Recipe Review

This Vintage Coffee Cake Recipe Is Legendary (and for Good Reason)

published Mar 16, 2022
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Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

Ever since I moved to Los Angeles more than 10 years ago, I’ve heard rumors about the local school district’s coffee cake. When you ask former LAUSD students what makes the cafeteria dessert so special, they get a faraway look in their eyes as they remember the rectangles of cinnamon-scented cake.

As someone with no access to a school cafeteria (something that really hasn’t been an issue until now), I was delighted to see that LAUSD posted the original 1954 recipe on Twitter a couple of years ago. It’s a charming typed recipe card from the bygone days of “baker’s flour” and “salad oil.”

This recipe is an easy crumb cake and practically a one-bowl affair. It gets its moisture and tang from buttermilk, swaps the usual butter for oil, and has a good amount of nutmeg in addition to the traditional cinnamon. I was skeptical that a coffee cake without butter could stand up to its buttery brethren, but went in with an open mind as I tested the old-school recipe.

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

How to Make LAUSD’s Old-Fashioned Coffee Cake

The 1950s recipe is a classic crumb cake. This means the fat, sugar, and flour are combined to make a crumble; some is set aside for the top, and the rest is combined with the remaining ingredients to make the cake batter. It’s quick and easy to throw together and doesn’t require you to dirty a bunch of bowls.

The recipe card calls for “baker’s flour,” which these days can mean any type of flour used for baking, from bread flour to cake flour. I used all-purpose flour, since that is likely what a cafeteria would use. Combine the flour with brown sugar, white sugar, salt, nutmeg, and “salad oil” (any neutral oil will work; I used canola). Mix to combine and make a fine crumble. Measure out 1/2 cup of the mixture for the topping and add the cinnamon. Set aside.

Add baking soda, baking powder, buttermilk, and egg and mix to make a cake batter. Add to a greased 9×13-inch cake pan and top with the reserved cinnamon crumble. The recipe says to bake at 350 or 375°F for 25 to 30 minutes. I suspect the range in temperature is so the cafeteria workers would have flexibility to bake the cake along with other dishes. I baked at 350°F (standard for a coffee cake) for a little over 30 minutes, until a tester came out with no wet batter attached.

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

My Honest Review of LAUSD’s Old-Fashioned Coffee Cake

After seeing the recipe card, I was excited to try this old-school recipe but also a bit hesitant. Oil instead of butter? Just a half cup of streusel? A whole teaspoon of nutmeg? But I set my worries aside because it also looked incredibly easy.

Luckily, it’s a classic recipe for a reason. Most of my fears were assuaged once I tasted the finished cake. The buttermilk and brown sugar add nice flavor and, along with the oil, make it especially moist. I don’t find myself missing the butter in the cake and, as a bonus, the oil in the cake helps it stay fresher longer than a butter-based cake. It was still moist a few days after baking.

The cake does have a strong nutmeg flavor, but I don’t mind it. It goes especially well with coffee. However, I think I would adjust the seasoning a bit next time, and swap some of the nutmeg for more cinnamon. While there wasn’t much topping, it did have a nice crunch and flavor. It also stayed completely adhered to the cake even while you’re eating it. That being said, if you’re a streusel fanatic, then this cake isn’t going to cut it for you. The absence of butter and the scant amount of topping won’t satisfy your crunchy, buttery, sugary cravings.

Perhaps the best thing about this cake is how incredibly easy it was, taking just minutes to throw together. You can make it with or without a mixer and it leaves very little cleanup. I can see why LAUSD has hung onto the recipe for all these years.

A Couple of Tips If You’re Making LAUSD’s Old-Fashioned Coffee Cake

  1. Adjust the spices. If you’re into nutmeg, leave the recipe as is. I plan to swap half the nutmeg with more cinnamon next time around and maybe add a little vanilla to the batter.
  2. Add nuts. If you like nuts in your streusel, add up to half a cup of chopped pecans or walnuts to the topping.

Rating: 8/10