Lemon-Scented Pull-Apart Coffee Cake

May 25, 2010 at 12:25 pm 133 comments


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.

Printer Friendly Verson – Lemon-Scented Pull-Apart Coffee Cake

Entry filed under: Breads, Breakfast/Brunch. Tags: , , , , , , , , .

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133 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Denise Rambo  |  May 25, 2010 at 1:06 pm

    You’ve done it again Sweetie! I can almost smell the cake! GORGEOUS photos! FYI – You don’t NEED a food writing workshop. You’re already my favorite food writer.

  • 2. Baking Monster  |  May 25, 2010 at 1:09 pm

    This looks so good! and your description is making my mouth water. and I love your description of the home, like the funny little weird details that makes to home. Great post.

  • 3. Andrea [bella eats]  |  May 25, 2010 at 1:28 pm

    Oh! This sounds (and looks!) perfect. As does your Sunday morning with your Mom. Lovely post, as always.

  • 4. Alli  |  May 25, 2010 at 3:30 pm

    Ha! I loved the exchange between you and your mom at the end of your post – it made me smile because it sounded like a typical conversation between me and my mom.

    The cake/loaf/bread looks gorgeous. The pull-by-pieces aspect of it reminds me of monkey bread. This looks like the perfect treat to get me to get over my fear of yeast!

  • 5. Elisabeth  |  May 25, 2010 at 3:35 pm

    Aw, you’re description of baking with your Mother makes me miss getting to bake with mine. It also makes me look forward to baking with my own daughters someday :)

  • 6. Elissa's Dad  |  May 25, 2010 at 3:36 pm

    You made me cry again….I am going to miss you being around all the time. Maybe my next child will be ordinary and I won’t miss them so much when they leave for college.

    But there is nothing ordinary about you, never has been-except your room is a mess!

    I am going to miss laughing at the way you wear that robe when you bake and keep it on even though it is covered in chocolate and cream and I think if you take it off it will stand up all by itself. But I will never miss reading these and always feeling lucky to be your father.

    Bittersweet, but I can’t wait to see what is next!

  • 7. Pearl Joy  |  May 25, 2010 at 3:47 pm

    Oh my goodness!!! that looks so good! i am going to make that quite soon! you are amazing!

  • 8. Bobbie  |  May 25, 2010 at 4:02 pm

    AMAZING! Love everything you write…such passion and detail!

  • 9. Nisrine@Dinners and Dreams  |  May 25, 2010 at 4:06 pm

    Pull apart, fun and delicious!

  • 10. Bonnie Riffle  |  May 25, 2010 at 4:08 pm

    That is the most tempting recipe I’ve seen in a long time! Your photos and your writing has me so excited to make this! The lemon sugar is going to be divine!! What a great post! You are so talented! I am a new reader to your blog and I am soooo happy I found you! I have a great passion for food as well!

  • 11. Memoria  |  May 25, 2010 at 4:16 pm

    I have been wanting to make this ever since the first time I saw it (I forgot where). Your cake looks absolutely perfect and so inviting.

  • 12. Maddie  |  May 25, 2010 at 4:22 pm

    I haven’t commented before, but I’ve been drooling over your incredible writing and photos for some time. What sweet things you have to say about your home! And this coffee cake…oh my. I think I know what I’m doing with my three-day weekend. :)

  • 13. Tia  |  May 25, 2010 at 4:43 pm

    i’ve been wanting to make this for a while now. it keeps jumping out at me and so when i saw the title of your post, i knew EXACTLY where it was from. Thanks for the incentive to make this recipe!

    where do you find food writing courses? how was the one you went to?

  • 14. Sarah  |  May 25, 2010 at 5:16 pm

    Logging onto your blog and finding a new post is like getting a book from the library you’ve been waiting on for weeks. I’m never sure whether to start reading immediately and consume the entire thing in one gulp, or to take my time, look at the pictures, make it last. Because I have less self control than almost anyone (as demonstrated by the number of “taste test” cookies I must eat any time I bake) I usually take the latter route. But afterwards I’m always a little bit sad that now it’s done, and I’ll have to wait a whole week for a new post.
    This lemon cake looks delicious. I’ve been going through a bit of a citrus phase lately (I made lemon pound cake with your friend’s pound cake recipe that you posted a couple weeks ago. Unfortunately my lack of self discipline seems to be inherited, because no one in my house was able to wait for the cake to age the proper amount) and this looks so delicious. Though I have never made anything with yeast before, so that might be an adventure best saved for a day when my mom isn’t home and can’t yell at me for making a gigantic mess of the kitchen.
    Once again, a wonderful post and recipe. I’m already looking forward to next week!
    – Sarah

  • 15. deb  |  May 25, 2010 at 6:40 pm

    Love that you made this because I’ve been drooling over it forever. I just haven’t decided how I want to hack it yet. It will be hard to top lemon. Glad to hear it was a hit.

