A note to begin, because I need to remark on politics: Someone please tell white nationalists that their coffee cake is Jewish, and then take their cake away, because Nazis do not deserve cake.
It is a crisp autumn morning in a certain year, and your author is a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, very gay, and very Jewish first-year at the University of Chicago. Now, he is from the Northeast, where the Jews are many, but some of his classmates are from small towns across the Midwest and adjacent areas, and a few have only interacted with a handful of Jews over their lives. Your author is worried about anti-Semitism – something he had experienced before. Instead, he finds himself bemused, because more than once he is enthusiastically asked variants of:
“Oh my gosh, you’re Jewish! Can you make that coffee cake?”
“That coffee cake” is Smetana Kuchen, a rich, sour cream-laden coffee cake originating with desserts in Germany and Poland. In the 18th and 19th century, as sugar became cheaper, new pastries developed, often to accompany another new import: coffee. Among Ashkenazi Jews, the common base of sour cream (Smetana in Yiddish) came to form the basis of this new cake. German Jews brought this cake with them to the United States in the 19th century – just as Hungarians also brought the similar aranygaluska and Swedes brought their own cakes to the Midwest. In Europe, these had been cakes of luxury for special occasions, but in the wealthy United States, filled with eggs, dairy, and white flour, these became slightly more common place. Many German Jews began to sell these cakes in coffee shops, newly frequented by a middle class seeking all forms of “refinement.” From there, and similar Hungarian and Swedish shops, the cakes spread. By the 1950’s, when many American women were entering baking contests and had ready access to ingredients once unheard of , the “Jewish” coffee cake was already popular across the Midwest.
Today, some people still know the cake as “Jewish,” and many Jews are convinced that the cake is not Jewish at all. On both sides, Smetana Kuchen is found at religious events, at church lunches and synagogue kiddushes, and at celebrations and birthday parties and committee meetings. It is still found in coffee shops and in diners, at office parties and at academic conferences. (Indeed, one of the most stellar coffee cakes I had was at an academic conference.) It is very good – and even as it has assimilated, it is still Jewish.
This is a pretty straightforward and simple Smetana Kuchen with a streusel topping and a modest, yet elegant cake. I offer the option of almonds, which is slightly unorthodox compared to the more common pecans or walnuts. “In the wild,” if I may describe the Midwest as such, you may also find variations with apples, raisins, or chocolate. You should consider trying them all, as they are all utterly delicious.
Smetana Kuchen (Sour Cream Cake)
Serves 9-12 (or fewer, if you are like me)
Streusel (also used in the Mohnkuchen):
½ cup white sifted flour
2½ tbsp. brown sugar
2/3 tsp ground cinnamon
2½ tbsp. salted butter, chilled
¼ cup (1/2 stick) salted butter, softened
1 cup white granulated sugar
1 tsp baking powder
1 ¼ cups sour cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups white sifted flour
1/3 cup slivered almonds (optional)
- Preheat the oven to 350F. Grease a 9”x9” square cake pan or a Bundt pan.
- Begin by making the streusel. Mix together the flour, sugar, and cinnamon, then blend in the butter with your hands or a fork. You should get small crumbles. Set aside in the refrigerator or a cool place.
- Cream together the butter and the sugar. I do not have a mixer, so I use a pastry knife to blend them together. You can also do it with a wooden spoon or fork! Alternatively, if you’re fortunate enough to have the mixer, you can do that.
- Add the eggs to the butter and sugar and beat until thoroughly combined.
- Add the baking powder, sour cream, and vanilla extract, and beat until thoroughly combined.
- Add the flour, and beat until thoroughly combined.
- If you’re using a square cake pan, pour the cake batter into the pan first, then sprinkle the streusel evenly on top. If you’re using a Bundt pan, sprinkle the streusel on the bottom first, and then pour the cake batter on top. If you’re using the almonds, sprinkle them with the streusel on the cake or the pan bottom as the case may be.
- Bake for 40-45 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean. Let it cool before removing from the pan.
In Yiddish sour cream is smétene. In Russian it’s smyetáne.
I use the transliteration “smetana” as it’s in far more common use than the YIVO/other more exact transliterations, which in my experience can be *very* confusing for lay readers. My grandmother z”l was from Ponevezh and always said something closer to “smeh-ta-nuh.”
I’m from Belrusan Litvaks.
Which shtetlach? Some of the folks on my father’s side were from Widz and Wizun before going to South Africa.