Quintessential Coffee Cake

slice of quintessential coffee cake

Psssssssst. Do you have a sec? I hate to disturb you while you’re working but I’m having people over for breakfast this morning, and I’m serving them this. It’s delicious. It’s just a classic coffee cake, but boy is it hitting the spot. Seriously, on your next break, please stop by for a slice. Would love to have you join our little party.

I found the recipe by googling “best coffee cake ever,” which led me to discover The Pioneer Woman. She’s funny. She described the cake as a complete miracle. How could I resist making a complete miracle? I couldn’t, but I broke one of my rules in the process.

Rules, you ask? Yes. You see, I try hard to follow a recipe — a baked goods recipe at least — to the T first time around. I was doing well until I saw the word milk. And well, you all know about my inability to not substitute buttermilk for milk in a baked goods recipe. It’s a real problem. I’ll leave it at that. And then, to make matters worse, I got really lazy — didn’t want to separate the eggs or beat the whites until stiff peaks formed — and so I substituted in a whole egg. Yikes. I don’t think the Pioneer Woman would approve.

But the cake — oh the cake — it’s so delicious. Thank you Pioneer Woman for sharing such a keeper of a recipe. Everyone here is in total heaven. And readers, I encourage you to check out the PW’s original recipe. I’ve enclosed my lazy-man’s version below, but fully intend to make the original recipe one day.

Ok all of you, back to work. Promise I won’t disturb you again.

baked coffee cake

unbaked coffee cake

baked coffee cake

Classic Coffee Cake Ever
Adapted from The Pioneer Woman
Serves 6-8

Note: I made a half recipe and used a 9-inch square pyrex baking dish

3/4 stick butter, softened
1 scant cup sugar (I used 7/8 cup, which is 3/4 cup + 2 T.)
1 1/2 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 egg
1/2 + 1/8 cup buttermilk

3/4 stick butter, softened
3/8 cups flour
3/4 cup brown sugar (or less — see updated notes)
1 scant tablespoon cinnamon
3/4 cup almonds or pecans, chopped (optional — see updated notes)

• Next time, I might not even add nuts on top. I think I might prefer it without.
• Next time, too, I might cut back a wee bit on the sugar in the topping.

Notes updated:
• Made this again without the nuts, and I prefer it this way. It just has more of that classic coffee cake taste to me. Husband prefers nuts, however — he’s only tried it with almonds but thinks he’d prefer pecans (such a picky husband these days… sike, my love, you’re not picky at all). I should note that I’m not a huge fan of nuts in baked goods, so if you like nuts, I say use them!
• I lightly filled a 3/4 cup measuring cup with brown sugar, which made the topping slightly less sweet, which I prefer.

1. Preheat oven to 350ºF. Grease a 9-inch square pan (or the equivalent) with butter.

2. Cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy. In a separate bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder and salt. Add egg to butter and sugar mixture. Mix on low until combined. Add half of the dry ingredients. Mix until incorporated. Add all of the buttermilk. Mix until incorporated. Add remaining flour and whisk until just combined. Spread batter into prepared pan.

3. Meanwhile, make the topping: Combine all ingredients in a large bowl. Use a pastry cutter or your hands to mix everything nicely together. Spread topping over batter. Bake for 40 to 45 minutes or until no longer jiggly. Let cool on wire rack for 10 minutes before serving.

slice of coffee cake


  1. says

    Coffee cake pictures & recipe almost got me up and in the kitchen but I’m trying to order my study today after much procrastination.

    I love buttermilk in recipes, brown sugar topping with lots of cinnamon (& butter of course)- separating eggs is not a favorite of mine but will look at Pioneer Woman and check out her recipe.

    Thanks for sharing your delicious recipes & pictures. I still savour the “Tomato,Corn, Cheese Galette you made. The pictures themselves got me into the kitchen fast.


