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Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Christmas coffee cakes - Part One

This is a blog in two parts. The first, a little history and how to make the dough; the second, next Sunday, will be about turning the dough into Christmas coffee cakes.

The Christmas pi├Ęce de resistance when I was a child, the one that calls back so many memories, was Mom’s Christmas coffee cakes. Mom would bake early in the morning on Christmas Eve, and by the time my brother and I arrived in the kitchen—why was my father never a part of this?—ten or twelve tree-shaped cakes were ready to be decorated with gumdrops, red and green cherries, silver shot, red hots, red and green sugar, and whatever else entered our fancies.

Each finished cake was put on a square of cardboard—festively covered with aluminum foil—and covered with clear wrap. By late morning, we were off to deliver the cakes; I think my father became part of the tradition here, though as soon as my brother was old enough to drive, the delivering was left to the two of us.

We had a regular list of recipients, and at every house where we stopped, we were assured that Christmas morning would not be the same without one of Alice MacBain's coffee cakes. And we left the same warning, the one that every recipient already knew: don't put it in the oven to warm, because the icing will melt and the decorations will run off. Warm it on a cookie sheet on the stove or (should one be so elegant) a warming tray. And always we left with hearty Christmas wishes ringing in our ears.

Newly married and living in Texas, far from my Chicago home, I began to make Christmas coffee cakes and soon had a list of friends who counted on them. When my father died and my mother moved to Texas, she once again took over the baking. When Mother failed and we had to move her out of her home, I carefully carried home the box that held coffee cake “decorates.” I told my brother that I truly felt I had inherited the family mantle.

 Everlasting roll dough

 2 pkg. granular yeast
½ c. warm water - be sure it's warm; try the wrist test you use for baby formula
Pinch of sugar
1 12-oz. can evaporated milk, plus enough water to make 4 cups (nowadays I use “light” milk)
1 scant c. vegetable oil
1 c. sugar
Dissolve yeast in water (add just a pinch of sugar to help the yeast work) and let it rise about five minutes. Mix milk and water, oil, and sugar. Add dissolved yeast--it should have bubbles. Stir in enough flour to make a thin batter, the consistency of cake batter. Let this rise in a warm place until bubbles appear on the surface (probably 1 hour—check it at 30 minutes).
Separately, mix
1 c. flour
1 tsp. salt (or less)
1 heaping tsp. baking powder
1 level tsp. baking soda
2 Tbsp. cardamom (Optional, but this makes it really good—I keep my cardamom in the freezer from year to year.)

Sift seasoned flour into first mixture. Keep adding flour until it is too stiff to stir with a spoon. Knead well. Don't let the dough get stiff with too much flour or your coffee cakes will be heavy.

Also optional: coat 16 oz. candied citron with flour and mix into batter; if your family hates citron, you can substitute raisins. (Being a purist, I insist on citron over the howls of my now-grown children, who don't like raisins either—or cardamom, for that matter!)

This dough isn't just for Christmas. Mom called it “everlasting roll dough.” Just leave out the cardamom and candied fruit, and you can do lots of things with it. Make cloverleaf rolls by putting three small round pieces of dough in each place in a greased muffin pan. Bake until brown (Mom said to cook them at 400o, but I think that’s too hot. They brown but remain doughy in the middle.) My family likes it better when I roll the dough to a thickness of about ¼ inch, use a biscuit cutter or glass to cut out circles—I have an old tin can that Mom used and I suspect maybe Granny Peterman did, too Put a tiny bit of butter in the middle of each, and fold over. Bake on a greased cookie sheet until golden brown. Be sure to use an insulated cookie sheet or put an extra sheet under the one you’re using—these burn on the bottom easily.

To make good, gooey pecan rolls for breakfast, roll the dough out to a flat rectangle. Sprinkle with cinnamon and brown sugar and dab with butter. Roll up into a tube and slice into pieces of about 2 inches. Grease the bottom of an 8x8 pan thoroughly and then cover it with Karo white syrup and pecan halves. Place rounds of dough, cut side down, on the Karo/pecan mixture. Bake these at 350o until brown and center rolls appear cooked. Be sure to turn out of the pan immediately, while still warm. Cold cooked syrup turns to concrete. Rinse the pan immediately with very hot water.

Finally, to make a round coffee cake, repeat instructions about rolling out dough, dabbing with butter, sprinkling with cinnamon and brown sugar, and rolling it up. Twist into a circle and slash with knife periodically along top to give the dough room to expand. Bake at 350ountil done—once again, watch that it doesn’t remain doughy in the thickest part.

 This dough keeps in the refrigerator for a week or more, although it acquires a sourdough taste as it ages--not a bad thing. Just be sure to punch it down occasionall ybefore it takes over your entire refrigerator.

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