Taking a break with Molasses Coffee Cake

Two years ago, Northern California was ablaze the first of two fall seasons where wildfires raged and devastated communities,  and for weeks darkened the skies and filled the air with a smoke that choked and permeated the atmosphere. It was during that first season of fires that, grateful to have a home, but enclosed in it due to the unsafe air quality, I felt helpless and bent toward doing the only thing I really know how to do when I feel hopeless and helpless and sad — bake.

I went into my kitchen in a house that was buttoned up tight to shut out the smoke and decided that I would create my own aromatic barrier by baking…I could at least control what was happening in my own safe space of batter and oven. I chose to make Dorie Greenspan’s Lemon-Spice Visiting Cake (see blog post of 12/17), which she featured in her New York Times column, a beautiful loaf cake of zest and juice and eggs and butter and cardamom and ginger that she herself called “aromatherapy.” I’ve since made this cake a number of times, always comforted by it, and I’ve even sent it on “visits” through the mail to those I love. 

Flash-forward two years, and we are in early fall and I pray that it will not be three years in a row of wildfires, but without knowing and without doing any sort of waiting for another shoe to drop I can — at least —  make cake. This time, it’s Dorie’s recipe again from her 2018 book “Everyday Dorie: The Way I Cook” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). 

The cake, Molasses Coffee Cake, is a part of the @rainydaybites Instagram cookbook club and seemed a perfect choice to kick off some fall baking. 

When I was a little girl, I was confused about coffee cake recipes — most didn’t have coffee in them. This didn’t mae sense. Once I was an adult and had established a solid coffee habit, this confusion turned to anger…coffeecake SHOULD have coffee in it! Well, this coffee cake recipe has coffee, both in the cake and in the glaze! It was sure to be flavorful, as it included all sorts of spices as well.

Ginger, Chinese five-spice powder (a blend of cinnamon, fennel, cloves, anise and white pepper), cinnamon and fresh ground pepper, along with molasses, would definitely give this cake a whole lotta zing, like a zippier gingerbread, one of my favorite flavors for fall and winter. 

The spices are whisked with flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt, then set aside.

Room temperature butter and brown sugar are creamed at medium speed for a couple of minutes to a soft caramel color.

Potent molasses is then beaten into the creamed mixture….do not forget the scraping down of the bowl. I know the scraping-down part when mixing batters can seem tedious, but it is an essential step to make sure everything is incorporated and blended evenly.

A couple of eggs and some good vanilla (by “good,” I mean my homemade concoction that waits at the ready for me in my dark pantry) are then blended in.

I liked the no fussy aspects of this cake, such as putting all the dry ingredients in (versus dry alternating with something wet, like milk), then mixing just until everything comes together.

I also like the hot-coffee method of cake-making. There’s something magic that happens in this final step, when hot coffee is slowly poured in and mixed into a butter batter. It softens and silkens the mixture nicely, and that strong coffee flavor would add an extra, nice deep element to all the spices and molasses.

I also loved that you could use a springform pan for this cake. My springforms don’t get enough use, as I seem to relegate them to cheesecakes or tarts (which are too rare in my baking rotation). A springform pan makes a lovely single-layer cake.

And a single layer cake bakes up fairly quickly, about 30 minutes in a 350-degree oven. This cake was such a beautiful deep brown, richly gingerbread in tone, and made the house smell like the holidays.

The springform pan released the cake nicely, too. I was pleased with how it looked. Sturdy, yet inviting, the cake could have been left unadorned and eaten and enjoyed just the way it was. I’m not a big fan of most glazes and frostings, but I wanted to try the one that accompanied this cake.

Rather than a sugar-based glaze, this recipe employed chopped white chocolate as its foundation. 

Instant espresso powder is dissolved with boiling water for the rich flavor this glaze would take on. I added a pinch of cinnamon to this mixture to carry the spice theme through here, too.

Heavy cream is heated, and the coffee “extract” is add to that, then all is  and poured over the chocolate, then after a bit of a wait (30 seconds), all is stirred. Then some final knobs of rich butter to give the glaze more gloss. At first, I thought the glaze would be pale (as it seems to be a lighter color in the photo in the cookbook).

