Lemon-Scented Pull-Apart Coffee Cake
We bought our first real house when I was in 4th grade. Up until then, we’d been calling a suburban condo home, but it wasn’t working for my mother. She wanted a yard to weed and nurture, walls she could paint palest lavender or creamy sage. As for me, I didn’t care much about having a patch of grass or a room painted blue. I just thought that our house was our home and I didn’t really want to leave it.
I remember the first night we spent at the new house. It was March, still cold, and we hadn’t fully moved over. The house was still half-empty, like a partially created stage set. In the dark the rooms were ominous and alien, as if the previous family had vanished into the walls. The stacks of boxes and unfamiliar furniture arrangement cast weird shadows, and I was too scared to close my eyes.
For weeks, whenever I heard the word “home,” I didn’t think of our freshly painted door or the roses outside my new bedroom window. I pictured our beige condo and its curved, carpeted staircase instead.
Eight years later, our little green house feels achingly like home. It’s in the details that I’ll remember years from now. The dusky blue drinking glass that I use solely for trapping and freeing spiders when my mother’s asleep. The arthritic creak of the French doors to our backyard. The flood of light that drenches our living room in liquid gold on Sunday mornings.
Oh, and… my kitchen. The slick black and white checkered floor that we’ve wanted to get rid of since the beginning (we never will), the marigold walls, the flaking white cabinets that don’t all shut properly. It isn’t even truly “my kitchen.” For all my baking passion and “heart in the kitchenaid” talk, it belongs to this family much more than any one of us.
I think more than anything, home will always sound like the grating whirr of my father peeling potatoes. Taste like umami beef noodle soup that makes your whole body tingle, it’s so intensely beautiful. Feel like crouching outside in a cool drizzle, herbs bundled in my fingers as in, “I could use a handful of chives – Elissa?” And maybe most of all, the warm, yeasty smell of rising bread when the sunlight through my window wakes me up.
I woke up Sunday morning really, really aching to be in the kitchen.
Maybe it was because I’d gone to Dianne Jacob’s food writing workshop on Saturday, and since then my mind was shrouded in hunger and taste related adjectives. Maybe it was because I hadn’t baked anything in a week. But I felt like doing something a little more ambitious, and I chose to tackle my yeast anxiety with Flo Braker’s Lemon-Scented Pull-Apart Coffee Cake.
Predictably, my mother had woken long before me. She was outside, watering the irises that have simultaneously burgeoned forth. But she’d been in the kitchen first. I could smell the proofing dough before I even entered the hallway. And her fingerprints were all over the kitchen – a cleaner than clean countertop, a dishwasher full of drying bowls, and finally, a Rapunzel-esque braid of challah draped with a clean cloth.
We juggled the kitchen after she came inside and peeled off her gardening gloves. She brushed the pillowy loaf with an egg wash while I kneaded, flour on both our noses. She showed me how to make bread rise properly in our cool house (she heats a cup of water in the microwave for 4-5 minutes to create steam, then leaves the covered loaf there to rise.)
While the challah browned on the outside and fluffed up inside like cotton, I spread my dough with lemon sugar and cut it into rectangles. The whole house seemed to be rising like bread itself. The warm air from the oven circulated up and back down until every room was rosy. The couch, the bathroom towels, my sweatshirt… everything smelled like my favorite smell, yeast and flour and home.
Mom’s challah was breathtaking, the way that homemade bread kneaded and shaped in your hands is always breathtaking. And to my surprise, the Lemon-Scented Pull-Apart Coffee Loaf lived up to its mouthful of a name. The loaf baked up sumptuous and golden, envelopes of lemon zest and fluff, slathered with a cream cheese frosting.
We gorged ourselves on bread: chunks of challah, sheets of lemony loaf. My mom would taste my bread, praise it, give me a slice of hers. “Isn’t it good? Yours came out so well,” we’d both say. As long as my mother is filling the kitchen ceiling with sweet, oven-hot air, I have a place to call home.
What a gorgeous, gorgeous dessert. I don’t think it’s really a coffee cake, but somehow “loaf” and “bread” don’t convey the message either. Here’s what this is: thin layers of sweet bread, sprinkled with aromatic lemon sugar, baked in a loaf pan. The bread is fluffy, sweet, soft, and saturated with citrus. You’re able to peel off a layer, no knifes or messy rips needed. If it couldn’t get better, a tangy cream cheese icing gets spread over the cooling cake, melting into the ridges, cooling into a sweet, stick mess. It’s incredible.
Mom and I (well, mostly me) ate this whole thing in two days. With the yeast, lemon, sugar, and cream cheese, I knew this would be right up my alley, but my mother went crazy over it too.
“Tell them that it tastes better than it looks,” she told me as she pulled off her third piece.
“But I think it looks good,” I said, somewhat defensively.
“It’s better,” she insisted.
