I almost never order coffee cake at bakeries or coffee shops, refraining with the justification that I can make that at home. But I never do get around to it, so here’s my attempt at finding the best from-scratch coffee cake that’s worth the effort.
My ideal coffee cake? A plush, fluffy cake divided by a cinnamon-spiked, fudgy-but-not-gooey swirl, strewn with giant, salty, brown sugary crumbs that shatter crunchy debris across each bite. You may notice a pattern from past bake offs: I like my cake texture a little drier–best for eating with coffee or tea!
- 41 total tasters
- All 9 recipes were made and baked the day of tasting
- All tasters ranked each coffee cake on a scale from 0-10 for taste, texture and overall as a whole
- Most recipes were baked in a 9×13 or 8×8 glass pan lined with parchment paper (What’s Gaby Cooking was baked in a metal 9″ pan)
- Gold Medal bleached all-purpose flour
- HEB enriched cake flour
- Kroger self-rising flour
- Unsalted Land O Lakes butter
- Nielsen Massey vanilla extract
- Bob’s Red Mill baking powder and soda
- Diamond kosher salt
- Daisy sour cream
- Chobani plain, full fat Greek yogurt
- Kroger buttermilk, whole milk and heavy cream
- Imperial granulated sugar and dark brown sugar
- Medaglia D’Oro espresso powder
As I started scraping recipes for this bake off, I found a TON of coffee cake recipes. So I narrowed the contenders for this bake off to the following requirements:
- a coffee cake, not a crumb cake
- included a layer of filling
- did not include nuts
What is coffee cake?
Traditional American-style coffee cake is most commonly a sour cream-based pound cake cake layered with cinnamon sugar and streusel. Confusingly, it typically does not include coffee IN the cake, it’s simply made to be eaten alongside coffee. I know, ANY cake can be eaten alongside coffee. I don’t make up the rules.
What is the difference between coffee cake and crumb cake? Internet consensus seems to boil it down to the streusel. Crumb cakes are generally single layer cakes with a significantly thicker layer of crumbs (they can be composed of dangerously little cake) with crumbs that can be thicker and crunchier than those found on coffee cake.
While crumb cake could technically be categorized as coffee cake, I consider crumb cake to be a specific, very delicious sub-category of coffee cake, and felt it would be unfair to mix the two.
Why did the recipe have to include a layer of filling? I could not find any data to back this up, but to me, traditional coffee cake should also have a swirl of filling in the middle. It also seemed fairer for an apples-to-apples comparison.
Why no nuts? Again, for consistency. So if you see any famous recipes missing (ahem Ina, Martha, America’s Test Kitchen, etc.), it’s probably because they include nuts, so they’ll be coming in a separate coffee cake bake off.
Another bake off, another set of results that didn’t quite align with my personal rankings. (I note my personal favorites at the veryyyyy bottom of this post under recommendations.) I note in the factors below a few reasons why some of my top picks fared more poorly.
Overall, this was a more difficult bake off to judge than I anticipated because while a few coffee cakes stood out for things like an extreme amount of streusel or brown sugar, there were a fair amount of coffee cakes that were all relatively similar (and that’s reflected in the clumping of rankings below):
In looking at the ingredient breakdowns of both the cakes and streusels below, I really couldn’t pull out any big correlation themes around rankings and ingredients used (except maybe that tasters preferred streusels made with brown sugar). However, I included a few observations around technique below.
Streusel ratio: I think this was a huge factor that affected rankings (further reinforcing the decision to omit crumb cakes as they likely would have won decisively). Any recipe with complaints of not enough streusel tended to be ranked lower no matter how good the cake itself was.
Streusel mixing method: I cannot say I noticed any difference in the crumbs made with melted butter vs. softened butter cut in with a fork vs. cold butter cut in with a fork (the most useless, laborious task in my mind). I think the texture of the streusel really comes down to the ratio of butter vs. dry ingredients and ensuring that you don’t overmix the crumbs into a paste. In any case, I highly recommend melting the butter when making streusel for the easiest method!
- Sour cream: Sour-cream based cakes took the top two spots–sour cream is key to providing the fat and moisture to create the substantial crumb of a traditional coffee cake.
- Greek yogurt: Since we only tested one recipe using Greek yogurt (Starbucks), it’s hard to tell if the lower fat content of full-fat Greek yogurt handicapped this recipe against the sour cream recipes (I think the lower scores were more due to the lack of streusel). I think the even, spongy crumb of the yogurt cake was very pleasing and would easily use it again if I didn’t have sour cream on hand.
