepare the glaze while the cake is baking. In a small bowl, with a rubber spatula, mix the confectioners sugar with the vanilla and about 2 tablespoons of the hot milk. Very gradually add more milk, just a little at a time, using only enough to make a semifluid mixture about as thick as a thick cream sauce. Set aside.
  14. Leave the cake in the pan for no longer than 5 minutes and then unmold onto a cake rack sitting in a half-sheet pan and apply the glaze while the cake is still warm. Quickly pour the glaze over the top of the cake, allowing it to run unevenly down the sides.
  15. Allow the glaze to set before transferring the cake to a cake plate.
  1. Generally I use India Tree Caster Sugar and their Dark Muscovado Sugar. I prefer Vietnamese cinnamon and either a French vanilla or Nielsen-Massey Vanilla Paste or their Tahitian Vanilla. My favorite baking powder is  produced by Bakewell Cream in Maine.


Serves 8 to 10.
A recipe for what Italian Ciambellone should be. Covered, it keeps for several days at room temperature. Good for picnics with fruit too.
Recipe by Domenica Marchetti.
Adapted from Big Night In.
  1. Butter and sugar to grease the pan
  2. 3 cups (375gr) unbleached all-purpose white flour
  3. 1½ cups (300gr) granulated sugar (caster sugar blends faster while natural unbleached sugar will give a more caramel flavor)
  4. 2 teaspoons (7gr) baking powder
  5. 1 teaspoon (3gr) baking soda
  6. A pinch fine sea salt
  7. ½ cup (113gr) unsalted butter, softened and cut into ½-inch (1cm) pieces
  8. 3 large eggs, lightly beaten
  9. ¼ cup (60ml) light cream or half-and-half, plus 2 tablespoons (30ml) for the glaze
  10. 1 teaspoon (5ml) vanilla extract
  11. 1 teaspoon (5ml) almond extract
  12. 2 tablespoons (30ml) Punch Abruzzese Liqueur, dark rum, or Amaretto to which you can add some lemon and orange zest
  13. 2 tablespoons pearl sugar, or crushed sugar cubes, for decoration
  1. Preheat oven to 350F.
  2. Butter and flour a 9-inch (23cm) 6-to7-cup ring mold (for lining the pan, I like to use ground almonds or almond flour instead of flour)
  3. In a mixer bowl (or by hand) combine the flour, sugar, salt, baking powder and baking soda using the paddle beater rather than the whisk.
  4. Add the softened butter pieces around the edge and mix to fully incorporate.
  5. In another bowl, whisk together the eggs, light cream (or half-and-half), the extracts, and the liqueur.
  6. Add this mixture gradually to the other ingredients. until all is well blended.
  7. The dough is sticky and thick, so scoop it up and spread it evenly in the prepared mold.
  8. Bake the cake for 30 minutes.
  9. Remove from the oven and brush the remaining light cream on, then sprinkle with pearl sugar (or crushed sugar cubes)
  10. Return the cake to the oven and bake for another 5 minutes.
  11. Cake should be golden brown, with the center coming out clean when a cake tester is inserted. Or use a Thermapen to test doneness, which is a bit over 200F.
  12. Allow to cool for 20 to 30 minutes before unmolding onto a rack. Let it cool completely before transferring to a platter.
  1. This can be kept at room temperature, wrapped or under a dome, for several days.
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One thought on “Kitchen Detail: Death for a Coffee Cake

  1. Elizabeth Brett says:

    Thank you so much! I was searching for a good coffee cake!

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