Tannenbaum Christmas Coffee Cake

At some point in my late teens, I came across a recipe for Christmas tree-shaped coffee cake. My family didn’t celebrate Christmas, but I fell in love with the recipe and made it anyway. It turned out to be a hit, and I’ve made it nearly every year since. 

I can’t remember now where I found the original version of this recipe.  It’s scrawled in my embarrassingly cute recipe journal, which is pink and enlivened with a photo of kittens on the cover, and I recorded it before I began my habit of referencing the sources of my recipes.

I’ve altered it somewhat from the original over the years. I use the original recipe for the dough, but since the recipe made two huge tree-shaped coffee cakes, I now cut it in half to be more reasonable for a small family rather than a large gathering — in fact, this year I’ll use this half-sized recipe to make two small ones  instead of a single large cake, and freeze one for New Year’s morning. Besides adjusting the amount of dough, I tweaked the original filling, adding spices and dried fruit and increasing the overall amount. So, while I do wish I could give credit to the original creator, the evolution over the years is enough to erase any compunction I might feel for failing to cite my sources.

This sweet treat is more like an elaborate, decorative cinnamon roll than the coffee cake I grew up with, which was a cross between a quick bread (like banana bread) and a cake, with a cinnamon streusel topping. Instead of baking soda, this coffee cake uses yeast, and it needs to be made the afternoon before you’re planning your breakfast to give it plenty of time to rise overnight. 

You may scroll all the way to the bottom to read a more concise version of this recipe, and print a PDF.

Start by collecting your ingredients:


  • 3/4 cup milk
  • 1/4 cup butter
  • 1 egg
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon yeast
  • 2 1/2 – 3 cups flour
  • Oil or cooking spray


  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 tablespoon cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1/4 cup melted butter
  • 1/4 cup chopped nuts
  • 1 cup dried fruit, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon melted butter (for brushing onto the dough)


  • 1 cup confectioner’s sugar
  • Water or milk
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
  • Maraschino cherries, for garnish

Royal Icing (optional)

  • White of one pasteurized egg (one ounce)
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 1/3 cup of powdered sugar

You’ll mix and knead the dough and shape the coffee cake the night before you want to eat it, so be sure to plan enough time — and enough refrigerator space to let it rise overnight!

Start by getting the dough ready. Heat the milk and butter together in the microwave. In my microwave, about a minute and a half is enough to warm the milk without scalding it. The butter won’t be completely melted — let the mixture sit on the counter a few minutes, and the butter will finish melting while the milk cools slightly. You don’t want the milk to be hot, just warm. Hot milk will curdle the egg and kill the yeast.

While the milk cools, mix your dry ingredients in a medium bowl: 2 cups of flour, sugar, salt, and yeast.  You’ll add the rest of the flour later.

Lightly beat your egg, and stir it into your milk and butter mixture, after testing to make sure the milk is just warm. It should be just a bit warmer than body temperature — a shade warmer than a baby’s bottle. If you drip a bit onto your wrist, you’ll feel warmth without getting burnt.

Stir the milk mixture into the dry mixture to make a sticky dough — you may need to use your hands to get all the flour incorporated into the dough.

This is a good time to point out that you can do this whole process using a stand mixture, if you want, from mixing the dry ingredients to kneading the dough. I would use the paddle attachment at first, and then change to the hook for kneading. However, I prefer to knead by hand, partly because I’m a traditionalist and partly because I think you get a better feel for the texture of the dough when you use your hands. My husband likes to use the mixer, because you can use the highest setting and get the kneading over with quickly.

Once the dry ingredients and milk are mixed, sprinkle about a quarter of a cup of flour onto a clean counter and turn the dough out onto the flour. Sprinkle another quarter cup on top, and knead the dough. To knead, use both hands to press down on the dough, fold it toward you, and give it a quarter turn before repeating the process. Continue kneading for about ten minutes (or as little as five minutes if you’re a very vigorous kneader). Add more flour as needed, sparingly — too much will make the dough feel dry when it’s baked. When the texture of the dough becomes firm and springy, it’s been kneaded enough. It’s not the addition of flour that causes the texture change so much as the kneading. Working the dough causes the wheat gluten to form, which is responsible for giving it the elastic feeling of a yeast bread.

