Food and family are a perfect combination; like peanut butter and jelly on white bread at midnight or mozzarella and tomato in a Caprese salad in summer. To me, family means a blend of recipes, fit for five or fifty, passed down through generations and adapted along the way.
My mom has seven siblings, so growing up in Ohio mealtime was not about the food itself, but the social event and being with the entire family. My Grandma Rita raised eight kids and while she was a simple cook, she proudly fed her large family with a limited budget every night. My mom once told me how grandma used to cut peanut butter with butter to make it go further. This kind of fight, creativity, and undying love is what my family is known for. We all get it from Rita.
Grandma Rita didn’t have a ton of regular family recipes. Some of my fondest memories with her were eating Kraft Mac & Cheese while watching Wheel of Fortune. She once made ambrosia cups for my 3rd grade class and we found out that most other nine year olds much prefer chocolate cupcakes. I recently realized while watching a Hellmann’s commercial that the parmesan chicken bake she regularly made probably came from a recipe on the back of the mayo jar.
However, for holidays and even some weekends while both my mom and her siblings and me and my cousins and brothers were growing up, Grandma Rita would make Jewish Coffee Cake. This is Rita’s recipe and everyone in my family knows it and loves it.
This coffee cake is simple. It has three sticks of butter. Pecans, walnuts, brown sugar, and cinnamon make it sweet and coffee cake-y. This topping is layered throughout and creates a crispy crust that this cake is known for. It’s baked in a bundt pan, because I assume that’s how many cakes were made in in 50’s. It’s super moist because it has sour cream in it. Which is also how it got its name. When asked why she called it Jewish Coffee Cake, she didn’t know why, except “Because there’s sour cream in it.” But before she met my dad, my grandma had never met a Jew before.
That was the best answer she could come up with, and though it didn’t make much sense, that’s what Jewish meant to her: a particular infamous and unfamiliar-to-her ingredient. I never identified with any one religion or just one heritage, but to me, Jewish (and Italian and Irish) means food and family. And this simple recipe represents the melding of my backgrounds in a cake (which happens to be my favorite food).
Grandma Rita passed this weekend but her legacy lives on in all her children, her grandchildren, and even this cake. It’s one of my all-time favorite recipes and I look forward to making it and thinking of her for many years to come. For my family, here is the recipe and I hope you will make it often and think of our wonderful family often. For everyone else, this recipe is truly delicious so I do hope you try it. And when you do, I hope you make your own memories over it and share with people you love. That’s what Rita would have wanted.
Grandma Rita’s Jewish Coffee Cake
3 cups flour
15 oz sour cream
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 1/2 cup butter (3 sticks), softened
1 1/2 cups white sugar
4 large eggs
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
3/4 cup chopped nuts (walnuts + pecans)
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
2 tablespoons flour
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees and grease a bundt pan with butter very well.
- Make the batter: In a medium bowl, combine flour, baking powder, and baking soda. Stir in sour cream.
- In a bowl of an electric mixer, beat butter, white sugar, eggs, and vanilla. Slowly incorporate flour mixture into sugar mix.
- Make the topping: In a small bowl, combine nuts, sugar, flour, cinnamon.
- Sprinkle topping at the bottom of the bundt pan, layer with half of the batter, the rest of the topping, then the rest of the batter.
- Bake for 1 hour. Let cool in pan for 10 minutes, then invert and let cool on wire rack.