- Cream cheese: Sugar Spun Run had a noticeably shaggy, fluffy crumb that seemed slightly drier than its sour cream counterparts. (Because Jessie combines cream cheese with oil, it’s hard to tell what the effect of the cream cheese really was).
- Buttermilk: Using buttermilk only in Joy the Baker’s cake led to a much lighter crumb relative to the rest–a more traditional yellow cake style that I preferred. If you find traditional coffee cake too heavy, try one without sour cream!
Bake time: Let us not let me, your enthusiastic home baker host, off the hook and ignore the fact that I may have overbaked several of these cakes. In the name of ensuring that no one was eating raw batter, I baked most of these to the upper limit of the suggested bake time, and sometimes a few minutes beyond to ensure the skewer coming out was decidedly clean. So, if some of these cakes are marked down for dryness, I fully acknowledge that this could be due to my baking skills, not the recipe, and encourage you to give the recipe a try anyway if it sounds good to you!
The Boy Who Bakes: a fluffy, powdery coffee cake laced with an espresso swirl and brown butter crumb
This recipe comes from Edd’s new cookbook, One Tin Bakes, (via Yossy at Apt. 2b Baking Co) and features a sour cream cake topped with a brown butter streusel. Edd’s cake also stood out for its incorporation of espresso into the swirl (coffee cakes typically don’t actually include coffee in the cake). While I didn’t pick up the specific espresso notes in the final product, I loved the finely crumbed, slightly drier cake with the addictingly crunchy streusel nubs. Note: I made the brown butter streusel the night before the bake off and I think the additional chilling time made my coffee cake look slightly different from Yossy’s pictures–the crumbs were more discrete nuggets on top rather than more dispersed crumbles.
Tasters loved the picturesque layers of this cake, the lightness and airiness of the crumb, and some liked the dryness of the cake. Most marked this down because the texture was drier and the cake wasn’t as flavorful as others. While some loved the “crunch” and distribution of the streusel, some found it almost chalky and wished for more streusel.
In defense of this coffee cake, I want to point out that 1) looking at the well done bottom, it’s very possible I overbaked this cake, making it drier than it was intended and 2) I still loved the drier texture–to me, the fluffy, drier crumb is quintessential coffee cake and I loved the ratio of cake to filling to crumb, as well as the flavor of the crumb. Don’t let the low ranking dissuade you; this was one of my favorite cakes!
Starbucks: a spongy, evenly-crumbed coffee cake with minimal streusel with heavy yellow cake vibes
Though I nearly made an exception to include Bravetart’s coffee cake in this bake off (a non-swirled coffee cake), I ultimately went with Starbuck’s nearly identical recipe as it includes a swirl. As a Greek yogurt-based coffee cake that uses cake flour, I’m not sure if it was the yogurt or something else that caused this cake to have by far the most even, bouncy crumb. It had the commercial precision that you’d expect from a slice from Starbucks. The main problem I had with this recipe was the baking instructions–it recommends muffin tins or a mini loaf tin with a bake time of 14 minutes. Please note that this recipe easily filled a 9×13 pan, and baked for the typical 45-50 min.
“I don’t think this is a coffee cake,” said one taster–many commented that this was very reminiscent of a yellow cake but lacking elements of a traditional coffee cake “no tang,” “slightly spongy,” “way too little streusel.” Some liked the soft “cloud-like” texture of the cake and the cinnamon flavor, but most thought it could use more spice, way more streusel, and wished there was more texture to the streusel. Overall, I had no complaints with the cake (give me soft yellow cake any day of the week), but agree with the streusel comments–I would double the streusel if I made this cake again.
Simply Recipes: a classic, very sweet and subtly spiced coffee cake
Cindy’s recipe via Simply Recipes came highly recommended from a number of people. Her sour cream-based cake stood out to me because of its relatively high sugar ratio (29%, only topped by Jessie Sheehan’s cake at 30%) and also because it contains ratios coincidentally extremely similar to Jessie’s cake–only with white sugar, butter and sour cream instead of brown sugar, oil and cream cheese. Like The Food Charlatan, this cake makes an enormous amount of batter–fantastic for a crowd!
