November 10, 2009

Coffee and cranberries

I love cooking with cranberries, especially during this time of year. They lend themselves to the season, with all sorts of traditional dishes and traditional flavors, from cranberry sauce to cranberry studded apple crisp. Having a couple of bags of freshly frozen cranberries just waiting for me in the freezer, something involving cranberries needed to be baked, something I'm not normally drawn to -- coffeecake.

Say the word 'coffeecake' and visions of boring, too sugary images come to mind. Coffeecake? I've never understood the appeal of a plain cake with a sugar streusel smothering the top, usually baked in a rectangular pan, probably from a box of cake mix, full of suspicious looking ingredients. Where's the interest, where's the real flavor, the little something that tells me to take a bite, savor it, then want a whole piece and perhaps a second? It doesn't exist. However, a coffeecake with a layer of chopped cranberries will do that. More specifically, a coffeecake with a layer of cranberries sweetened with vanilla sugar will do that. The only reason this recipe caught my attention was because of the emphasis on using fresh cranberries. I couldn't resist the temptation to try it.

The first attempt resulted in a soggy and sunken middle, most likely due to the juiciness of thawed cranberries. So, use either fresh cranberries or frozen ones, without letting them thaw the least bit. The second attempt produced a much prettier and more uniform cake, which also made me much happier with the result. That layer of cranberries is a nice surprise. It adds a little tang, a little zest that contrasts nicely with the sweet cake and crunchy top. And yes, a slice pairs well with a steaming mug of vanilla sweetened coffee.

Even with this success, I keep thinking that I should add something, like chopped pecans to the streusel, or cinnamon and clove to the cake batter, or perhaps even orange peel in the cranberries, but the cake really doesn't need anything else. It's pretty satisfying as is, if the middle doesn't sink, of course. It might seem a little too sweet on the first bite, but that's just the flavor of the vanilla sugar. Vanilla beans tend to add another element of sweetness to a dish. Maybe I'll try baking it againg sometime with one or two of those flavor additions, using regular sugar. Otherwise, the cake might have too many flavors competing with each other. I'm always tempted to try something new, though. With all of the cranberry recipes I've been browsing recently, you might see a few different ones posted over the next several weeks, at least until those bags in the freezer are used up.

Cranberry Vanilla Coffeecake
Adapted from Gourmet, December 2008

1 ¾ cups vanilla sugar, divided
2 cups fresh or frozen cranberries
2 cups plus 1 Tbsp unbleached all-purpose flour, divided
2 tsp baking powder
¾ tsp salt
1 stick plus 1 Tbsp unsalted butter, softened, divided
2 large eggs
½ cup whole milk

Preheat oven to 375° F with rack in middle. Butter and flour a 9x2-inch round springform cake pan. Make sure you use a pan with 2-inch high sides so the cake has room enough to rise while baking.

In a medium bowl, whisk together 2 cups flour, baking powder, and salt.

Beat together 1 stick butter and 1 cup vanilla sugar in a large bowl with a wooden spoon until pale and fluffy. Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Scrape down sides and bottom of bowl. Mix in flour mixture and milk alternately in batches, beginning and ending with flour, until just combined. (I do the flour in three and the milk in two.)

Pulse cranberries with ½ cup vanilla sugar in a food processor until finely chopped (do not puree). I pulse the cranberries just before spooning into the pan so they don't turn juicy. If they do, then the cake will end up slightly soggy in the middle and sink a bit. If using frozen cranberries, do not thaw, or else they'll turn really juicy.

Spread half of batter in prepared pan, then spoon cranberries over it, leaving a ¼-inch border around edge. Top with remaing batter and smooth top; this part is a little tricky, because the batter is very thick and will stick to the spoon. Using a finger helps in spreading the last bit out to the edges.

Blend remaining ¼ cup vanilla sugar with remaining tablespoon each of butter and flour using a fork. Crumble over top of cake.

Bake until a wooden toothpick inserted into cake comes out clean and sides begin to pull away from pan, about 50 minutes. Cool in pan 30 minutes on a wire rack, then remove sides of pan and cool completely.

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