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: , , , , , , , , .

Jam Tart Checkerboard Cookies

133 Comments Add your own

  • 1. corporate training  |  June 2, 2010 at 1:36 am

    I’ve just stumbled upon your blog,and loving it already. I’m looking forward to making this cake and I wish I could enjoy it with my mom, like you did with yours.

  • 2. Mrs Ergül  |  June 2, 2010 at 8:42 am

    What a lovely story of you and your mum!

    I love challah! and I would love a cool house, my kitchen is hot like an oven whenever I turn the fire on!

    Nice looking dessert!

  • 3. Season  |  June 2, 2010 at 4:25 pm

    I love your writing. I felt like I was there. This bread looks ever so lovely, and if it tastes even better than it looks, than I must make it.

  • 4. Susan/Wild Yeast  |  June 3, 2010 at 7:13 am

    Beautifully done! I’d be happy if it tasted even half as good as it looks. And a lovely story too. I’ll be back.

  • 5. Maria  |  June 3, 2010 at 9:13 am

    What a beautiful loaf. I will be making this soon!

  • 6. Ana  |  June 3, 2010 at 9:45 am

    Looks amazing! Oh God!

  • 7. Gabi  |  June 3, 2010 at 1:19 pm

    Everything about this is fabulous. I have an irrational fear of yeast, but I’m going to have to go for it with this one. Thanks!

  • 8. Ashley  |  June 3, 2010 at 8:58 pm

    This cake has been at the top of my list of things to make for way too long! You did an amazing job with it.

  • 9. Galena  |  June 4, 2010 at 7:23 am


    as usual, thank you for a breathtaking post and a wonderful recipe. My husband and I are always on a look out for a good bread/ bagel/ biscuit recipe. Do you think your mother would be interested in colaborating with you to share some of her bread recipes? They sound absolutely wonderful from what you mentioned of them…

  • 10. Hannah  |  June 4, 2010 at 10:21 am

    Oh, Elissa. I just get lost in your writing. It’s so stunning. I can’t wait for your future book. ;)

    I will most definitely be making this coffee cake very soon.

  • 11. Sarah  |  June 4, 2010 at 2:56 pm

    I just discovered your blog via foodgawker.com, and holy. wow.

    You are an exceptional writer.

    Keep up the great work!

  • 12. Jeannie  |  June 6, 2010 at 5:55 am

    Looks AMAZING.
    I’m gonna bookmark it and try it sometime.
    Thanks Elissa!

  • 13. Teen Cooking Queen  |  June 6, 2010 at 9:34 am

    This looks so scrumptious! I adore your blog and nominated it for the Sunshine Award! Thanks for the delicious recipes : )

  • 14. Stephanie  |  June 11, 2010 at 8:28 am

    Just wanted to say that I made these twice last week and they were such a hit! I made one small change (I realized I ran out of icing sugar when the first batch was in the oven!) I sprinkled chocolate chips over the top while it was still warm and it was a really nice finish for them. So if you want to (or need to LOL) skip the icing sugar/cream cheese icing try this instead, it wont disappoint.

  • 15. Katie  |  June 13, 2010 at 6:46 am

    This looks divine! I love pull apart breads but never seen one put together like this before. Delicious!

  • 16. Mary  |  June 15, 2010 at 11:26 am

    This looks fantastic, and if it tastes even better than it looks, then I’m sold! I’ve been wanting to make this for a while, but the layering instructions seemed unclear. I think I’m ready to jump in now!

  • 17. shelly (cookies and cups)  |  June 22, 2010 at 5:23 am

    WOW! I love this! Beautiful cake ~ it’s dangerous that it’s pull-apart…it makes it far too easy to snag a piece :)

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  • 19. kara  |  July 1, 2010 at 9:50 am

    Mmm, looks great! This recipe is actually in one of the cookbooks I got for Christmas (a compilation from Food & Wine) and I was thinking of making it. Glad to hear that it’s good!

  • 20. Samantha  |  July 2, 2010 at 10:26 pm

    Your photos and your writing has me so excited to make this! The lemon sugar is going to be divine!! What a great post! keep it up.

  • 21. Jessica  |  July 5, 2010 at 8:35 am

    Love the post and LOVE lemon so tried reading recipe before attempting but is anyone else confused?!

    “Pour the milk and melted butter into the flour and mix with a rubber spatula until the flour is evenly moistened. Beat in the eggs one at a tim”

    Is this a section you meant to delete? Because you talk about adding eggs one at a time, twice in the recipe and as there are only two eggs for the bread recipe I was quite confused!

    • 22. Elissa  |  July 5, 2010 at 4:45 pm

      Jessica – Whoops, this is a mistake. Ignore that section… you only pour the milk/butter into the flour and beat in the eggs once. :)

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  • 24. Diane  |  July 7, 2010 at 12:52 pm

    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, keep it up.