While I think any crowd would enjoy this cake, my tasters leaned into the nuances to critique this cake. Tasters generally loved the fluffy texture of this cake–“best texture so far, quintessential texture of coffee cake,” said one taster. “Very fluffy but somehow also dense?” questioned another. The main critique was around leaning a little too heavily on sweetness vs. spice. “Subtle pound cake flavor that could use more spice,” “tastes like a sugar cookie,” “almost cloyingly sweet,” said a few. “More flavor and this could be a winner,” summed up one taster. However, if you like your cake on the less-spiced side, this could be the winner for you!
Sugar Spun Run: a cream cheese-based cake with a shaggy crumb
I used Sugar Spun Run as a cream cheese control as the cake is a butter and buttermilk-based recipe (vs. Jessie’s cream cheese + oil-based cake). It bakes up into a drier-textured cake with a shaggy, close crumb that melts in your mouth with a streusel heavy on the cinnamon. The buttermilk gives a slight tang to the cake. Personally, I would prefer slightly more cinnamon swirl in the middle as well as streusel on top.
Tasters praised the crumble top as “perfection” with big clumps, great crunch, great ratio of streusel to cake and a strong cinnamon flavor, though a few thought it was a little “dry and sandy” (which could be due to baker’s error if I didn’t mix the crumb mixture well enough!) Some loved the “angel food-like” texture of the cake, but others found it too dry. A few thought there was almost a chai-like flavor to the cake/streusel and most enjoyed the level of cinnamon in the crumb.
Joy the Baker: an airy and light buttermilk-based cake with an abundance of streusel
Joy’s coffee cake recipe on her blog is very similar to the version in her book–she just swaps buttermilk for the sour cream. (The version linked references blueberries, but I omitted those for the bake off test.) I was intrigued by the lack of a thicker dairy and further intrigued by her promise of “extra crumb.” This cake immediately stood out from the others with a distinctively light and airy crumb–a more traditional yellow cake texture vs. the denser crumb of a coffee cake. And yes, it did have plenty of crunchy crumb topping which was delightful–but also a bit unwieldy some of the dry bits fell off the top (the lower ratio of butter made it hard to moisten all the crumbs evenly). I think the subtle tang from the buttermilk kept us from missing the sour cream.
Tasters nearly universally loved the ratio of crunchy streusel to cake, calling it the “best streusel yet.” Most also loved the moist, light-textured fluffiness and softness of the cake crumb, though a couple thought it had a slightly “bready” texture. One of my favorite tasting comments said: “[In a Carrie Bradshaw voice] and so i asked myself…”do bakers of coffee cake just rely on the crumb for the overall flavor? If you have thicker crumb, does it outweigh the other parts of the cake that aren’t great?” It’s a great question that deserves some pondering. In this case, both the cake and crumb were excellent to me. My only qualm (shared with a few others) was that it felt like there was an almost overpowering amount of spice in the gooey filling layer–but a very small quibble for an otherwise outstanding coffee cake!
King Arthur Baking Company: a richly crumbed coffee cake with crunchy streusel and a gooey cinnamon roll-like filling
This cake base is identical to Joy the Baker’s coffee cake recipe in her cookbook (though that Joy uses more crumb)–it’s a fairly typical sour cream/butter base. I was curious to see how this cake (with less crumb) fared against Joy’s buttermilk-based cake recently published on her blog. Was that confusing? Check out the “Finalists – no nuts” tab on my Google spreadsheet if you want to see the exact breakdown of each recipe. Personally, I liked the lighter crumb of her buttermilk cake, but most seemed to prefer the slightly heavier crumb of the King Arthur recipe with its mixture of sour cream and milk.
Tasters loved the crunchy texture of the streusel, the ratio of streusel and gooey cinnamon roll-like filling (though some found the filling too sticky). The “sticky and rich” filling seemed to set this cake apart from many others with many calling this a “cinnamon roll”/Cinnabon vibes-like” cake. Some thought this was the “best cake texture” while others thought it leaned a little dry. “Does all the little things right without being flashy. Not too sweet, nice texture.” said one taster. Overall, I agree–with a solid cake, great streusel ratio and a richly-flavored filling, this is a crowd-pleaser!
