sour cream coffee cake

I have a weakness for coffee cake. (I also have a weakness for fresh sourdough bread, pricey cheeses, and Swedish fish, but let’s stick with coffee cake for right now, okay?) I think it has something to do with the name: coffee cake. Coffee and cake, two of my favorite things in one title, win and win. Or maybe it’s the idea of a cake made specifically to eat with coffee? I don’t know, but whenever I spy a recipe for coffee cake, I have to read it. It’s a compulsion.

However, in spite of my abiding love and affection, coffee cakes are often (usually? always?) either a little too dry or a little too fluffy. Coffee cakes, according to moi, ought to be dense, heavy almost, and very, very moist. And even though coffee cakes are fashioned from a string of ordinary ingredients — butter, vanilla, cream — those ingredients are (verily, I say unto you!) some of the best things in the world, and their flavors ought to sing through loud and clear.

So anyway, the other week when cool weather struck, I got hit with the need for coffee cake. Or wait — maybe I got the idea for coffee cake when I deep-cleaned my pots-and-pans cupboard and discovered a handsome tube pan hanging out in the back corner? Ah well. Either way, a coffee cake craving was sparked.

Reading through recipes, I discovered an as-yet-untried coffee cake recipe in my hefty Cook’s Illustrated Cookbook. True to (their) form, the method seemed unnecessary complicated, but then I read this:

Rather than creaming the butter and sugar, which made the cake too light and airy, we cut softened butter and some of the sour cream into the dry ingredients, then added the eggs and the rest of the sour cream; the result was a tighter crumb.

Well then.

The cake was what I was after. Like, exactly. So dense, so rich, so flavorful! The only problems were 1) I trashed the kitchen in the process, and 2) the cinnamon sugar mixture partially sunk so the swirly effect got lost.

In an attempt to solve the sinking sugar issue, I made the cake again. (I also made the book’s cream cheese coffee cake which I did not like at all.) The second time around, the problem was even worse. Almost all the cinnamon sugar sunk to the bottom, creating a bottom layer of chewy caramel. Which isn’t necessarily a tragedy. In fact, some might even consider cake bottom caramelization an asset.

I still haven’t solved the problem — am I beating the batter too long? should I reduce the amount of cinnamon sugar? increase/decrease the oven temp? — but I’m gearing up to make it again. If I learn anything new, I’ll update.

Sour Cream Coffee Cake
Adapted from the Cook’s Illustrated Cookbook.

for the streusel:
¾ cup each flour and sugar
½ cup packed brown sugar, divided
2 tablespoons cinnamon
2 tablespoons butter
1 cup pecans

Put the flour, sugar, cinnamon, and ¼ cup of the brown sugar in a food processor. Whirl to combine. 

Remove 1¼ cups of the flour-sugar mixture, and transfer it to a small bowl and add the remaining ¼ cup of brown sugar — this is your streusel filling.

Add the butter and the pecans to the mixture that’s still in the processor and pulse until pebbly — this is your streusel topping.

for the cake:
2¼ cups flour
1¼ cups sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
¾ teaspoon each baking soda and salt
12 tablespoons butter, cut into chunks
1½ cups sour cream, divided
4 eggs
1 tablespoon vanilla

Stir together the flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Add the butter and ½ cup of the sour cream and beat gently until the mixture comes together. Add the remaining sour cream, eggs, and vanilla and mix just until combined. (If you beat it longer, the cake will be lighter — not what we want here.)

Pour about a third of the batter into a greased tube pan. Sprinkle in half of the streusel filling mixture. Another third of the batter and the remaining streusel mixture. Pour in the last third of the batter and top with the pecan streusel.

Bake the cake at 350 degrees for 50-60 minutes. Let the cake cool in the pan at room temp for 30 minutes before cutting around the sides with a table knife and gently inverting the cake onto a plate, streusel side down. Remove the tube pan, set a cooling rack on top of the cake and flip again. Allow the cake to cool completely before transfering to a serving dish.

This same time, years previous: apple dumplings, cinnamon pretzels, 2015 garden stats and notes, chatty time, posing for candy, why I’m spacey, homemade Greek yogurt.


  • Lauralli

    Mine also doesn't call for flour in the filling….just cinnamon and brown sugar. But, then, mine doesn't call for a streusel topping and now I feel cheated! 🙂

  • mommychef

    I have another Cook's Illustrated Coffee Cake that is really great…and it makes 2. One for now, one that you can freeze for later. It makes 2 9 inch round pans so they are not as high and impressive as the one like you made but…it always gets gobbled up, almost instantly.