  • 16. Alyssa  |  May 25, 2010 at 6:43 pm

    Beautiful writing, Elissa. Has it only been a week since your last post? Feels like it’s been ages since I so look forward to knowing what you’re up to. I most certainly wouldn’t be opposed to more writing, photos, recipes and the like during summer. Just saying…. :] Unlike other food blogs that I follow and skip to the recipe if the title looks good, I savor every word of your posts and bookmark the recipe without even glancing to see if it’s any good because you’ve already sold me on it. I almost don’t want to make the recipes because I know that my experience of it will never compare; I wouldn’t want to introduce any competing memories.

  • 17. jessie  |  May 25, 2010 at 6:56 pm

    if your writing style were a boy
    i’d chase after it
    and make it marry me

  • 18. Lauren  |  May 25, 2010 at 9:13 pm

    Elissa, that might be the most beautiful piece I’ve ever read. I felt like I was there, and there is so much comfort in knowing that I can come back to this, anytime I wish. xox

  • 19. Helene  |  May 25, 2010 at 9:20 pm

    Sweetie, when you write your first novel – I’ll be there to read it.


  • 20. bittersweetbaker  |  May 25, 2010 at 9:57 pm

    Hi Elissa,

    I’m always so delighted when I load your blog and find a new post. You write so well and take such beautiful pictures I can’t help but visit everyday, hoping for a new post.

    I saw the same recipe some time ago, but never got around to making it. I definitely will now.


  • 21. Benthe  |  May 25, 2010 at 10:19 pm

    Woow amazing post! First post I’ve ever read on this blog, but it won’t be the last. I’m from Holland, so I’ve got to find the measurements etc. in Dutch, but he, it’s worth it, looks awesome!

  • 22. bittersweetbaker  |  May 26, 2010 at 4:26 am

    Hi Elissa (again),

    I couldn’t help but run into the kitchen and start making the pull-apart bread right away. It just came out of the oven, and half the loaf is gone. It is that good.


  • 23. Warm Vanilla Sugar  |  May 26, 2010 at 5:03 am

    This cake looks so unbelievably good. I also LOVE your post this week. Your writing is lovely in it, and it was a pleasure to read. Glad you like your “new” house! Home feels so great :)

  • 24. Brittany Elise  |  May 26, 2010 at 5:28 am

    I made this a while back and I wasn’t impressed, I thought it had too much lemon-sugar in it and the entire loaf so was too sweet for my taste. Yours looks a little better than mine, I think I overbaked it a little. :)

  • 25. Jane  |  May 26, 2010 at 6:39 am

    Gorgeous. You never cease to impress me!! I haven’t yet mustered up the nerve to make this, though I just got a copy of Flo’s book, and I’ve seen several posts in other blogs with this fabulous recipe. That you are making this kind of stuff in your teens, and that you write and photograph so well, is just inspirational. I think big things are ahead for you!

  • 26. Kristina  |  May 26, 2010 at 9:32 am

    This looks beautiful. I’ll be making it for my family this weekend for sure. Thank you so much for introducing us to these fabulous treats (and to your lovely family!)

  • 27. Georgia @ The Comfort of Cooking  |  May 26, 2010 at 11:14 am

    Oh, wow. That is just lovely. As always, beautiful baking and writing, Elissa.

  • 28. Adriana  |  May 26, 2010 at 11:32 am

    wow, I’m amazed, it’s like monkey bread, on the pull apart side, but a thousand times more elegant! and that workshop was worth it, because I read you talking about bread and yeast and I can’t help but want to get in the kitchen right now…

  • 29. CUPCAKE LOVER:)  |  May 26, 2010 at 12:51 pm


    that WILL be in my tumtum soon

  • 30. Ezra  |  May 26, 2010 at 2:26 pm

    This recipe has been on my list for a while to try, but it just jumped over a heap of others because of you. Delicious looking!

  • 31. Helen  |  May 27, 2010 at 2:47 am

    This look absolutely beautiful and definitely looks great! I love the fact that you and your mum baked together – that is exactly what a home is about.

  • 32. linda  |  May 27, 2010 at 3:51 am

    your dad’s comments always get me…

    this is such an amazing post…i feel like i was in the kitchen w/you & your mom…you really made the experience come alive…

    i have bookmarked this post as your photos look beautiful & i cannot wait to pull apart my own cake!

  • 33. Katy  |  May 27, 2010 at 8:53 am

    Looks amazing, as always.

    I always absolutely love your dad’s comments on your posts. They definitely always make me smile. :)

    Keep up the great stuff!

