Baking is about making connections. Like bringing a loaf of fresh-baked bread to a neighbor. Baking a cake to celebrate a friend’s birthday. Or baking a favorite family recipe, maybe something passed down generation to generation, or maybe just something connected to your heritage.
I was reminded of this while listening to the inclusive baking episode of Flour Hour recently. In it, Angela Garbacz of Goldenrod Pastries, describes her Polish grandmother’s peach coffee cake, and what it felt like to finally be allowed to learn how to make it alongside her. The cake, which features a yeasted dough, canned peaches, and a sweet crumb topping, sounded delicious, and since Angela’s grandmother was Polish, and she mentioned that the recipe seemed to have Eastern European roots, the idea of trying my hand at it really stuck in my head.
I grew up baking with my maternal grandmother, who was famous for her Christmas cookies, but I don’t have any memories of baking with my father’s mother. I don’t actually remember much about her at all, except that she wore wigs and smoked cigarettes. My father had a falling out with his family when I was about five or six, and I never saw them again after that, so I never got the chance to make much of a connection with my paternal grandmother. Besides the wigs and the chain-smoking, all I really know about her is that she was Polish. My father’s grandparents on both sides emigrated from Poland to the United States, so my father was Polish through and through, and quite proud of it. He loved Polish food, but my mother wasn’t really a cook (and also not Polish), so our introduction to Polish food didn’t extend past Hillshire Farms kielbasa and Mrs. T’s pierogies.
But after listening Angela’s episode of Flour Hour, I looked up the video she mentioned she’d filmed that featured the recipe for her peach coffee cake. It’s available on her blog. The video is beautifully done and includes all the measurements and ingredients, but it is definitely more of a story than a tutorial. Which is fine, Goldenrod Pastries is a bakery and Angela’s main purpose is not to provide recipes to the masses. I just want to warn everyone ahead of time that the video will not give you all the information you need, but if you know enough about baking, you can fill in the blanks. I thought it felt a little like a Technical Challenge from “The Great British Baking Show,” where the contestants get an overview of the recipe, but no clues as to the details, like oven temperature or bake times.
My first step was to watch the video (obviously), and then pause it frequently so I could write down the ingredients, and some of the technique. I won’t write everything out here so that you can also have the fun of watching the video, but I will give you a little insight as to the decisions I made from there.
After mixing the dough, Angela kneads it and then lets it rise. I don’t have a whole lot of experience with yeasted dough and kneading, so I have no clue how well I did with that, but I kneaded it in the bowl for a bit and then covered it and placed it in a warm area. I googled some similar recipes and most had you let the dough rise for about an hour, so that’s what I did. Once the dough had risen, I punched it down, rolled it out, and then placed it in a sheet pan. Most of the recipes online were for a 13″ x 9″ pan, but the one in the video looked much bigger, so I used my biggest sheet pan: 17″ x 11″. This seemed to be correct for the amount of dough.
The next decision was oven temperature. The recipes I was comparing varied. Some said 350 degrees F, some said 375. Rather than take a chance, I took a screenshot of the video on my phone and zoomed in until I could see the oven temperature, which looked to be 350 degrees F.
Then came the biggest question mark for me: time. Other recipes were in the 30-45 minute range, but they were also for much smaller size pans, so I wasn’t quite sure which way to go. I checked it at 30 minutes, but was worried it wasn’t done, and ended up baking it for 40 minutes, which was a mistake. The bottom was way too brown, but even with that problem the coffee cake was AH-mazing. The cake is tender and pillow-y and the peaches make the crumb topping gooey underneath, while it still maintains its crunch on top. I used Nielsen Massey’s Tahitian vanilla extract in the crumb topping and I think it was a perfect choice for the light flavor of this coffee cake.
Unfortunately, I had decided to make this on a Saturday night. Late on a Saturday night. I was the only one who ate any and there was a lot left over. We ate some Sunday morning, but it was a bit soggy and had lost some of its appeal. I decided (as I was eating it Sunday morning), that I would try it again the next weekend, but cut the recipe in half and make it first thing in the morning.
So on President’s Day morning the next week, I woke up, made my dough and let it rise for an hour, just as I had the week before. But this time, after an hour, it hadn’t risen at all. I moved it to a warmer location, and left it for a longer time, but still nothing. I didn’t want the recipe to fail completely, so I decided to toss that dough, and start over, thinking that maybe my yeast was no good.
Second time around, my yeast never foamed, so I tossed that, and started a third time. This time, my yeast foamed beautifully so I moved on, finished my dough, set it in the warmest area in my house, left it for an hour, and…it still hadn’t risen. I left it another thirty minutes, and it still looked the same. I gave up at that point and continued with the recipe anyway, but it was nowhere near as good as the weekend before. There was no height to it, and it was very bread-y. Luckily it still tasted the same, so it didn’t stop me from eating it, but I was disappointed. It was just so good the first time around!
The whole thing reminded me why I don’t usually mess around with yeast, but I haven’t given up yet. This recipe is too good to never have again, plus it did make me feel a connection to my past, however tenuous. I may not have ever made this with my grandmother, and I don’t even know if it’s something she would have made, but I imagine it could be. And if not my grandmother, maybe her mother. It has the feel of a vintage recipe, and perhaps the beauty of not knowing a part of your history, is that you can imagine it however you’d like it to be.
I thought about not writing this post at all, since I had had such a flub, but I thought I’d share my experience anyway. There’s still a story in every failure, and who knows? Maybe someone out there has some suggestions for me on what I could be doing wrong. If this sparked your interest, give it a go, and let me know in the comments what worked for you and what didn’t. I’d love to hear your thoughts!