Q. Why do they call it a "coffee cake" when there's no coffee in it?
A. Although a few early coffee cake recipes actually called for coffee as an ingredient, the term "coffee cake" generally refers to a type of simple, usually unfrosted cake that is an accompaniment to coffee, rather than a cake that contains coffee.
Coffee cake is something you would serve at breakfast or at an informal occasion such as a gathering of friends over coffee, as opposed to a fancier, gooey, layered, filled, and frosted cake that would be served as a more formal dessert.
By the time coffee was introduced to Europe in the 1600s, Germans, Dutch, and Scandinavians were already known for their sweet breads, and the first coffee cakes were more like bread than cake, brimming with fruit, nuts, and spices such as cinnamon and nutmeg.
Immigrants from those countries brought their recipes for these bread-like cakes to America. Eventually, American coffee cake recipes evolved to include cream cheese, sour cream, chocolate, and other flavorings.
German women brought to America the concept of the kaffeeklatsch, a break in the day to meet for some coffee, a sweet, and a little gossip, says Evan Jones in American Food: The Gastronomic Story (Random House, 1992). But, Jones writes, the Scandinavians were probably more responsible than anyone else for instituting the idea of the American coffee break that featured sweets, since so many of their simple pastries were called coffee breads, coffee cakes, coffee rings, and so on.
Coffee cake recipes made their way into American cookbooks by the late 1800s; some even listed coffee as an ingredient. Today, coffee cakes rarely contain coffee. Most are simple, one-flavored cakes that feature fruit, spices,
or nuts, and feature a streusel or simple glaze topping, if any.
Streusel, by the way, is German for "sprinkle" or "strew" and refers to the popular crumbly topping of butter, flour, sugar, spices, and sometimes oats or nuts, that is sprinkled over coffee cake batter before it is baked.
Q. What is the best way to store coffee? Should coffee be kept in the refrigerator, the freezer, or on the shelf?
A. After some preliminary research on this topic, we can say only that it seems to depend on your individual taste.
Coffee experts seem to agree on one thing: To get the very best flavor from coffee, you should buy ground coffee and coffee beans in small amounts, keep them stored tightly at or cooler than room temperature, and use them quickly.
As for refrigerating and freezing, the experts disagree. Most advise against refrigerating coffee because it can take on odors from other foods, affecting the taste of your final cup. Also, refrigerator temperatures cause condensation in food, which also can change the taste.
Those who advise against freezing coffee say it's because condensation can enter the coffee, freeze, and form ice crystals that penetrate the grounds or beans and cause deterioration and changes in flavor.
Some caution that just the act of freezing or drastically changing the temperature of the coffee can cause deterioration. Those who see nothing wrong with freezing coffee advise storing it in the original container or wrapper, perhaps placing it in a resealable plastic bag before freezing.
Experts do tend to agree on one thing, though: If you do keep your coffee in the freezer, remove only as much coffee as you will use, and return the remainder to the freezer immediately; don't allow frozen coffee to thaw and then refreeze, because that contributes to deterioration.
Having said all of that, however, we need to add that at least one coffee manufacturer claims that, while he can prove scientifically that coffee degrades in the freezer, he acknowledges that the taste difference is probably imperceptible to the consumer. So perhaps the best thing to do is experiment: Store coffee in airtight containers, in the fridge, freezer and on the shelf for a week or so. Then taste and compare.
Q. Do you have any simple tips for adding flavor to coffee with something other than the basic cream and sugar?
A. It's easy to perk up your after-dinner coffee. For a great new taste sensation, simply stir in the following, separately or in combination:
- ground cinnamon
- ground nutmeg
- whipped cream
- caramel topping
- chocolate shavings
- hot cocoa mix
- your favorite liquor
For more great information about coffee, see: