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Rhubarb ‘Big Crumb’ Coffee Cake

May 27, 2011

No need to bury the lede here: this is my holy grail of coffee cakes. My quest is over. Happiness is a slab of this.

My maternal grandma did not particularly enjoy cooking. Despite that fact, our extended family get-togethers at my grandparents’ house often featured delicious food; her chili and lasagna were some of the best I’ve ever tasted. Family gatherings were often busy affairs with lots of laughter and people and chatting, and being the oldest grandchild, I often wanted to straddle the worlds between the “adults” and “children.” My grandma and I shared a special relationship, and while she had no interest in baking a batch of cookies, she kept a stash of Drake’s coffee cakes hidden away in a cupboard just for me. She’d say, “Amy, you know I’m no baker, but these cakes are here just for you whenever you want one. No one else knows where they are. You take one and come into my room and we’ll talk.” And I loved it.

There are a few reasons these cakes were such a treat: (a) we never had packaged baked goods at home. My mom enjoyed baking and was good at it, and while I loved her cookies and treats, something about the forbidden nature of the packaged coffee cake was irresistible to me as a child. And (b), the ratio on these coffee cakes of brown-sugar-crumb topping to cake was highly tipped in the favor of the topping. I loved pulling chunks and boulders of the crumbs off the top of the cakes. (I still do, though now I eschew packaged baked goods for the real deal.)

So, as I grew older and cooked many more recipes on my own, my ideal coffee cake remained this kind of specimen; rich, tender yellow cake topped by a thick layer of brown sugar crumbs. I’ve tried lots of different recipes, some very good, but none with the boulders and crags of crumb topping that I envisioned. And then, a few years ago, Deb posted this recipe and I’ve been hooked. We’ve eaten it many times over, swapping in whatever fruit is in season, and I never, ever tire of it.

It’s fantastic with rhubarb, by the way. The tart layer of rhubarb under the sugary topping is a perfect foil for the sweetness of the cake. And as rhubarb is now in season, I can only advise that you pick up a bundle of the rosy stalks at your local farmer’s market and make this coffee cake as soon as possible…perhaps for a nice lingering breakfast on this long holiday weekend?


Rhubarb ‘Big Crumb’ Coffee Cake

From Smitten Kitchen, who adapted from The New York Times

I’ll echo Deb’s note that if you make this with fruit other than rhubarb, consider decreasing the sugar amount in the filling.


For the rhubarb filling:
1/2 pound rhubarb, trimmed
1/4 cup sugar
2 teaspoons cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

For the crumbs:
1/3 cup dark brown sugar
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, melted
1 3/4 cups cake flour (I’ve used all-purpose as well and it works fine, but do use cake flour if you have it)

For the cake:
1/3 cup sour cream
1 large egg
1 large egg yolk
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup cake flour (see note above about AP flour substitution)
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons softened butter, cut into 8 pieces


1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Grease an 8×8 inch baking pan.

2. Slice the rhubarb into 1/2-inch pieces, toss with the sugar, cornstarch and ginger, and set aside.

3. Make the crumbs: In a large bowl, whisk together the sugars, spices and salt. Add the melted butter and whisk until smooth. Dump in the flour and stir it into the sugar/butter mixture until fully incorporated. It will look and feel like a solid dough. Set aside.

4. Make the cake: In a small bowl, stir together the sour cream, egg, egg yolk and vanilla. Using a mixer fitted with paddle attachment, mix together flour, sugar, baking soda, baking powder and salt. Add the pieces of butter along with a spoonful of the sour cream mixture, and mix on medium speed until the flour is moistened and the butter is broken into bits. Increase speed and beat for 30 seconds, then add remaining sour cream mixture in two batches, beating for 20 seconds after each addition. Scrape down the sides of the bowl, and set aside 1/2 cup batter.

5. Scrape the remaining batter into the pan, spoon the rhubarb over the batter, and dollop the reserved 1/2 cup batter over the rhubarb (don’t worry if it’s not even).