  2. Peter says

    ok – this looks fantastic. I’ve got a “Jazz in the park” fundraising breakfast coming up – this is going to be my contribution (well this and an egg/sausage/cheese casserole….)


  3. says

    Yummmm, can’t wait to try this. I have never eaten coffee cake, I always thought coffee cake had coffee in it.
    Can I reduce the recipe to serve it to four people?

    • says

      Hmmm, reducing the cake any smaller might be tricky. Do you have a small enough pan? If so, go for it! And please let us know if you make any discoveries. Otherwise, the half recipe that I’ve posted isn’t a huge quantity, especially if you have good eaters around. All the best!

  4. says

    Ali! Too funny, I was just looking at this recipe on the Pioneer Woman last week after searching ‘amazing-breathaking-delicious coffee cake.’ My in-laws are here so I was thinking of making some coffee cake, but in the end I never got around to it. I’ll have to try this recipe out and I will definitely substitute buttermilk!

  5. says

    Hi Alexandra,
    I made it today, and I tried to halve the recipe (using 3/4 cup flour, 1 stick butter altogether etc) and it was enough to fill a pie pan I had (I don’t have too many bakeware:)) As per your notes I reduced sugar from the topping too. I used pecans but Next time will leave out the nuts… I BAKED IT FOR 30 MINS ONLY… yummm, wish I could describe:)

  6. says

    Ali, back again! I made the coffee cake tonight for Rob to take to a work breakfast. I made one pan with the topping w/o nuts and the other with a mix of almond flour and pecans… I’ve only tasted the w/o nuts version and it is AWESOME. Love the simplicity and the end result is so good. While I’ll be sad that Rob is taking this away tomorrow, I think it is best for the waistline :) Thanks for another great recipe.

  7. says

    i will give this a try tomorrow with the buttermilk. i bought a crtn last week for ranch dip and never did make it, so tomorrow ……its on the todo list. thks

  8. says

    Oh my goodness, I just stumbled on this, almost a year later. Looks so delicious! I cannot wait to try it. I’m also curious to find one with apples. Hmm!

  9. says

    would love to make it…
    Is it ok If I do it without the topping and also if I add a little bit of Instant coffee to the cake mix , as when I saw the title of your post… I imagined it to have a little bit of
    coffee in it…

  10. Zenaide says

    This looks fantastic. I too have a compulsion with substituting buttermilk for regular milk, except with cornflakes or coffee. Has this cake ever lasted long enough for anyone to know how well it keeps? I’m doing brunch for a huge crowd and would love to bake it a day ahead, because the oven will be in overdrive that morning. BTW: I just discovered your site. Muchas gracias for the fab photos and inspiration.

    • says

      Zenaide — Welcome! You are funny… buttermilk in cornflakes/coffe = no bueno. I hate to say this because it sounds as though you are going to be super busy, but it’s definitely the kind of thing that tastes best when it’s freshly baked. That said, if you make it a day in advance, I don’t think anyone will complain. Also, if you have time to make the batter the night before, you could store the batter in the baking pan in the fridge, and then the next morning, top it with the topping and pop it in the oven. I do this with so many cake batters and muffin batters and it works like a charm. Good luck with your event! Fun.

  11. Nichole says

    I cut mine into 9 pieces and just inhaled 2. This cake was so amazingly easy and so great! I prefer mine like you, no nuts and not too sweet, so I went by your updates. I loved your banana bread so much, I just had to try this. My house smelled amazing, my neighbors asked about it. :) Next time, I might swirl the topping into the cake a little more, but it was perfect! I can’t imagine it any sweeter, so I’m SO happy I went by your updates! It was also so easy, I had to keep checking to see if I missed any steps.

    Bonus… I don’t have a pastry cutter, so mixed the topping with my hands. After washing my hands, they were (and still are!) so incredibly smooth!

    Thanks so much for sharing this delicious recipe! I’m making your vanilla-almond biscotti later, I’m sure it’ll be great, too.