When the dough has been kneaded to an elastic consistency so that it springs back when you press it, form it gently into a ball. Lightly oil a bowl (I just use the one I mixed the dough in), drop the ball of dough in, and then turn it over once so that it’s covered with oil. Place a cloth over the bowl and set it aside to rise for about an hour, until it’s doubled in size. The warmer the place you leave it, the faster it will rise — just don’t put it in a hot place, or the dough will start to bake and the yeast will die off.

While the dough is rising, make your filling. Start by chopping your dried fruit. What fruit you use is really your choice. Last year I used golden raisins, cranberries, pineapple, apricots, and papaya, along with pecans. This year I’m using dried cherries, cranberries, mangoes, dark raisins, and hazelnuts. The dried fruit, combined, should come to about a cup, and the chopped nuts should be about 1/4 to 1/2 cup.


Combine the sugar and spices. Add the melted butter and combine completely, then stir in the chopped fruit and nuts.

When the dough has risen until it’s doubled in size, the coffee cake is ready to shape. Give the dough a good punch to make it collapse. Then turn it out onto a lightly floured counter. Lightly flour a rolling pin, and roll the dough out into an isosceles triangle with a 12-inch base and 15-inch sides. I use the length of the rolling pin as a guide for the length of each side.

Once you have a good triangle shape, brush the dough with about a tablespoon of melted butter. Cover the dough evenly with the filling, leaving space along the edges.

Bring the sides together, pinching the filling-free edges firmly together to make a tight seam. Seal the bottom as well so filling doesn’t fall out when you transfer it to the pan. The best way I’ve come up with to get it from the counter onto the pan is to slide a rigid plastic sheet dusted with flour underneath the filled triangle (I use the plastic placemats my kids use for play dough), and then support it with a hand underneath and a hand on top as I quickly turn it over, seam downward, onto the oiled baking sheet.

Now, lightly score a guide line down the center of the triangle, from peak to base. Use sturdy kitchen scissors to cut slices into each side, ending about a quarter inch from the line. I made eight cuts in the one above. You could do more for smaller slices, but fewer cuts would make the slices too wide to easily do the next step.

Starting at the bottom, give each slice a firm downward twist, toward you (assuming you’re at the base of the triangle). Twist each one so that the filling is visible, and the ends are tilted forward slightly. Cover the tree lightly with plastic wrap, and place it into the fridge to rest and rise overnight.

In the morning, turn on the oven to 350, pull the coffee cake out of the fridge, and let it come to room temperature on the counter while the oven heats. If you have enough time, give the coffee cake a good half hour to rest before putting it into the oven. (It’s not going to make a big difference, but it will be slightly lighter in texture if it has time to warm to room temperature before baking.) Bake it at 350 for 20-30 minutes, till the bread is golden-brown and the filling is sizzling.

Allow the coffee cake to cool slightly while you mix the glaze or icing. To make a basic glaze, sift the powdered sugar into a measuring cup with a pour spout, then drizzle milk or water in, whisking, until it’s a thick, smooth, pouring consistency. Add vanilla. (Another option, especially if you used cranberries in the filling, is to use orange flavoring and add some orange zest.) Drizzle the glaze over the coffee cake in a decorative pattern. This type of glaze won’t show up much — it will soak into the warm coffee cake a little. Add colorful maraschino cherries, cut into halves, or bright-colored candied fruit, to give the effect of ornaments on a tree. I’ve always used both red and green cherries until last year — I’ve been unable to find green ones for the last two years. Maybe you’ll have better luck.