  • 25. Yasha Sojwal  |  July 7, 2010 at 10:21 pm

    Being a fan of baking, and cooking. Im loving this site!
    Keep it up girl!!! you are an inspiration to many.

  • 26. Pam  |  July 8, 2010 at 3:59 pm

    Hi Elissa! It is us from the dental office!! We are enjoying your yummy site!! How are you doing? How are your beautiful teeth?!!! I was looking for the pictures of your decorated cakes that were on your site previously. I found the chrysanthemum cupcakes, but I remember other photos of your artistry! Any ideas how to find the photos? Thanks, Pam

    P.S. Remember to brush & floss after enjoying all of your yummy sweets!!

    • 27. Elissa  |  July 8, 2010 at 4:09 pm

      Hi Pam! :) You can find them a couple different ways… you could look for the cakes through my recipes page (https://17andbaking.com/recipe-index/) or search for it (search box is on the top right of the page.) Let me know if you can’t find them!

  • 28. Jane  |  July 9, 2010 at 12:59 am

    Well, 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! thanx for posting.

  • 29. Katie  |  July 11, 2010 at 12:40 am

    You’ve got a very sweet recipes. I wish to have more from you since I love to bake desserts. Thank you.

  • 30. Jillian  |  July 15, 2010 at 4:30 am

    Does anyone have a recipe for a simple coffee cake? I would like a recipe that does NOT include sour cream or buttermilk. Preferably a streusel coffee cake.

  • 31. Jennifer  |  July 31, 2010 at 7:22 am

    I was just looking for a different recipe for coffee cake and stumbled on this one. My family and extended family enjoyed it.

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  • 33. Jacelyn  |  September 16, 2010 at 3:01 am

    Hi, I love the way you describe your house, with the yard, garden, the kitchen tiles… baking with your mum. You paint a beautiful picture. :)

    And the cake…it looks utterly delicious! I’m so going try this soon, and bake it for my mum.

    Thanks for sharing dearie.

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  • 36. competeforfood  |  November 13, 2010 at 12:56 pm

    Hi Elissa – I think there’s a mistake in the recipe. Under make the sweet yeast dough, paragraph 2 and paragraph 3 are similar but not the same. Please take a look and let me know which is right. Thanks

    • 37. Elissa  |  November 13, 2010 at 1:52 pm

      You’re right – thanks! I took out that snippet of a second paragraph.

  • 38. Chandler Camp  |  November 27, 2010 at 2:44 pm

    Great photos, sure looks tasty. I hope everyone is exercising too to keep the calories off. :)

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  • 40. Vivian  |  January 2, 2011 at 3:40 am

    I found your blog a couple days ago, and I can’t stop reading! Your posts are so heart-warming and beautiful. I love the way you describe your house and your family. Reading your posts give me goosebumps, the way you perfectly capture exactly how I feel sometimes. I also love your photos – the coffee cake looks amazing!!

  • 41. Danielle  |  January 13, 2011 at 1:19 am

    Just made this after a stressful day at school, and it received rave reviews from my family. Delicious.

    Only discovered your blog yesterday but I can tell it’s already going to be a favorite! My senior project is a baking project, so I’m really excited about your delightful recipes and photography (yippee!) to accompany! :)

  • 42. Liz  |  March 7, 2011 at 10:05 pm

    I made this today!!! So pretty…I’m going to link back to your post as you were my inspiration :)

  • 43. Stephanie  |  March 10, 2011 at 3:19 pm

    Do you think you can make this up until the 2nd rise and the freeze it??

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  • 46. Amy  |  June 13, 2011 at 12:54 pm

    I just happened to come across your blog and saw this post on the lemon pull apart loaf thing! I made this lemon-y treat this weekend, and I must say you’re discription fit it beautifully! I also loved the description of your home, and especially your kitchen. I understand making a house into a home, because after moving away from the home I’d lived in with my family for 20 years, I had to figure out how to make my apartment feel the same way, so it wasn’t depressing to come back to at the end of the evening. I found that the kitchen became my sanctuary, and even though it’s not, nor will ever be my mother’s kitchen, it is slowly earning that feeling of warmth and happiness I associate with my mom. It’s good to know that there are others out there who feel the same way about their kitchens, and their moms! Good luck with any of your endeavors!

  • 47. Jules  |  June 18, 2011 at 1:13 pm

    What a wonderful looking and sounding loaf.

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  • 49. Stellar  |  July 21, 2011 at 4:38 am

    Such a delicate and inviting story that brings the whole post alive as if I was actually there watching. Combining two of my favourite flavours this is a must-try for me, and I can’t wait to see what friends say! It looks so light…

  • 50. Rosa  |  November 17, 2011 at 9:41 pm

    can I make this up to the part where I places the slices of dough into the pan and leave it there overnight so that all I have to do is bake it the next day?

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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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