I don’t know Karen Christensen, but I’ve loved her coffee cake for 20 some years now. Her recipe is dog-eared in my copy of the Zion Lutheran Church Cookbook from Denison, Iowa. It’s the perfect Monday morning baked-good. You mix the batter the night before and let it sit in the fridge overnight. Pop it in the oven the next morning while you’re in the shower and 30 minutes later, you’re greeted with a spicy, tender crumb. The perfect side dish to a mug of strong coffee. Karen Christensen’s coffee cake calls for sour cream and don’t you dare think you can substitute it. Sour cream provides balance and depth to this coffee cake. It’s not overly sweet, even though it’s topped with brown sugar and cinnamon. It was a favorite of my mother’s and each bite tastes like home to me. I make it when I’m feeling homesick. When I don’t want to be an adult anymore and long for the mornings when I woke up to the smell of cinnamon drifting up the stairs.
My kitchen is full when I make this coffee cake. Karen Christensen is at my breakfast bar. This faceless, Western Iowan has set the standard for coffee cake in my life. I hope the recipe’s writer approves of my kitchen, of my technique. My mother, who made this coffee cake regularly, sits next to her. My Uncle Ron joins them. I cook from Ron’s copy of the Zion Lutheran Church Cookbook. It’s inscribed from my grandmother: “To my nutty son Ron. From his nutty mother Leone”. I inherited the copy when Ron died in 2009. I often wonder what he cooked from it. Did he prep this coffee cake on Sunday nights and bake it off in the morning? Did he enjoy a large, tangy slice with a mug of coffee while reading the paper? Did this coffee cake warm him on rainy days? Would he think of me as “nutty”?
This coffee cake is equally delicious as an afternoon snack as it is for breakfast. It keeps on the counter nicely for up to a week…but it’s never been around my house for longer than a day or two.
Karen Christensen’s Sour Cream Coffee Cake
1 C white sugar
1 C brown sugar – reserve ½ C for topping
¾ C shortening
2 eggs, slightly beaten
2 C AP flour
2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt 2 tsp cinnamon – reserve 1 tsp for topping
1 tsp nutmeg
1 C sour cream
Cream white sugar, ½ brown sugar, and shortening in a stand mixer or with a hand held mixer. Add eggs. In a separate bowl, combine flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, 1 tsp of cinnamon and nutmeg. Fold dry ingredients into wet. Fold in sour cream. Place in a 9×13 inch well greased pan. Combine the reserved ½ C brown sugar and 1 tsp cinnamon; sprinkle over top of batter. Cover and refrigerate overnight.
The next morning, bake at 350 for 35-40 minutes. Rotate halfway through. Cool before cutting. Pour a large cup of coffee and enjoy.