Jessie Sheehan: an uber-moist, brown sugar-laced coffee cake rich with notes of vanilla and molasses
I originally included Jessie’s recipe due to her unusual use of olive oil (instead of butter, to help prevent a dense crumb) and cream cheese (instead of sour cream). But upon further look, her signature penchant for brown sugar in baked goods and a very sweet flavor profile were also unique markers that set her recipe apart. Loaded with 100% brown sugar, extra egg yolks and a generous amount of vanilla, this coffeecake is unquestionably moist, rich, dense and fragrant with vanilla and molasses notes. A thick swirl of dark brown sugar spiked with cinnamon ties everything together. Jessie also uses self-rising flour due to a tip from Shirley Corriher, who swears by the perfectly distributed leavening, which helps create a fine, even crumb. Unfortunately, the extremely moist crumb topping melded into a crunchy mass on top of the cake, but the flavor (especially around the caramelized, crunchy, sugary edges) was fantastic.
I did have some trouble with this cake sinking in the middle and telling when it was done because the center is so gooey, but tasters seemed to love the result. Some loved the the extreme moistness and gooey texture while others thought it was overly sticky. Some loved the crunchiness of the streusel and sweet chewiness of the caramelized edges while others wished the streusel was more disparate and not as melded into the coffee cake itself. Tasters loved the depth of flavor and cinnamon flavor while others thought spices were a little overpowering (one specifically wished the vanilla had been dialed down a bit).
The only downside of this cake is that it calls for slightly finicky ingredients (self-rising flour, club soda, extra egg yolks). But if you’re looking for a flavor-packed, moist, brown sugary coffee cake, this is the cake for you!
What’s Gaby Cooking: a buttery cake with a generous amount of subtly spiced streusel
What’s Gaby Cooking’s recipe was selected as the “control” recipe–basically a nut-less version of Martha Stewart, this recipe uses fairly common proportions in its cake ingredients (note that we omitted the glaze). Where it diverts from some recipes is in using the streusel as the layer of filling as well as on top of the cake vs. a standalone cinnamon-based ribbon. I actually loved this strategy as it formed a thick, slightly fudgy, subtly spiced swath through the moist-crumbed cake. While I found the cake a bit dry, I think the buttery texture paired extremely well with the subtle ribbon of streusel and the generous amount of streusel on top.
Tasters widely praised the buttery flavor and moist texture of the cake, the ideal level of salt and amount of streusel. One noted that the “flavor of the streusel really made the cake” and another called it “simply fantastic. Best texture and complete flavor. Not too sweet, not too spicy, but still enough separate flavor in the streusel and the cake to where each could be enjoyed on their own.” Most critics thought the cake was either a bit dry or bland, but agreed the streusel made up for it. Overall, an excellent cake to try! I will likely use the streusel-as-filling technique going forward as I prefer it over gooey, cinnamon-heavy fillings.
The Food Charlatan: a behemoth of a buttery, brown sugary, streusel lover’s dream
Karen’s recipe stood out for its higher egg proportion (17.6% vs. an average of 10.5% across other cakes) but mainly for its jaw-dropping amount of streusel–there’s more flour, sugar and butter in the streusel recipe than the cake itself. And where does it all go? Two layers of streusel are strewn into the cake, some goes on top–but the last cup is reserved to add on top halfway through the cake’s bake time so that the streusel doesn’t sink. The result is a cake batter that is thickly marbled with tender, buttery streusel (some of which retains a slight crunch, some of which softens into a fudgy swirl), not just on top. What’s the cake flavor like? Sorry, couldn’t hear you because of all the streusel!
Unsurprisingly, tasters loved the streusel to cake ratio! However, tasters also loved the texture of the cake: “cake was the right amount of moist with a nice tight crumb,” “fun flavor pockets,” “moist.” Most critiques referenced lacking a bit of flavor (some wanted more spices to come through) but for the most part, people just loved the buttery, crunchy streusel. Like What’s Gaby Cooking, I loved the way the streusel baked into the cake itself formed soft, brown sugary pockets within the buttery cake. It is quite sweet, but if you love streusel, you can’t miss this cake!
Best traditional coffee cakes: What’s Gaby Cooking, King Arthur, Simply Recipes, The Boy Who Bakes
Best for streusel lovers: The Food Charlatan, Joy the Baker
Best for brown sugar lovers: Jessie Sheehan
Best for cinnamon lovers: Jessie Sheehan, King Arthur, Spun Sugar Run, The Food Charlatan
My personal favorites that I couldn’t stop eating, in order: The Boy Who Bakes (fresh or day old), Joy the Baker (when fresh), The Food Charlatan (fresh or day old)
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