December 27, 2015
Eileen, my mother, made coffeecakes that were legendary in our home town. Yeast-raised, cardamom-flavoured, made with butter and eggs and raisins and nuts, the cakes were shaped into large Christmas trees or round wreaths. Eileen studded their powdered-sugar glaze with candied cherries and pecans or walnuts. The coffeecakes were delicious, whether warmed and sliced or sliced, toasted, and buttered.
One Christmas season Eileen made 36 coffeecakes. (I thought it was at least 60, but my sister assures me it was 36.) For three days every room in the house held coffeecakes in one stage or another: big bowls of dough undergoing the first rising; dough being shaped on the big kitchen chest of drawers that was Eileen's only counter-space; baking sheet after baking sheet of coffeecakes shaped and rising on the radiators all over the house. Coffeecakes in the oven, turning golden-brown, filling every room with the glorious smell that dying yeast gives off for us--mixed with inimitable cardamom. And finished coffeecakes, first plain and then decorated, waiting for delivery, waiting for our father to take them around to all our family friends. The house smelled of yeast for days during all this. It was the smell of Christmas.
As an adult I have been known to make as many as twenty cakes for neighbours and friends. In case you don't feel up to that, I'm giving here the recipe for two large (or four small) braided coffeecakes; here is Eileen Rahilly Johnson's version of the classic Swedish cardamom coffeecake.
2 T dry yeast
1/2 c. warm water
2 1/2 c. milk
3/4 c. butter
1/2 t. salt
1 c. sugar
1 1/2 t. cardamom
8 c. flour
Put the milk to scald over medium-low heat. To facilitate clean-up, rinse the pan with water before pouring in the milk. When tiny bubbles form around the edges of the milk, take the pan off the heat and add the butter, cut into small cubes. This accomplishes two things at once: it cools the milk more quickly and it melts the butter without dirtying another pan.
Put the half-cup of warm water into a small bowl and sprinkle the yeast over it. Let it stand.
When the milk is about body temperature (stick a clean finger into it; it should be warm, not hot), pour it, with the melted butter on top, into a large bowl. If you have a stand mixer, pour it into that bowl, but you can also mix the whole thing by hand. Now beat the eggs into the milk/butter mixture, stir in the sugar and then the softened yeast.
Now add the cardamom, the salt, and the flour and beat these in until a soft dough has formed. If you are using a mixer, continue mixing for three or four minutes then turn it onto a floured board and knead for a minute or two, ending with a smooth ball of dough.
To make it by hand, once the dough has formed turn it out onto a floured board and knead for five minutes, ending as above, with a smooth ball of dough.
Put the dough into a bowl,* cover it with a cloth, and let it rise at room temperature for an hour. At this point scrape it out onto your floured board and shape it as follows: divide it in half (for two large coffeecakes) or in quarters (for four small ones). Working with one section at a time, cut it into three equal pieces and roll these between your hands letting them stretch and dangle until each piece is a plump rope. Obviously the ropes for the large-sized coffeecakes will be longer than the ropes for the smaller ones. **
Lay the three pieces side by side and braid them, pressing the ends together and folding them under when you place the braid on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. If you are making two large coffeecakes, you'll need one baking sheet for each cake. The smaller cakes will fit two to a baking sheet.
Cover the shaped cakes with a cloth and let them rise for 30 minutes, then bake them in a 350 degree preheated oven for 30 minutes. Remove from the pan and let them stand on a rack until totally cool.
Drizzle with a powdered sugar glaze: to a tablespoon of liquid (milk or orange juice or lemon juice) add enough powdered sugar, a quarter of a cup at a time, to make a syrupy mixture that you can drizzle onto the coffeecakes from a spoon. Garnish with pecans or walnuts and dried cranberries or those sugar-glazed artifically red cherries.
To eat: warm for 15 minutes in a 250 degree oven. Or toast slices and spread them with butter.
*Some people insist on using a clean bowl here, rubbed with a bit of oil. I simply plunk the dough back into the (well cleaned-out) bowl used for mixing it.
**To make a Christmas tree shape, roll and dangle the dough to make plump ropes, then cut off an eight-inch piece to use as the bottom branch of the tree. Make successively smaller ropes and pyramid them up into the tree-shape, ending with a small ball of dough at the top and a similar small ball placed under the bottom branch to form a trunk. These look awfully cute decorated with swags of white glaze and ornaments of nuts and green and/or red cherries.