German coffee cake

For many people, the early years of parenthood are mostly about survival, and cooking becomes about getting small people and yourself fed and asleep as soon as possible.  My parents had five children under seven and a half (I’m the eldest), so getting us fed and asleep was the focus for quite a few years.  My mother made bread regularly, and basics like pancakes and scones, but from quite an early age, I was probably the main baker of biscuits and cakes. I can’t remember my first solo baking production, but it was quite possibly this cake.  It’s written in my mother’s handwritten little recipe book as Jenny Murphy’s German Coffee Cake after the long-ago neighbour who passed on the recipe.  Many of our family recipe names include the name of the giver, and I love how each time you recreate a dish it also recreates memories, and the connections between people that make sharing food such a powerful activity.

One of my clearest memories, at the age of about 10, is of baking this cake when friends of my parents came to visit, bringing a visitor from the US.  He seemed to enjoy it, but after morning tea, he asked me if he could give me a tip.  I remember thinking that I didn’t think there was anything wrong with the cake, but extra advice is always useful, so I said yes, and was totally confused when he handed me 50c!

pour batter into lined pan

This cake has been shared at many, many family events.  It was our ‘go-to’ cake for picnics, BBQs, house parties etc as it’s baked in a large baking dish and can easily be transported and cut into 30 pieces or so.  I actually bake it less frequently now because of the size (though of course I could halve it!) but every time I do, I’m reminded what a delicious straightforward cake it is.

spreading streusel

Basically, it’s a rich butter cake with a streusel topping.  The original had walnuts, and I sometimes use them, sometimes don’t.  These days more often not, as so many venues don’t allow nuts. [Edit: I just have to pause and cry and hit my keyboard a bit because I had actually finished this post, and a very detailed recipe, and saved it as a draft, and WordPress decided to simply not save anything after what you see above <sob>.] Anyway, I think what I had said was that what makes this cake particularly delicious is the contrast of the strongly spiced topping, with freshly ground cinnamon, nutmeg and mace plus lemon essence; and the rich but plain butter cake underneath.  As the cake rises in the oven the blanket of streusel becomes a dimpled quilt, with crisp top bits and moister spots where it has slumped.  I’ve always like those bits the best!  I might have originally written something after this but I can’t remember now, so on to the recipe…

[Update 6/17: it’s also delicious with a layer of fruit under the streusel – below is stewed apple]

top batter (and fruit) with streusel

German Coffee Cake

makes approx 30 pieces

  • 225g butter
  • 400g (2 c) sugar
  • 4 eggs
  • 450g (3 c) SR flour
  • 1 c milk
  • 2 tsp vanilla essence
  • 1/2 tsp salt


  • 150g (1 c) plain flour
  • 200g (1 c) sugar
  • 115g unsalted butter
  • 1/2 cinnamon stick (approx 1 1/4 tsp ground)
  • 1/2 nutmeg (approx 3/4 tsp ground)
  • few pieces of mace (approx 1/2 tsp ground)
  • few drops lemon essence

Preheat the oven to 190C (180C fan forced).  Get out the butter, eggs and milk to come to room temperature.  Grease and line a large rectangular baking pan.  Mine is a chunky and very battered aluminium pan that I think I baked my first ever cake in.  It measures 33x27cm, but if you don’t have one of those exact dimensions then aim for something of a similar area – this pan is 891cm2, so anything between 850 and 900 should be fine.

For the streusel, stir together the flour, sugar, spices and salt in a medium bowl with a fork, and rub in the butter with your fingers until it forms uneven crumbs.  Carefully stir in a few drops of lemon essence to taste.  If you make the streusel in advance and refrigerate, ensure it is room temperature before sprinkling over the batter or it will sink.

Cream the butter, sugar and vanilla until light and fluffy.  Add the eggs one at a time, making sure each is fully incorporated before adding the next.  Stir in one third of the flour and the salt, followed by half the milk, the next third of flour, the other half of the milk, and the final third of the flour and combine until smooth.  Spread the fairly thick batter evenly in the pan, and sprinkle over the streusel.

Bake for about 40-45 minutes, covering loosely with foil if it’s browning too fast, until a cake tester comes out clean. Cool in the pan on a rack.  I tend to cut and serve in the pan, but you can remove the cake once it’s fully cooled, though I’d cut in half first.

[Edit 22/10/14: based on a few comments below and questions from a friend I’ve added a reminder about the temperature of the streusel.  Unless you’re aiming for a streusel surprise cake with the streusel on the bottom! the streusel needs to be room temperature  or it will sink as the batter rises in the oven.  If you like pockets of gooey streusel in the batter as well as the streusel topping, I suggest chilling about a third of the topping and clumping it together a bit before sprinkling over before the other two thirds of room temperature streusel.]