  • 34. Millys mini kitchen  |  May 27, 2010 at 12:22 pm

    wowow, I don’t think i’ve seen anything quite like this! It looks amazing. I love reading your posts, the words are so poetic. Lovely!

  • 35. Erica  |  May 27, 2010 at 1:11 pm

    this look perfect for a springtime afternoon tea outside or a Sunday brunch. :)

  • 36. Jennifer  |  May 27, 2010 at 2:15 pm

    I have that book! I keep looking at this very recipe and wondering if I have the courage to try it. But seeing it here definitely gives me the courage. Thanks!

  • 37. The Scrappy Bug  |  May 27, 2010 at 6:28 pm

    I understand studying what you love. There is always room for improvement. Learning from someone else. However, I hope you recognize your natural talent. I truly enjoy your blog. Thank you for sharing.

  • 38. Warren Guykema  |  May 28, 2010 at 10:34 am

    It must be time to wish you graduation congratulations and all good wishes for your future, which will be bright. Please find a way to keep in touch with us, even though the logistics of baking may be quite different. I suspect that many of us feel like a part of your extended family, which is the frosting on the excellent baking, wonderful photos and amazing writing.

    To Benthe in Holland, you might look at

  • 39. Melissa  |  May 28, 2010 at 5:23 pm

    I adore your breakfast posts! they are my favorites!
    Melissa xxx

  • 40. Danielle  |  May 29, 2010 at 12:54 am

    This is completely drool-worthy. I got this funny image in my head of my friend’s funny, funny rescue dog. When we eat, she sits patiently near us (just inches away normally). And she stares sweetly, never begging or whining. But inevitably, while we’re eating, while she’s staring calmly… (now this is kind of gross) a long bit of drool will just drop from her mouth. There’s no other indication of her suffering and patience. Just that long, slow glob quietly dropping from her mouth onto the floor. Sometimes it gets pretty long before it detaches and hits…

    Anyway, this luscious, beautiful delight makes me feel like that silly dog when I see these photos and read the description. So enticing it just leaps off the page. I’m staring at it helplessly.

  • 41. Lacey  |  May 29, 2010 at 7:06 pm

    This looks amazing, and I am so jealous of your photography, and your pretty blue dishes. You’re building such wonderful memories with your mom! Love your blog.

  • 42. Aarie  |  May 30, 2010 at 1:58 am

    You are truly an inspirational person.
    Don’t ever stop what you’re doing. You deserve the best.

  • 43. Gabriel  |  May 30, 2010 at 5:22 pm

    This post reminds me with my baking moments with mom. She really inspires me to bake. Now, my daughter is 4 yrs old and I already exposed/taught her how to bake. Keep on writing and inspiring!

  • 44. Mackenzie@The Caramel Cookie  |  May 31, 2010 at 8:05 am

    Mmmmm…this looks delicious! I would love to have this for breakfast!

  • 45. Erica @ Fashion meets Food  |  May 31, 2010 at 11:05 am

    Heyy girly! I just found your blog and must say you make some absolutely divine looking goodies! Hope you’re enjoying day today! You have a new blog follower!


  • 46. wearsgoo  |  June 1, 2010 at 3:35 am

    your a gorgeous writer. I miss our emails. life has been sooo busy and now we are both graduating! crazy.

  • 47. Jean at The Delightful Repast  |  June 1, 2010 at 9:27 am

    Elissa, just love your blog! Can’t wait till later in the week when I’ll have time to come back and check out more of it. Your family must be so proud of you.

  • 48. Jenny  |  June 1, 2010 at 11:26 am

    You’ve given me the recipe I needed for July 4th with the in-laws – thank you! I’m always looking for something new to bake, and these are totally new to me. I love them, I can’t wait to smell them in the air and see if it brings me home too.

    Thank you, Elissa.

  • 49. Gina  |  June 1, 2010 at 2:30 pm

    Thanks so much for this recipe! I baked it Sunday night and my husband (whose not generally a sweets-eater) was tearing off bits as it came out of the oven. The next morning when my daughter dropped off our grandson for the day, I sent her off with some for breakfast, and within a half hour received a text that ‘it is like a piece of heaven in my mouth’–high praise indeed! The dough was so silky and easy to handle that I’m thinking of trying it for cinnamon rolls since I’ve never been happy with previous attempts. And your writing continues to captivate–I especially loved the exchange as you and your mom shared your breads. Again, thanks!

  • 50. Bo  |  June 1, 2010 at 10:58 pm

    I’ve never seen anything like this it looks AMAZING!!!! and delicious!!!


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Elissa Bernstein

I'm Elissa: a 17 (now 21) year old baker in Seattle Boston juggling creative nonfiction workshops, subway maps, and my passions for writing, baking, and photography. Photo above © Michelle Moore

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