If you want your coffee cake to have a bright white icing like mine, use a royal icing instead of (or on top of) the glaze. I had some left over from decorating gingerbread cookies, so I used that for the coffee cake, with a very pretty effect. The recipe I’m giving here is Alton Brown’s recipe for royal icing, reduced to a third. A quick note: I was able to do the full sized recipe in my stand mixer with the whisk attachment, but the egg whites barely met the whisk at first, until I tilted the bowl upward. Once the whites got fluffy, it was fine. The single egg white won’t fill the mixer bowl enough for the whisk to do the job. To do this smaller recipe, use a hand mixer and a bowl.

To make royal icing, use one ounce of pasteurized egg white (the equivalent of one egg white). Beat it with a hand mixer, together with the vanilla, until it’s fluffy and white. Gradually add one and a third cups of icing sugar, beating at low speed. Once all the sugar is mixed in, continue beating at high speed until the icing is glossy and stiff. Use a plastic bag with a tiny corner snipped off, or an icing bag with a piping nozzle, or even a spoon, to drizzle over the coffee cake in a pretty design. Then add the candied cherries. The icing will harden fairly quickly and will retain its bright white look.

Click here for a printable PDF of the recipe:Tannenbaum Coffee Cake

Concise recipe format:Tannenbaum Coffee CakeTannenbaum Coffee Cake2Tannenbaum Coffee Cake3



Valentine Breakfast: Bakewell Buns

I came across these delicious muffins in a blog post from Cooking With Craic a couple of months ago. The author, a Canadian living in Ireland, had fallen in love with the popular Irish pastries, and had developed a delicious recipe. She says,

The bakewell. You can find these at most bakeries around the country. They consist of shortcrust pastry bottoms, jammy middles and Madeira sponge tops.

I’ve been waiting for a good opportunity to make these, and yesterday I finally found the perfect timing. I had planned an easy dinner: throw a slab of meat on the grill for an hour, toss some yams into the oven, make a salad, warm some sourdough bread. Done. And Valentine’s Day seemed as good a time as any to make a sweet treat. So while the meat was cooking, I rolled out some of the Pioneer Woman’s Perfect Pie Crust that I’d had conveniently waiting in the freezer, whipped up a Madeira sponge batter (I’d never heard of it before this recipe, but I’m very happy to have experienced it), and popped the buns in the oven just as the meat was coming out. We sampled some after dinner and saved the rest for today’s breakfast. I’m thinking they’d be best for brunch or for a mid-afternoon snack, not so much as dessert. So yummy! Here are some pictures:

You can read the recipe here.

Birthday Polka-Dot Cake

Sofia turned one during the second week in December, and we decided to do a cake smash celebration with her, like we’d done when Niko turned one. I wanted a cute cake for her to smash that would coordinate with a perfect outfit for marvelous pictures. Aaron suggested that I make a polka-dot cake. I was mildly hesitant, because it seemed complex, but when he showed me a cake pop pan he’d found, I decided it seemed doable.

It was simultaneously easier and harder than I’d expected. First, of course, I did a search for how to make a polka-dot cake. I found a blog called “Once Upon a Pedestal,” by Deborah Stauch, which featured a tutorial for a polka-dot cake. Later on, after I’d gone through the whole process of making the cake, I found another blog, “Easy Baked,” which had a polka-dot cake tutorial that included some troubleshooting ideas that the original post didn’t have. This one was actually referenced by Ms. Stauch, and the author used Ms. Stauch’s instructions for her own cake. I wish I’d seen it when I was originally looking, because I ran into some problems.

Basic steps: Use two cake mixes; color one batch however you want your polka dots; bake your cake pops till they’re just done; surround them with the second batch of batter in layer pans; bake them a second time. Simple. Easy-peasy. Right? Ha.

The tutorial I followed suggested adding pudding mix to the cake mix. The idea was that this would make the cake denser, and the circles would be less likely to float. Unfortunately, what I thought was pudding mix in my cupboard was, in fact, Jell-O mix. Then I realized that my cake mix was a pudding cake. Problem solved! I thought. Ha.