6. Break the topping mixture into big crumbs with your fingers. Deb recommends crumbs that are about 1/2 to 3/4 inch in size, which is good advice, though I know I usually have some bigger and smaller than that. Sprinkle the crumbs over the cake, and bake cake until a tester comes out clean (it might be moist from the rhubarb), 45-55 minutes. Cool completely before serving.

Yield: 6 to 8 servings.

22 Comments leave one →
  1. Eileen permalink
    May 28, 2011 10:33 am

    Cool Grandma Alert! Thanks for sharing such a wonderful memory.

  2. May 28, 2011 2:20 pm

    Looks delicious!!!!

  3. ger permalink
    May 28, 2011 6:35 pm

    Boy does that look hmmm good! gp

  4. Allison permalink
    May 28, 2011 7:53 pm

    Can’t wait to try this! Looks like the perfect crumb-to-cake ratio. 🙂

  5. May 29, 2011 2:27 am

    Looks healthy and yummy! Mouth-watering photos too. I learned something new today. Thanks for the recipe.

  6. Pat Price Seiwert permalink
    May 29, 2011 8:42 pm

    This sounds divine. I made a rhubarb crumb pie yesterday. It was what I call a wing it and fling it recipe with Pat. It was delicious and I guarantee, I was heavy on the crumbs. I will be making the coffee cake this week. Thanks for sharing the recipe.

  7. May 29, 2011 11:49 pm

    I love when food reminds us of wonderful, warm memories. Thanks for a great looking recipe. I am going to try and make it this week.

  8. Roger Perrault permalink
    May 31, 2011 7:03 am

    I tred this recipe and have a few comments. I cut the sugar at each stage without a negative effect. The quantities suggested for the crumble can be cut back because I found that there was too much. I would also double the rhubarb next time because I found it sort of lost in the final cake. The coffee cake is indeed excellent and I will make it again.

    • May 31, 2011 7:56 am

      Roger, glad you enjoyed it — to each his own personal tastes, but I happen to love the thick layer of crumbs on the top (hence the name ‘big crumb’ coffeecake!) I would watch out for too much moisture if you double the rhubarb.

  9. Kristen permalink
    June 1, 2011 5:14 pm

    I love, love, LOVE this cake!! Made it for our Memorial Day picnic get together. – everyone raved. The lightly sweetened cake and spicy sweet crumble topping with the slightly sour rhubarb is magnificent. It evoked such fond memories of childhood and cooking with my mom. Thanks, Amy! Hope to try out more of your recipes soon :o)

  10. June 2, 2011 3:12 pm

    Gorgeous! I love the idea of a ‘big crumb’ coffee cake because the crumbs are my absolute favorite part!

  11. June 3, 2011 12:13 am

    Sounds like the perfect way to cook up some of that rhubarb popping up in the markets 🙂

  12. June 3, 2011 5:36 pm

    Ah! Perfect! This is exactly what I needed tonight… I’ve got lots of rhubarb to use up! Thank you!

  13. June 4, 2011 4:00 pm

    I’ve made the one from the Melissa Clark cookbook, which looks pretty similar, and it is OMG fantastic. That is such a beautifully expressed memory of you and your grandmother.

  14. June 4, 2011 4:05 pm

    Need someone to hold me tight! I can’t wait to go to the kitchen to try this recipe. Yummylicious photos too!

  15. June 5, 2011 7:57 am

    Amy, this looks absolutely delicious, thanks so much for sharing. Your words and pictures combine so well that I can almost taste this cake 🙂

  16. June 10, 2011 10:09 am

    Oh yum! The only thing more perfect than gorgeous crumb coffee cake is one with rhubarb in it! So lovely – thanks for sharing!

  17. June 17, 2011 3:21 pm

    This sounds absolutely perfect! Too bad I don’t have rhubarb! :o(

  18. August 8, 2011 2:29 pm

    I was looking at the 4 dollar a pound rhubarb…

  19. Sonya permalink
    December 10, 2013 7:03 pm

    Mmmm, that looks delicious!

  20. Leslie permalink
    January 12, 2015 9:53 pm

    I am tempted to try this now that I have my new fancy oven.

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