    • says

      Nichole — so wonderful to hear this! I’m glad you agreed with my modifications. I’m sure the original recipe is great too, and every time I make it, I swear I am going to whip those egg whites, but I am always so lazy. S glad you like the banana bread recipe, too. One of my faves, as are those biscotti — i have been making a batch nearly every weekend.

  12. marsha says

    looks like an awesome recipe, i am going to try it for my office tomorrow. only thing is i will have to get it going early in the morning and it would be better if i could have it mostly premade ahead of time to keep the noise level down….is it ok to make the enter thing and then put it in the fridge over night and then just wake up and bake it or will the baking powder and buttermilk/eggs start mixing in the fridge in an undesirable way?

    • says

      Marsha, hi, I hope you got my email. You can definitely assemble this the night before — butter your baking dish, put in the batter without the topping, cover with plastic wrap and store in the fridge over night. In the morning, top the cake with the topping and bake it off as instructed. You might need 5 to 10 minutes more of baking time, but you might not, so check it at the 45 minute mark.

  13. MrsPanic says

    I tried to make this cake this morning, followed the recipe exactly (despite using your “cheat” for homemade buttermilk) and it didn’t turn out at all. The cake is a little dry and all the topping sunk all the way to the bottom. Any idea what happened or how to avoid it next time?

    • says

      MrsPanic — I am sorry to hear this. Ok, just so I understand, did you use buttermilk? Or did you make buttermilk with milk and vinegar? I have to admit that I haven’t made this in ages, but your comment is making me want to make a batch immediately tomorrow morning. I am surprised to hear both things: that the cake is dry and that the topping sunk. I have always used buttermilk from the store (never the homemade version), which is definitely thicker than “homemade” buttermilk, which may make a difference. Let me know about the buttermilk, and I’ll think a little further.

      • MrsPanic says

        I used the milk + lemon juice version. Don’t get me wrong, the cake is still delicious, I just know it didn’t meet it’s potential. The humidity was very high the day I made it… Maybe that interfered?

        If you have any ideas I’ll gladly whip up another batch!

        • says

          Mrs. Panic — I’m happy to hear it wasn’t a complete disaster, but I’m still perplexed. I sort of suspect it was the buttmilk. Was the homemade version thick at all? You know how store-bought buttermilk is a little on the thick side? I feel like that makes a difference. I compared this recipe to another favorite recipe (buttermilk blueberry breakfast cake: http://www.alexandracooks.com/2011/06/29/buttermilk-blueberry-breakfast-cake/) and noticed that the proportions are very similar, but the coffee cake has more buttermilk proportionally to the butter and flour. I’m almost tempted to try the coffee cake recipe using the cake part of the buttermilk blueberry breakfast cake bc I do recall the filling sinking down a bit, too. I don’t remember it being dry, however, which I also would like to find an explanation for. Hmmm. I think I’m going to have to bake one of these this afternoon. I’ll report back. Butter is out to soften :)

          • MrsPanic says

            Yes, the homemade buttermilk was thick, but not as thick as the real deal. Sounds like that may be the problem! I’ll give it another go.

            Ive been making( and adapting) your blueberry breakfast cake for months. I’ve made it into a cinnamon coffee cake with the “topping” as a middle layer and it’s fantastic!! Such a versatile recipe. Thank you so much for all your attention to my comments!

          • says

            Oh, you are so welcome! I am so happy to brainstorm and nothing bothers me more than when recipes don’t work out for people. I still haven’t made the cake, but the butter is soft, so I will definitely get to it today. I’m just trying to think if I should make any changes to the coffee cake recipe or just try it as it is. Hmm. I will let you know what I do either way. I’m thinking if I make it later today, I’ll be able to enjoy to for both dessert tonight and breakfast tomorrow :)

