Jersey, New York, Philly, Bal-TEE-more, they all know about the crumb bun. A yeasty sweet roll with a streusely topping, the crumb bun is a miniature version of the crumb cake (aka Streuselkuchen), a breakfast and late-morning coffee staple among East Coasters who grew up with diners, old-school bakeries and second- and third-generation German immigrants.
My mother, whose ancestors were of Bavarian descent, fancied a crumb bun. We lived in a Welsh-sounding town outside of Philadelphia, mostly among Jews, but there was a bakery for us Gentiles called Woehr's, and it made crumb buns. Sometimes after church, Mom would putter along in her Pinto hatchback with me and my two brothers, and she'd pull into the parking lot that was on a hill, and she'd let us come in and smell the magical perfume of powdered sugar.
She'd order a half dozen from the lady behind the counter, who would cut six from a big tray and place them in a square white box tied with a string. I loved to carry the box. At home, Mom would cut us each a piece. Inevitably, the powdered sugar that was packed on top of the cinnamony streusel like snow would coat our lips and maybe even get into our eyes, but we were stalwart, plowing through the dust storm until every last crumb was accounted for. The next day, the leftover buns would be hard as rocks, but that didn't deter my mother, who'd dunk a crumby brick into her coffee until it was soft enough to eat.
A recent brunch at a neighborhood restaurant near my home in Arlington, Va., brought these stored crumb-bun memories out of the vault. The chef, who grew up in a little town near Pittsburgh, Pa., leaves out the yeast of yesteryear and brings on the buttermilk, which yields a tender, cakey crumb on the bottom and a crunchy, streusely crumb on top. It is one of the tastiest flashbacks I've had in a long time.
(Pennsylvania) Dutch Crumb Cake
Adapted from Liam Lacivita, executive chef, Liberty Tavern, Arlington, Va.
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/3 cup (5 1/3 tablespoons) butter or shortening, diced (I used Earth Balance shortening with success)
1 beaten egg
3/4 cup buttermilk
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
Optional: 1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 cup brown sugar
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour an 8-inch round cake pan or similarly sized rectangle pan or baking dish.
In a large mixing bowl, combine flour, baking powder, salt, sugar and cinnamon. With the tips of your fingers, work fat into mixture until completely integrated. It's OK to see flakes of fat. Reserve 1/2 cup of this mixture for the topping, to be used later.
In a separate mixing bowl, combine egg, buttermilk and baking soda. If using vanilla, add now. Using a rubber spatula, fold wet ingredients into dry until well-combined.
In a small bowl, combine brown sugar with the reserved flour mixture. Pour batter into pan. Top with crumb mixture and bake for about 45 minutes, or until a skewer inserted into the center comes out almost clean. Note: Amounts may be doubled for two cakes.
Culinary questions? Contact Kim O'Donnel at email@example.com.
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