Birthday Coffee Cake

I've had the most wonderful summer. I went swimming in community pools. I gardened, even though my garden produced zilch. I rode my blue Peugeot bike to and from work. I sang Joni Mitchell songs from the Rise Up Singing songbook. I made Thai curries and pork tonkatsu and lots of sushi rice. I started watching Minuit, le soir, an incredible Quebec T.V series. I translated at the Ecocity World Summit 2011 in Montréal and learned about designing cities for people not cars. I read a lot on my Kindle (Matterhorn, Karl Marlantes, A Visit From the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan, and The Lacuna, Barbara Kingsolver). I went home to Victoria where I saw maternal relatives, played tennis, realized my sister is growing up big time, had big life discussions with mom and dad, and ate a lot of fish. I went to Oregon where I saw paternal relatives, swam in the lake, played tennis, read, made blackberry pie, and ate a lot of granola.

And, there have been many birthday celebrations. Birthdays are important in my family, as all celebrations are. When I was younger, I used to average two or three birthday parties. One with my friends, one with my family at home, and one in Oregon. With cake and presents at all of them. Of course, everyone in my family teased me relentlessly (and they still do)  about having so many parties. But they only encouraged it with their organizing and asking me weeks in advance for birthday dinner requests! (Mind you, I do send my birthday list out as a group email on July 1st.) Despite any teasing, we still feel evening birthday dinner parties aren't quite enough. You have to have birthday breakfast too, even if it means getting up at 6:30 on a week day. And that means birthday coffee cake.

Dad started making birthday coffee cake maybe 10 years ago. I think his dad made it for him and his brother and sister when they were small. It was one of the few things he made when they were kids. The recipe's originally from the Joy of Cooking, and there's nothing else quite like it.

This summer, Dad made the coffee cake for my birthday when I was home, and I made it for JB's birthday last weekend in Montréal. Everyone loved it, especially after they figured out it wasn't a cake made of coffee but a brioche-type delicacy.

Birthday Coffee Cake
Adapted by Eric Murphy from the Joy of Cooking

The recipe will be different every time you make it depending on flour, oven temperature, memory, and state of mind. Use instant yeast, it's easier. I make this the night before, putting the dough in the fridge over night after it has risen once. Then, in the morning, I take it out early to let it rise before cooking.


1/2 C butter, SOFT
1/2 C sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp lemon zest
1/2 TBS lemon juice
2 beaten eggs
1 C milk
1 tsp vanilla

4-5 C sifted white spelt flour or all-purpose white flour (quantities will vary depending on which flour you use)
2 TBS instant yeast

- In a big bowl, cream the butter and sugar until creamy. You can do this by hand, with beaters, or in a stand mixer.
- Add the salt, lemon zest, lemon juice, eggs, milk, and vanilla. Mix well.
- In another bowl, sift 4 C of flour and whisk in the instant yeast.
- Gradually add the flour. When the dough's too stiff to stir, use your hands to mix the rest of the flour in. If the dough's sticking to your hands, add more flour until it's just barely sticky.
- Knead the dough for 5 minutes or until smooth. You should be able to stretch the dough without it tearing, but you don't have to knead it as much as bread dough.
- Put the dough in a clean buttered bowl in a warm place. I turn on the oven for 5 minutes (100 F) with the door open and turn if off before I put in the dough. Let it rise for 2 hours or until it has doubled.
- Punch it down and either roll or stretch it into a 9 X 9 rectangular baking dish. Let it rise for another 30 minutes. Make the topping (see below for recipe).

- OR: Once the dough is in the pan, you can cover it with plastic wrap and put it in the fridge over night. The cold will slow down the rising. In the morning, take out the dough 1 1/2 hours to let it rise before baking.

- Bake at 350 F for 20-30 minutes. The cake is done when you press your fingers in the middle and the dough springs back. The middle cooks last.

Make the topping while the dough rises for the second time.

4 TBS flour
4 TBS butter
4 TBS brown sugar
1 tsp cinnamon (optional)

- Mix together well.

We bought JB the Italian-made Avanti espresso machine for his birthday. It makes terrific espresso and accompanied the cake perfectly. And, as I said, if espresso makes you feel like you have jet engines  under your feet, tea would be fine.