Recipe Review

I Tried 4 Popular Coffee Cake Recipes and the Winner Is Buttery, Cinnamony Perfection

published Mar 18, 2022
We independently select these products—if you buy from one of our links, we may earn a commission. All prices were accurate at the time of publishing.
Post Image
Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk; Headshots, top to bottom: Getty Images, Angie Mosier

When I was growing up, my mother would often make a coffee cake when we were expecting guests, and anyone with a sweet tooth could simply open up the cake tin and have a piece. It’s the perfect sweet treat to have on hand. It makes a lovely breakfast or brunch dish, or a satisfying evening dessert, and it’s obviously great with coffee and tea any time of the day. Truly a cake for all reasons and seasons.

Coffee cake as we know it has evolved quite a bit over the years. It likely originated in northern and central Europe hundreds of years ago, where pairing sweet cakes with coffee and tea became common practice. As immigrants made their way to America, they began adapting their recipes using newly available ingredients, like baking powder and sour cream (thank you, pasteurization).

The name coffee cake conjures a couple of different meanings. One is a cake, often a layer cake, flavored with actual coffee. In America, this version was more commonplace in leaner times, when crafty cooks were looking for ways to use up every scrap ingredient, like leftover coffee. This style of coffee cake can still be found in Britain, often studded with walnuts.

Today, the most common type of coffee cake in America is a crumb cake, usually containing sour cream or buttermilk and topped with a sugary crumble topping. Many contain cinnamon and brown sugar, and some even have a spiced ripple running through the middle. Coffee cakes can be baked in square, rectangular, round, loaf, or Bundt pans.

My idea of a great coffee cake is a tender, moist cake with a slight tang and a crumble top that’s buttery and sweet with a sandy crunch, perfectly contrasting with the cake. And, of course, it should go very, very well with coffee. To find the best coffee cake, I scoured the internet and asked everyone I knew to send me their favorite recipes, then narrowed it down to four top contenders.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

Meet Our 4 Coffee Cake Contenders

During my search, I decided to not discriminate based on pan shape. However, I did require a crumble topping and either sour cream or buttermilk in the cake itself. While all of these cakes are recognizable as coffee cakes, they are surprisingly different and, honestly, I’d make all of them again. They are each special in their own way, and you’re sure to find a favorite no matter your preferences.

Ina Garten’s Sour Cream Coffee Cake contains, you guessed it, sour cream. This is one of Ina’s more popular baking recipes, and it has tons of five-star reviews. The cake is baked in a tube pan and contains a layer of cinnamon-brown sugar streusel in the middle and on top with optional walnuts. It’s finished with a pretty drizzle of maple icing.

King Arthur Baking Company’s Cinnamon-Streusel Coffee Cake ticks all of the boxes. Lots of streusel top? Check. A ripple of cinnamon-sugar? Check. It’s a popular recipe for the company, and contains the most cinnamon by far. It’s baked in a 9×13-inch pan and could feed a small army.

Cheryl Day’s Pecan-Chocolate-Espresso Coffee Cake is a bit unconventional when compared to the other contenders. Yes, it has a brown sugar streusel top and a moist cake made with buttermilk, but it swaps cinnamon for chocolate and espresso. It’s Cheryl Day doing what she does best: putting her spin on the classics.

LAUSD’s Old Fashioned Coffee Cake features nutmeg, a simple streusel top, and swaps the butter for oil. If you’re not familiar, the second largest school district in the nation has long been known for its coffee cake. Los Angeles students wax poetic about it into adulthood. A couple of years ago, the school district tweeted out its original recipe from 1952 and this is it.

How I Tested the Coffee Cake Recipes

I baked each coffee cake one at a time on the middle rack of the oven. They were all made using unbleached all-purpose flour, and I followed the equipment prompts for each recipe: Ina and King Arthur were made using a stand mixer, Cheryl called for a hand mixer, and LAUSD’s recipe is mixed by hand. I made the first two one day and the second two cakes the following day.

Each cake was tasted after cooling and again the next day. I had a few people taste all four along with me and share their thoughts. After a serious sugar high, we had a winner.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

1. The Best-Looking: Ina Garten’s Sour Cream Coffee Cake

Ina seemed like a solid place to start — especially because she has a coffee cake recipe with tons of glowing reviews. The cake itself is an excellent moist and vanilla-y pound cake, and the streusel goes in the center and over the top. It might not be exactly what you think of when you think of coffee cake, and it’s lacking a bit in crunch and spice. It’s also surprisingly hard to get out of a tube pan. But with a pretty ripple and icing drizzle, it’s sure to win you style points at brunch.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

2. The Easiest: LAUSD’s Old Fashioned Coffee Cake

LAUSD’s old-school recipe takes some slight adjusting, thanks to some 1950s terminology. But even with these tweaks, it’s the easiest, quickest recipe in the lineup. It follows a classic crumb cake assembly: You mix half of the ingredients, remove some for the crumble top, and use the rest to make the cake batter. Along with cinnamon, this coffee cake features a healthy dose of nutmeg and calls for oil instead of butter. This means it stays moist for longer, but you might miss the buttery flavor. It’s light on the crumble top and a little heavy on the nutmeg, but it’s still a solid cake.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

3. The Most Unique: Cheryl Day’s Pecan-Chocolate-Espresso Coffee Cake

Cheryl Day is beloved as one of the South’s best bakers, and for good reason. Her recipes tend to be flavor-forward and simple but uncompromising. Her take on coffee cake might offend some purists, seeing as it doesn’t contain cinnamon, but I urge you to keep an open mind. The chocolate, pecans, brown sugar, and espresso are a delicious combination and pair wonderfully with coffee. It’s also a crumb cake, taking just minutes to throw together, and it’s baked in a 9×9-inch pan, making it an ideal snacking cake.

While I loved this cake, it wasn’t quite coffee cake-ish enough to win top spot. It lacked a bit of wow factor as well as cinnamon spice.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

4. The Clear Winner: King Arthur Baking Company’s Cinnamon-Streusel Coffee Cake

King Arthur Baking Company has built a well-deserved reputation for their dependable recipes, and this one is no exception. With hundreds of glowing reviews, it is the coffee cake to end all coffee cakes. The cake is moist without being dense, the brown sugar cinnamon ripple will remind you of a cinnamon bun, and there’s plenty of buttery, crunchy crumble on top. Your eyes might bulge when you see how much cinnamon it calls for, but keep in mind this makes a big, fat cake. 

While this cake is not difficult to make, it is a bit of a kitchen destroyer. I used every mixing bowl I owned, and then some. But the end result and amount of cake make it worth it. Take this to a potluck or serve it at a big brunch and watch everyone swoon.

Do you have a favorite coffee cake recipe? Let us know in the comments!