    2/3 cup packed light brown sugar
    2/3 cup granulated sugar
    2/3 cup all purpose flour
    1 1/2 tbsp. cinnamon
    8 tbsp. cold unsalted butter, in 1/2 inch pieces
    1/2 cup chopped pecans (I often leave these out)

    3 1/2 cups all purpose flour
    1 cup light brown sugar
    1 cup granulated sugar
    2 tsp baking powder
    1 tsp baking soda
    1 1/2 tsp cinnamon
    1/2 tsp salt
    12 tbsp. unsalted butter, softened
    3 large eggs
    1 3/4 cup sour cream

    Streusel; pulse all ingredients except for the nuts in the food processor until it looks like coarse meal. Divide in 1/2, add the nuts to 1 half and reserve separately.

    Cake; with electric mixer mix flour, sugars, b powder, b soda, cinnamon and salt in a large bowl. Beat in butter 1 tbsp. at a time until mixture in crumbly. Add eggs, 1 at a time. Add sour cream in 3 additions, scraping down sides. Increase mixer's speed, beat until light and fluffy, about 2 min. Divide half of batter into 2 greased 9 in pans. Sprinkle nut free streusel over each. Divide remaining batter over pans and sprinkle streusel with nuts over top.

    Wrapped in plastic they can be kept in fridge for 24 hrs or frozen up to a month (I have gone up to 3 months…no problem)

    Bake at 350 for 45 minutes (55 if frozen) Cool 15 minutes before serving.

    They are pretty dense and very buttery. I really LOVE that you can stash one in the freezer and then you can pull of the perfect hostess act within an hour!

    • mommychef

      yes! Unbaked…it has made me look like a model homemaker so many times! It kind of looks more like a crumb cake than coffee cake…but with the cinnamon streusel, the coffee cake flavor is there. I have it on an old photocopy from a CI…Make Ahead Recipes circa 2009

  • miriamp

    Try leaving the flour out of the struesel mixture and doing just cinnamon and sugar. That's what my recipe calls for and it never sinks.

  • katie

    Jennifer, sour cream coffee cake shows up at every gathering of my family. Usually more than one of them. From different people. It is a family classic. And I agree with you about all the attributes that make it wonderful. And it is just as you describe and we don't even do the cut in the butter step. Not sure what will solve your filling problem but I like the idea of just putting it higher up in the cake so it doesn't sink down to the bottom. I'm including the straightforward directions for our recipe just in case there's something subtle that you might catch. I wish I could transcribe the classic handwriting in the recipe. I do see that the proportions are quite a bit different:

    1 stick butter
    1 c. sugar
    2 eggs
    1 t. bk soda
    1 t. bk powder
    1/2 t. salt
    1 c. sour cream
    1 t. vanilla
    topping: 1/3 c. br. sugar, 1/4 c white sugar, 1 t. cinnamon
    cream butter and sugar. Add eggs one at a time. Add flour and sour cream alternately. Begin and end with flour. Arrange in greased angel food pan. 40-45 min @ 325.

    • Jennifer Jo

      Hey, Katie — thanks for sharing the recipe! It looks similar to the coffee crumb cake I have on the blog (though more straightforward and with more rising agent). How much flour? I may give it a go….

  • Joanna

    I wonder if you put most of the batter in the pan, put the filling in, then the rest of the batter. Just the thinnest covering, so the filling diesn't mix with the topping. Or perhaps add a bit more flour to stiffen up the batter some, like an extra 1/4 cup, so the filling is supported and doesn't sink as much.

  • Heidi Hummingbird

    Maybe leave the butter out of the streusel? Maybe that is melting during baking causing the sinking. Perhaps just a little butter in the top layer. I too have a Cook's Illustrated and while every recipe seems to have a pain in the neck extra step or two, in general the recipes turn out so tasty.

    • Jennifer Jo

      It's the streusel filling that's sinking, and the filling doesn't have any butter — just flour, sugars, and cinnamon. But it's a lot of filling, so I'm wondering if I ought to maybe reduce it by half.

    • Heidi Hummingbird

      Oh, I noticed that the recipe as it is posted has 2 tblsp of butter in the streusel. Maybe it's the opposite of what I said and you need to ADD the butter? Good luck and I'll be making a cake soon. Thanks for posting

  • Lana

    I grew up on Sour Cream Coffee cake. I think Mom made it about every week but I have not had good success with her recipe for some reason. Then a relative gave me a recipe for Overnight Coffee cake that is completely prepared except baking the night before. Get up in the morning and put it in the oven and it is perfect everytime so I gave up on Mom's recipe 25 years ago. So, I may give your recipe a try for old times sake because sometimes you just want those nostalgic flavors .

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