          • says

            Mrs.Panic — Because I hadn’t made the cake in such a long time, I decided to just bake it without any modifications to refresh my memory. I thought it turned out well, but I was so annoyed with myself because I didn’t realize that I had the oven at 400ºF for about half of the cooking time! Why do these things always happen at critical moments?! So then I panicked and turned the oven down to 325ºF for the remaining cooking time. It didn’t affect the cake too much — the cake was still moist — but the top did burn a little bit, which was annoying. Some of the filling sunk down a little bit, but not so much that I found it troublesome. So, I don’t know where that leaves us :( I suspect that the buttermilk may have been the issue. You’ve got me wanting to experiment with other recipes now, however. I spotted a Barefoot Contessa recipe made with sour cream that has me thinking, and I also am curious about this Saveur recipe, which has much more of that classic big crumb topping: http://www.saveur.com/article/Recipes/Classic-Crumb-Coffee-Cake

          • MrsPanic says

            Sorry to hear about the oven temp mishap. Baking certainly has its own set of Murphy’s laws! I will try the coffee cake again with proper buttermilk and report back. That savuer recipe is tempting, too.

            However, because I was far to lazy to head to the grocery this morning, I made your buttermilk blueberry cake. I adapted it : minus the blueberrys and lemon zest, adding apples and cinnamon instead and some struesel topping. It’s baking as I write (apparently I have declared swimsuit season over at least a month early)!!

          • says

            Haha, I love it…I don’t think swimsuit season ever began for me! Love the idea of using apples and cinnamon in place of blueberries. I will definitely be trying that this fall! Definitely let me know if you decide to make the coffee cake again, and I will let you know if I try any other recipes in the meantime, too. Hope you had a nice weekend!

  14. says

    I have been searching for the perfect coffee cake… This may be it! You are SO a woman after my own heart, buttermilk makes everything heavenly, I cut back on sugar all the time, and am all for fewer steps. Ater reading this one and your buttermilk blueberry breakfast cake, I’m your newest follower! Your pictures are gorgeous, and I send you a blogosphere *hug* :)

    • Bangkok Mom says

      Hi I have been using your blueberry breakfast cake and it’s worked well. However, I made the coffee cake today and the sugar just sunk to the bottom like MrsPanic. I made the homemade buttermilk since its hard to get buttermilk in Bangkok but I made the homemade buttermilk wiht skim Thai milk and thinking its too thin. But the cake itself was fine but still not sure why the toppings all sank to the bottom, it did not look appealing. I looked at the recipe on Savour and feel that perhaps yours may need a bit more flour? My topping was really heavy and that could also be because of the sugar but I do remember making a more crumbly top when I’ve made coffee cakes before. Your thoughts on this?

      • says

        Hi! I am so sorry to hear this! And I don’t know how to advise because I recently remade this (you may have read the thread with Mrs. Panic) after Mrs. Panic had the same experience, and while some of the topping sunk down, it wasn’t enough to make me concerned. That said, I think you might be on to something with the flour. I think increasing it to 2 cups would probably eliminate the issue without affecting the flavor too much. The skim milk might be an issue, but I’ve never used it so I don’t want to blame it. Is Thai skim milk different than regular skim milk? Now you’ve got me thinking about coffee cakes! I want to get in the kitchen immediately to have something to bake off tomorrow. I am going to look at a few more recipes. I’ve kind of been wanting to try some others anyway. I will report back if/when I do. Sorry again for your trouble with this :(

  15. brandnewbaker says

    I am new to baking from scratch so excuse me if this question seems a bit silly. Exactly how much butter do I use in my batter? Is it 3/4’s of a stick of butter or 3/4 Cup of butter? There is a bit of a difference so I want to make sure before ruining the recipe. Thanks for all the help!

  16. Laura in Sonoma says

    So I’m not a baker… I f up packaged brownie mixes. But I thought I’d try this for my book club.

    going along fine, ready to mix the topping when I realize that in my rush and lack of attention to detail I read the 3/4 “stick” as 3/4 cup when mixing the batter. It wasn’t that I miscalculated what a stick is, I just saw cup in my haste. But Ali, this recipe is so good that even with double the amount of butter it still game out great!! Everyone loved it. So if anyone needs any additional fat and calories just double on up!