Lemon-Scented Pull-Apart Coffee Cake
From Flo Braker
Makes a 9″x5″ pan (will only last about an hour, seriously)
Sweet Yeast Dough
About 2 3/4 cups (12 1/4 ounces) all-purpose flour
1/4 cup (1 3/4 ounces) granulated sugar
2 1/4 teaspoons (1 envelope) instant yeast
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup (2 1/2 fluid ounces) whole milk
2 ounces unsalted butter
1/4 cup (2 fluid ounces) water
1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
2 large eggs, at room temperature
Lemon Sugar Filling
1/2 cup (3 1/2 ounces) granulated sugar
3 tablespoons finely grated lemon zest (3 lemons)
1 tablespoon finely grated orange zest
2 ounces unsalted butter, melted
Tangy Cream Cheese Icing
3 ounces cream cheese, softened
1/3 cup (1 1/4 ounces) powdered sugar
1 tablespoon whole milk
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
Make the Sweet Yeast Dough
Mix two cups (nine ounces) flour, the sugar, yeast, and salt in a medium bowl with a rubber spatula. Meanwhile, in a small saucepan or in the microwave, combine the milk and the butter and heat until the butter is melted. Remove from the heat, add the water, and let rest a minute until just warm (120 to 130°F [49 to 54°C]). Stir in the vanilla extract.
Pour the milk mixture over the flour-yeast mixture and, using a rubber spatula, mix until the dry ingredients are evenly moistened. Attach the bowl to the mixer, and fit the mixer with the paddle attachment. With the mixer on low speed, add the eggs, one at a time, mixing after each addition just until incorporated. Stop the mixer, add 1/2 cup (2 1/4 ounces) of the remaining flour, and resume mixing on low speed until the dough is smooth, 30 to 45 seconds. Add 2 more tablespoons flour and mix on medium speed until the dough is smooth, soft, and slightly sticky, about 45 seconds.
Lightly flour a work surface and knead the dough gently until smooth and no longer sticky, about one minute. Add an additional 1-2 tablespoons of flour only if the dough is too sticky to work with. Place the dough in a large bowl, cover it with plastic wrap, and let it rise in a warm place (about 70°F [21°C]) for 45-60 minutes or until doubled in size. An indentation made with your finger should keep its shape.
Meanwhile, make the lemon sugar filling. Mix the sugar, lemon zest, and orange zest. It’ll draw out the citrus oils and make the sugar sandy and fragrant.
Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 350°F (175°C). Grease a 9″x5″ loaf pan.
Gently deflate the dough with your hand. Flour a work surface and roll the dough into a 20″ by 12″ rectangle. [I suggest using a ruler and getting this as accurate as possible, for a prettier loaf that will fit better in the pan. I also suggest making sure both sides are floured, so that the dough will be easy to lift up later.] Use a pastry brush to spread the melted butter evenly and liberally over the dough.
Use a pizza cutter to cut the dough crosswise in five strips, each about 12″ by 4″. Sprinkle 1 1/2 tablespoons of the lemon sugar over the first buttered rectangle. Top it with a second rectangle, sprinkling that one with 1 1/2 tablespoons of lemon sugar as well. Continue to top with rectangles and sprinkle, so you have a stack of five 12″ by 4″ rectangles, all buttered and topped with lemon sugar. [I suggest carefully sprinkling the sugar and pressing it in lightly to keep it from falling off.]
Slice this new stack crosswise, through all five layers, into 6 equal rectangles (each should be 4″ by 2″.) Carefully transfer these strips of dough into the loaf pan, cut edges up, side by side. it might be a little roomy, but the bread will rise and expand after baking. Loosely cover the pan with plastic wrap and let the dough rise in a warm place (70 °F [21°C]) until puffy and almost doubled in size, 30 to 50 minutes. When you gently press the dough with your finger, the indentation should stay.
Bake the loaf until the top is golden brown, 30 to 35 minutes. [Mine took longer than this, and it was still a little doughy in the middle even though the top had browned. I recommend using a cake tester to make sure it’s done, and covering the top with foil if it’s browning too quickly.] Transfer to a wire rack and let cool in the pan for 10 to 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, make the cream cheese icing. Beat the cream cheese and powdered sugar in a medium bowl with a wooden spoon until smooth, then add the milk and lemon juice. Stir until creamy and smooth.
The recipe recommends you tilt and rotate the pan while tapping on a table to release the loaf. I just carefully ran a knife around it. Flip the loaf over onto a cooling rack, then flip onto another rack so that it’s right side up. Spread the top of the warm cake with the cream cheese icing, using a pastry brush to fill in all the cracks. [You might want to put a pan or piece of wax paper under to catch any drips.]
Eat warm or at room temperature. You can also cut the cake with a knife, but wait for it to cool if you plan to do so. The cake tastes better on the first day, but… it will hardly last that long.
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