Thursday, July 31, 2014

blueberry crumb cake

blueberry crumb cake

Theoretically, we are supposed to move this Saturday, but evidence is mounting — in the form of a kitchen without countertops or appliances, a toilet in the middle of the living room, and a peeling, black bathtub that looks like the kind place you’d find a horror movie victim — that it might not happen. Did I mention the great plume of drywall dust from the doorway they’re sawing out of a wall today? Nothing that 48 hours can’t sort out, right?

new york's finest blueberries
what you'll need

It’s a good thing, in Opposite Land, that we are not the kind of people who plan every element of a big event like a move up to a month out, with each detail, from sending the kid to his grandparents for a couple nights so he doesn’t have to watch all shh, most of his toys get boxed up, or ordering furniture to be delivered that morning, furniture we have exactly no space for in our current overfilled apartment. I realize that I sound like we’re at Stress Level: Hip Flask this week, but it’s not so bad, mostly because I’ve chosen instead to focus my energies this month on blueberry crumb cake studies.

lemon zest

just one egg for maximum craggy crumb
a mass of blueberries, a minimum of cakefor the streusel

My theory is that everyone needs a perfect recipe for blueberry crumb cake, or at least everyone who loves blueberries, cake, summer and making people happy with summery blueberry cakes. Some people are indecisive enough to need seven recipes — some people have fallen hard in the past for intensely lemony yogurt loaf cakes with blueberries, buttery blueberry cakes crossed with a hint of cornbread (in the book), straight-up boy bait and at least three others that are especially delicious with blueberries instead — but none of them have what Maida Heatter’s classic blueberry crumb does, which is a staggering amount of blueberries (even more so in my take on it), an incredible rich, plush cake from just a modicum of butter, a minimum of eggs (for the most tender crumb) and a streusel that evidences good priorities (it has as much butter as the cake it tops).

thick, thick batter
blueberry cake in crazy morning light

I made this for the kids and teachers on the last day of summer camp, because I’m a total kiss-up. I’ve brought this to two summer homes where we’ve been a guest, in a shameless ploy to be invited back. And I’ve made another this week, just for us, because it’s so much more enjoyable to deal with life’s — or at least real estate’s — uncertainties over cake.

blueberry crumb cake with extra blueberries

Used cookbooks: Many of Maida Heatter’s cookbooks (such as this one) are out of print, and all of them should be in your possession if you love to bake, which means this is the perfect day for me to give you an extremely (8 years, even) overdue shoutout to one of New York City’s greatest food wonders, Bonnie Slotnick Cookbooks, a used cookbook store in the West Village. Bonnie herself is there everyday, an is not only one of the friendliest New Yorkers you’ll meet, but she knows almost everything about cookbooks. I’ve never come there on a hunt for a cookbook and not found it (and, oops, usually five more; see above: overfilled apartment, guilty as charged). Walking in there is like walking into quickly vanishing NYC you see depicted in movies and I hope if you’re visiting this summer, you don’t miss a chance to stop in.

One year ago: Burst Tomato Galette with Corn and Zucchini
Two years ago: My Favorite Brownies
Three years ago: Zucchini Fritters
Four years ago: Nectarine Brown Butter Buckle
Five years ago: Plum Kuchen
Six years ago: Huevos Rancheros
Seven years ago: Quick Zucchini Saute (still make this at least once a week — including tonight!)

Blueberry Crumb Cake
Adapted from Maida Heatter’s Book of Great Desserts

There are several things about this cake that always stand out to me. First, while most cakes of this size use a quarter pound of butter, plus an additional quarter or eighth for the crumb, this uses half and you don’t notice any missing. There’s as much butter in the cake as there is in the streusel, which I see as a sign that Heatter had her priorities straight. Second, every time I make the streusel topping, I find it too buttery and soft; I’m eager to add more flour to make it more crumbly but I recommend resisting because Heatter knows what she’s doing. The streusel will seem moist but when it bakes, it will both become crumb-like and adhere well to the cake, so you lose very little when you flip the cake out of the pan. I should know not to doubt her, anyway.

Still, I tweak a bunch of things, for ease and personal preferences: I use even more blueberries because I love a blueberry-overloaded cake. Heatter recommends 2 cups, but the pints I buy at the market often have 2 2/3 cups in them, and I use them all. I don’t bother dusting the berries with flour, as she recommends, because it’s not necessary to keep them from sinking here. (The reason is that the cake batter is very thick. Thick batters keep fruit in place.) I also don’t bother sifting the dry ingredients, in part due to laziness and also because while in some cakes, sifting is an important part of yielding a delicate crumb, this cake, where the hallmark crumb is moist, plush and heavily decked with leaky berries, we’re not angling for delicacy. To accommodate the volume that’s lost by not sifting, I am suggesting below using a smidge less flour in both places that you measure it. Oh, and I like to beat the zest in with the sugar, whose grittiness will help release the most oils and flavor from it.

Serves 8 in big wedges or 16 in the 2×2-ish-inch grid I cut mine roughly into

Topping:
5 tablespoons (40 grams) all-purpose flour
1/2 cup (100 grams) granulated sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
4 tablespoons (1/4 cup, 2 ounces or 55 grams) unsalted butter, cold is fine
Pinch of salt

Cake:
2 cups minus 1 tablespoon (i.e. 1 3/4 cups + 3 tablespoons or 240 grams) all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon table salt
4 tablespoons (1/4 cup, 2 ounces or 55 grams) unsalted butter, softened
3/4 cup (150 grams) granulated sugar
Zest of 1 lemon
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 pint (2 to 2 2/3 cups, 12 to 16 ounces, or 340 to 455 grams; see Note) fresh blueberries, clean and dry
1/2 cup milk, whole is ideal, any kind should work
1/2 cup (55 grams) walnuts, chopped medium fine (optional)
Confectioners’ sugar, for dusting (optional)

Heat oven to 375°F. Butter a 9-inch round baking pan (with at least 2″ sides) and dust it lightly with flour; line it with a round of parchment paper.

Prepare the topping by mixing the flour, sugar, cinnamon and salt, then cutting the butter in with a pastry blender, fork or your fingertips until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Set aside.

In a medium bowl, whisk flour, baking powder, and salt until combined. In a large bowl, beat butter, sugar and zest together until light and fluffy. Add egg and vanilla and beat until combined. Beat in 1/3 of the dry ingredient mixture until just combined, followed by 1/2 the milk; repeat with remaining dry ingredients and milk, finishing with the dry mixture. The batter will be very stiff, but don’t fret. Fold blueberries into cake batter until evenly distributed.

Scoop cake batter into prepared pan and smooth so that it is flat. If using walnuts, scatter them on top. Sprinkle with prepared streusel. Bake in heated oven for 40 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the middle of the cake comes out batter-free. You can let the cake cool complete in the pan on a rack, or just cool it in the pan for 20 minutes before flipping it out onto a cooling rack, removing the parchment paper lining, and flipping it back onto a plate. Dust with confectioners’ sugar, if using.

Do ahead: Cake keeps covered with plastic or foil at room temperature for three days. If longer, it might be best to keep it in the fridge. It gets more moist each day.


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