    • says

      you are too funny…I’m so happy to hear this!

      But you’re making me think — maybe double the butter is the solution? A few people have had trouble with the recipe. Next time I make it, I really am going to use 3/4 cup butter — I think that will prevent the sinking issues that some people have had. So happy it was a success! I will report back.

  17. Teresa says

    Question – The recipe that is posted, is that for a 13×9″ dish and you cut the recipe (half of what’s noted) for the 9″ dish? If that’s the case, how long would you cook in a 9″ – 30 minutes?

    I’d like to make a 13×9 when I have company but just need to know if this recipe is already halved or if it’s actually for a 13×9 dish and you halved the recipe that is noted above.

    Thank you in advance. It looks yummy!

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  19. Jessie Brooks says

    I actually make this quick-bread style. Does that make it a completely different recipe? It’s still delicious! I promise. Sometimes I’ve not had an egg and added a Tbsp of sour cream (read somewhere it’s acceptable substitute) and my son has eaten it WHOLE without complaint. On the other hand, my youngest has a sweet tooth like me and anything with sugar and flour in it is wholly acceptable. *sigh* I LOVE this recipe. With and without nuts. I don’t like almonds though so it’s been made with chopped pecans on only ONE occasion. The rest of the times it’s been ONLY w/ the cinny-sugar topping. And it’s been 2 cups of flour not less. I don’t think 1 1/2 c will work though I confess I wasn’t paying attention the first time (thought I was making another recipe) and used 2 c from the beginning and it was SO perfect I didn’t change it back from then on. And 1 stick of butter because what would I do with that little bit of butter afterwards? So I just incorporated the butter cold by chopping it up into little tiny cubes (I have joint issues and this makes it easier than starting from a solid cube) and adding it into the dry ingredients as if making a pie crust. Does that make sense? My younger son with whom I was living went to work REALLY early and I couldn’t sleep nights so I’d bake at midnight. Without wanting to wake anyone up, what else was there to do? No machines, a quick blending of the dry ings, cutting the butter into them, adding the topping, and IN goes the pan for an hour. Or pans =D One for the guys and gals at work and the other stays home for the week for breakfast on the go. Baked in a loaf pan or two, it bakes up in an hour regardless. Lined with parchment paper it comes out in a jiff so not even a washing is needed for the next loaf to be baked, say by Fri early so the family gets some too. The oldest grandson was a fan!

  20. debby says

    don’t know if you respond to old posts, but I’m also looking for a great recipe for coffee cake – this looks promising and for once I have buttermilk, but two questions, please –
    1) No vanilla? I thought maybe I missed it, so I wanted to double-check.
    2) If I double the recipe, double the buttermilk too, right?


    • says

      I do! I was away for the weekend — just catching up.

      1. Definitely add vanilla — it will be a nice addition. I should add it to the recipe.

      2. Yes re doubling the buttermilk. You might want to check out the Pioneer Woman’s original post because I think her recipe is a double recipe.

  21. debby says

    Ah, thank you. I really appreciate that you do that since I’m always looking for things. I did look at the pioneer woman’s recipe, but I wasn’t sure if the substitution of buttermilk for milk was one-to-one on your part. I’m not that familiar with buttermilk all together. If I can get up early enough, I’m going to try the recipe this weekend. I hope you had a nice weekend away and thank you again!

  22. debby says

    oh, and sorry, unrelated comment that should probably be somewhere else: we bought a half-share in a csa this summer for the first time, and my first recipe was the strata, and we loved it, so thank you for that too.

  23. Terry says

    Sounds wonderful, but a bit confused – The Pioneer Woman has 3 egg whites and appears no yolks. Her recipe actually says 3 whole egg whites which is kind of an oxymoron. Anyway, you put in the 1 whole egg. Did you try with just the white?

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