Sean took this photo while I was decorating the tree last weekend. “I’m having trouble getting the camera to focus,” he said. But then when I saw it later I liked that it was blurry. It turned the photo into a representation of what is a very familiar annual scene for many of us and also one of my favorite days of the year.
Sean and I always decorate the tree while listening to the same two Christmas albums over and over (we should probably consider buying one or two more). Then, after a hard-earned dinner, we settle deep into the couch to watch “Home Alone.” I have been known to fall asleep two-thirds of the way in and then exclaim, “This movie is so short!” when I wake up 10 minutes before it’s over. But I still love this tradition.
Because the holidays for me are so inextricably linked to food, this coffee cake is one of several family-inspired recipes I will force upon you this season, though I can’t claim ownership over it. It belongs to my mother-in-law Betsy, who passed away three years ago from ovarian cancer. Christmas was her favorite holiday, which means it’s also the time of year when I think of her most often.
She would spend the weeks leading up to Christmas baking a dizzying array of cookies, pushing a few tins on us each time we’d come over (along with a lovely, strange assortment of ornaments). Then on Christmas Day, she would have freshly baked Hungarian coffee cake waiting for us when we came to open our gifts.
Like Betsy, this coffee cake is sweet, spicy and just a little decadent. While it’s baking, your house fills with the warming aroma of cinnamon and sweet bread. It is the ideal companion for a cup of coffee, though Betsy always preferred tea. Whatever you drink with it, the best part about this coffee cake is pulling apart the little cinnamon-, sugar- and nut-coated balls of cake until your fingers, face, plate and coffee mug are all coated in sticky sugar.
The recipe below is my adaptation of Betsy’s–pulled from various baking websites. I scoured her recipe boxes but couldn’t seem to find the original version. But with practice I hope to make it a bit more like hers each time.
Hungarian Coffee cake
adapted from Betsy Hennessy’s recipe box
1 cup sour cream
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted
1/2 cup sugar
1 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons active dry yeast
4 1/2 cups AP flour
1 cup chopped walnuts
1 cup sugar
1 heaping teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 cup unsalted butter, melted
For the dough: Combine the sour cream, butter, sugar, salt and yeast. Stir until the yeast dissolves.
Add the eggs and flour. Turn dough out on floured board and knead until smooth for about 10 to 15 minutes. Or knead in a stand mixer with the bread hook attachment for 10 minutes on medium high.
Place the dough in a greased bowl. Cover it with plastic wrap and let it rise in a warm place until it has doubled in bulk, 1 1/2 to 2 hours. Punch the dough down to degas. Turn it over and let it rise again, covered, for 45 minutes. Meanwhile, mix the walnuts, sugar and cinnamon together and dump onto a large plate.
Assembly and baking: After the second rise, shape the into 1/2-ounce balls. Dip each ball in melted butter and roll in the sugar, walnut and cinnamon mixture. Place the balls in layers in a 10-inch greased tube pan. Sprinkle any of the remaining sugar-nut mixture and melted butter over the top layer of balls.
Cover the pan with waxed or parchment paper and let the dough rise for another 45 minutes. Bake the coffeecake for 40 to 50 minutes at 375°F or until golden brown.