Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Holy Grail of Coffee Cake

There seems to be at least one in every town or neighborhood...the breakfast place with crowds of people milling about under the eaves on weekend mornings, clutching their free cup of coffee and the newspaper while they wait half an hour or even 45 minutes for a table. The crowd is pleasantly bed-headed, attired in slouchy t-shirts or workout clothes, or perhaps whatever they were wearing on a hot date the night before. People chat, hold hands, lean on shoulders, or just sit companionably on benches.   There are strollers and dogs, baseball caps and sunglasses accessorizing the scene.  Someone has brought a grandparent.  Few will even glance at the menu when they sit down, instead ordering their usual thing from the friendly, freckled young waitress in the polo shirt that stops by. Crayons are plentiful, as the placemats are made for drawing on until the pancakes come.  Mugs are constantly being refilled without asking, there's syrup ready to go at the table, and when that first forkful of breakfast hits the tummy, all is truly right with the world.

Where I went to school, this place was called Hobee's. It has been nearly a quarter of a century since I was in college*, but Hobee's is still there, and is still famous for two things:  Their spicy orange tea, brewed so strongly that it feels like you are drinking dark liquid cinnamon, and their coffee cake.

This is the one and only photo on the Hobee's website.  They clearly know what the people want to see.

I do like their tea.  But I have not spent 25 years trying to duplicate it at home**.  Their coffee cake, on the other hand, is an obsession.

It comes to your table in what can only be called a slab. A thick square, maybe 4 inches across and a few inches high.  The cake itself is rich and dense and warm, with juicy blueberries tucked in here and there.   It is covered with sugary cinnamon crumb topping, and comes with a little scoop of butter right in the middle, which  has begun melting into that sugary topping on its way from the kitchen.  Oh my god, do I love that coffee cake.  I have loved it since my very first morning at Hobee's and I will love it until the day I die.

And people know this about me.  In one memorable exchange, a guy I'd been friends with for years was upset that our relationship was not going to evolve into more than that.  He was very upset, actually.

Him:  (after all else has failed)  Well, you know what?
Me:  What?
Him:  Hobee's coffee cake is made....FROM A MIX!!!
Me:  (tearing up at last)  It is NOT!
Him:  It is TOO!  I saw it, in the kitchen one time.  A big fat mix from COSTCO!!!
Me:  You're a LIAR!! That's what you are!  GET OUT!!!!

We never spoke civilly again.

After literally decades of trying, I have, at last, found the holy grail.  A way to make something close*** to Hobee's Coffee Cake at home.

Blueberry Sour Cream Coffee Cake
A personal homage****

For the cake:
3 c. buttermilk baking mix (like Bisquik)
1 c. sugar
1 1/2 c. sour cream
3 eggs
Splash of vanilla or almond extract
1 pint fresh blueberries
A couple of Tbs. of powdered sugar

For the topping:
3 c. flour
1 c. brown sugar
1 c. sugar
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 tsp. salt
1 1/2 c. (3 sticks) butter, cut into small pieces

Butter a 9x13 baking pan.   Blend baking mix and sugar together in a large bowl, then mix in the sour cream, eggs, and vanilla with an electric mixer for 3-4 minutes.  Batter should be very light and smooth.  Set aside.  Rinse and dry the blueberries, then gently roll them in powdered sugar to coat.  This will keep them from streaking the batter when you mix them in.   Carefully stir the blueberries into the batter.  Pour batter into pan.   If you want to make sure you have some blueberries on the top of your cake, save a few to scatter on top after it goes into the pan.  Otherwise, they all tend to sink as the cake bakes*****.

Using a pastry blender, fork or a food processor, blend all the topping ingredients except the butter until well combined.   Then, pulse or mix in the butter until you have a nice, chunky topping that resembles a blend of small pebbles, cornmeal and pieces of cookie dough.   Sprinkle liberally on top of the cake batter, breaking up larger chunks and making sure to cover it entirely and generously.   You may have a little extra, which is nice for a little treat after all this hard work.

Bake at 350 for 35-40 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out nearly clean, with just a few moist crumbs.  Serve warm.  If you have some butter and a little ice cream scoop around, all the better.

* I know this because my reunion is coming up this fall and I double checked the math on the email they sent because I was sure they had me in the wrong class.   But I am, in fact, officially some kind of geezer grad now.  I even put on my progressive lenses and read the damn thing twice.
** Especially since I discovered that the Good Earth Tea you can get at the grocery store is pretty darn close.  You just have to let it steep for about 15 minutes longer than they usually recommend.
*** Perhaps even better, because as usual, I have erred on the side of extra topping.  
**** Of course, now there's a purported copy of the real recipe online, which CLEARLY shows it does not come from a MIX!!!
***** This is fine in my house, because the kids assiduously eat around the blueberries, so having them on the bottom makes the dining table a lot less messy.


  1. So I made this today and....I had some problems. I used a glass pan - that might have been my first mistake. I used all of the topping to top the cake before I put it in the oven. And the biggest issue - it's not cooked in the middle. Now this could be the butter in the topping? Not sure - the outer edges were fine - I ate one. :) And it's delicious but not necessarily cakelike. More...I am not sure. It's good but not the hobee's coffee cake I remember :( It is back in the oven so hopefully it will be better soon.

    1. Aimee - so bummed your cake didn't cook through! Glass pans do tend to take a bit longer, that's true. I hope the extra time in the oven helped. I'm updating the recipe to advise doing a toothpick test before taking the cake out. I'm a topping fan, so using all of it on the cake is not a problem. This will definitely be denser than a regular cake, more breakfast-y, if you know what I mean. As a die hard Hobee's fan, I know nothing will be exactly the same, but this does give me that same super happy in morning feeling. Fingers crossed all is well in the end, and thank you for letting me know you tried it!