But this coffee ganache actually ended up being a true coffee color…it almost looked like chocolate (but, in this case, I was glad it was not). It poured easily and generously over the cake and coated it in a rich sheen.

As I chilled the cake in the refrigerator to set the glaze, I was inspired by all the darkness to impart a little light. It’s suggested to sprinkle espresso powder over the top of the cake for a finish, but I thought some little scatterings of chopped, golden crystallized ginger would be a nice contrast — in taste and in appearance — to the cake’s deep caramel color.  

I loved the finished look of the cake. Those colors, the aroma…fall was coming in the form of this beauty! 

Dense, but moist (reminding me of the best molasses cookie), the cake was a bevy of flavors, at first the coffee and molasses seem dominant but then waves of spice, a little hit of heat from the ginger and pepper. The gold nuggets of ginger on top added a nice touch of texture and taste. A perfect cake for fall, with coffee (on the side) or without.

Molasses Coffee Cake

From “Everyday Dorie: The Way I Cook,” by Dorie Greenspan (2018)

Makes 8 to 10 servings

For the cake:

  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
  • 1 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1 teaspoon Chinese five-spice powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
  • 1 stick (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 2/3 cup packed brown sugar
  • 1/3 cup uncultured molasses
  • 1 large egg, at room temperature
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1/3 cup hot coffee (can be made with instant coffee or espresso powder)
  • For the coffee glaze (optional);
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons instant espresso powder, plus more (optional) for decoration
  • 1 teaspoon boiling water
  • 5 ounces best-quality white chocolate, finely chopped
  • 1/3 cup heavy cream
  • 2 teaspoons unsalted butter, cut into 2 pieces, at room temperature
  • Whipped cream, for topping

Working ahead: This cake is even better on the second day — the spices have more time to ripen.

To make the cake: Center a rack in the oven and preheat it to 350 degrees. Butter a 9-inch round cake pan that’s at least 2 inches high (use a springform if you don’t have a regular cake pan that’s tall enough), fit a round of parchment paper into the bottom of the pan, butter the paper and dust the interior with flour; tap out the excess.

Whisk together the flour, baking powder and soda, salt ginger, five -spice powder, cinnamon and pepper.

Working in a stand mixer fitted with paddle attachment, ro in a large bowl with a hand mixer, beat the butter and brown sugar together on medium speed for about 2 minutes. Add the molasses and beat for 2 minutes more, scraping the bowl as needed. Add the egg and beat for 2 minutes, then beat in the vanilla. Turn the mixer off, add the flour mixture and pulse to begin incorporating it. Then beat on low speed only until the dry ingredients disappear into the batter. With the mixer on low, add the hot coffee, again mixing only until it is incorporated. Scrape the batter into the pan and swivel the pan to even it.

Bake for 28 to 33 minutes, until the cake is beautifully browned and has risen uniformly. It will pull away from the sides of the pan if gently tugged and a tester inserted into the center of the cake will come out clean. Transfer the pan to a rack and let the cake rest for 5 minutes, then run a blunt knife around the sides of the cake. Turn the cake out onto the rack, gently peel off the parchment, invert onto another rack and cool to room temperature; or, if you are using a springform, simply remove the ring. The cake may develop a little dip in the center — that’s its personality.

To make the optional glaze: Dissolve the instant espresso powder in the boiling water. Put the chopped chocolate in a small heatproof bowl.

Bring the cream to a boil (you can do this the microwave oven), stir in the espresso extract that you make and pour the cream over the chocolate. Let sit for 30 seconds and then, using a whisk or the small heatproof spatula, stir until the mixture is smooth. /add the butter one piece at a time, stirring until lit is melted and incorporated.

Set the cake, on the rack, on a piece of of foil to catch drips. Pour as much of the glaze as you want over the cake and use a long spatula or a table knife to spread it. I like it when the glaze drips down the sides of the cake unevenly; if you want to smooth it, you can, of course. Sprinkle with a little instant espresso powder to decorate, if you like.

Put the cake in the refrigerator for about 20 minutes to set the glaze, then return it to room temperature for serving. Pass any remaining glaze a the table.

Storing: wrapped well, the cake can keep at room temperature for up to 3 days. Wrapped airtight, it can be frozen for up to 2 months, glaze and all.

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