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New York Crumb Cake Recipe

My father wasn’t much of a dessert kind of guy, but there were certain sweets that he really enjoyed, like Carvel [1] ice cream cones, sfogiatelle [2], and crumb cake.  Not any old kind of crumb cake, mind you. It had to be New York crumb cake – the kind with big, giant globs of cinnamon-spiced, buttery, streuselly  crumbs on top.    And, it couldn’t be the kind that came out of a box, either.  No, no, no!  Only a freshly baked crumb cake would do.  Luckily, we actually lived in New York when I was little, and there was a bakery on almost every corner in our old neighborhood.  Some specialized in Italian pastries and some in various kinds of breads and Danish,  while others sold fancy cakes and pies.  We even had a little German bake shop nearby that churned out the most amazing tortes and strudels.   But on Sunday mornings, they all had one thing in common – crumb cake.   Hmmm.  I wonder if that’s why they call it New York crumb cake? 

There were two main churches that anchored each end of the neighborhood.  On one side there was St. Francis Xavier, and on the other was St. Clare’s, which was where we went.  Early each Sunday,  just about everyone, would head off to mass at one church or the other.  Those were the days when people really believed that “the family that prays together, stays together”.  Afterward, lines would form out the doors of each bakery with people waiting to buy their Sunday allotment of pastries, cookies and cakes to take with them when they went visiting .   In every display case of every shop, there would also be some tempting variation of crumb cake to tide everyone over until Sunday dinner.

Sometimes, my dad would get up extra early and run out to the bakery to beat the crowds while the rest of us got ready for church.  Even though we weren’t supposed to eat anything for at least an hour before mass, he would let my brother and me sneak a few bites of crumb cake before we left the house.  Trust me, that was almost a religious experience in itself!

Sundays aren’t like that anymore – at least not where I live now.  First of all, there are very few true bakeries around here, and almost none of them are open on Sundays.  If you want cake on a Sunday, your only options are Starbucks or a local supermarket.  Or, you can bake one yourself.

This recipe yields a cake with a light and fluffy vanilla-scented crumb.  Some other crumb cake recipes I’ve tried have turned out a cake that was kind of dry and dense, but this one was quite moist.  I know that the star of this show is the crumb topping, but still, who wants to eat a dry cake?   You might as well just skip the cake and eat a bowl of crumbs instead.

The first thing you need to do to make this cake is mix up the crumb topping.  Just add all of the ingredients together in a bowl and smoosh them around until they form big clumps.  I think that clean fingers make the best utensils for this.

Then, mix up your cake batter and spread it into a pan.

Finally, toss those big, beautiful crumbs all over the top and slide it into the oven.  Just make sure you don’t get all woozy from the heavenly smells that will start wafting throughout your house.   And, you also might want to close the windows, unless you don’t mind having every hungry neighbor on your street knocking on the door looking for cake.

My father’s birthday was a few days ago.  It’s always a bittersweet day for me. I’d been remembering all of those simple, yet wonderful Sunday mornings my family shared when I was a child.   I decided to bake this crumb cake because it was one of my dad’s favorites.   Somehow, it gave me a little comfort.  I only wish that he was still here to share it with me.