Another instruction I didn’t follow was to use two cake mixes. I only wanted to make two layers in itty-bitty pans, not the three layer pans that the original tutorial suggested, so I thought one mix would be just fine. Incidentally, upon measuring (later, of course), I discovered that my mini pans were the same size as the pans Ms. Stauch used: six inches across. So one mix wasn’t enough even for my two pans. My guess is that if I’d done two, I’d have had enough to do seven balls per layer, rather than six, and also cover them more thoroughly in the pans.

I mention these errors just in case someone else reading this thinks taking shortcuts is a great idea. I think the cakes would have been MUCH easier, and looked better, if I’d just followed the instructions. What actually happened: the batter didn’t sufficiently cover the cake balls, and they floated up above the surface of the cakes. I salvaged them by covering them with a damp paper towel and setting another pan on top. It worked okay, but it could have been better.

Anyway, the end result was surprisingly pretty, considering all my mistakes. I measured out enough batter for the balls and tinted that batch with Wilton Moss Green gel coloring. I tinted the rest with Wilton Creamy Peach gel coloring. I baked the balls first, of course. Using my 12-ball Nordic Ware cake pop pan, I baked them for exactly 12 minutes at 350 degrees. This was the one thing that worked perfectly. They came out a beautiful soft green with not even a touch of brown, and all but one popped out of the pan without a hitch. You can see how they looked in the photos below.

Then I poured a little bit of the peach batter into the 6-inch baking pan (actually too much batter — it pushed the balls upward as it rose), arranged 6 balls in each pan, and poured the rest of the batter over. As you can see in the photos below, it really wasn’t enough batter to thoroughly cover them. A little more would have been better. I then baked the cake just like a normal cake. Afterward, I had to weigh down the top for 10 minutes, using a damp paper towel topped with another pan, to press down the round top with protruding green balls. This wouldn’t have been necessary if I’d just followed the directions.

I used whipped cream for the topping and filling. I used the peach for this, too. I used a flat metal spatula (like a giant butter knife), dipped in hot water, to smooth the sides. I’m not an expert; it didn’t turn out perfectly smooth, even though I spent an inordinate amount of time in the attempt. But it looks a lot better than it did before Aaron, who’s actually got some experience with cake decorating, suggested the hot-water method. Then, for the top, I used a flower tip on a pastry bag to make little flowers all over, and I dropped a pale-green sprinkle into the center of each flower. For a final touch, I poured more sprinkles around the bottom of the cake to make an irregular band of pale green.

It was a bit of an anxiety-causing process, doing all this work decorating a cake that I couldn’t be sure would look pretty when I cut into it. And I had no backup plan, of course. When I finally cut into the cake just before getting Sofie dressed for the cake smash pictures, I was so relieved at seeing how well it turned out. Polka dots in more or less appropriate places, colors complementary to each other, no horribly obvious flaws, and it looked adorable with the tutu and birthday banner I made for the occasion. Whew!

Sour Cream Apple Pie

It was about ten or twelve years ago: newlywed, I had just made my favorite apple pie, my own recipe, for Aaron. “It’s pretty good,” he acknowledged, “but next time you should make my mom’s apple pie.”

I was a bit insulted. After all, I’ve been making apple pie ever since I was tall enough to reach the kitchen counter, and I’d like to think I’m pretty good at it. Over the years, I’ve tweaked it, finessed it, and let me tell you, my apple pie recipe is GOOD. I was not about to ask my mother-in-law, excellent cook and kind woman though she is, for her recipe.

That is, until we visited one day when Kay, Aaron’s mom, was making pie. I helped peel apples while she mixed filling. Sugar…flour…sour cream. Sour cream? I’d never had an apple pie with sour cream. I was respectfully doubtful, but after all, she generally knows what she’s doing in the kitchen, so I just bit my tongue and kept slicing apples. The pie smelled incredibly good while it baked, of course, as any apple pie does in the oven. And then she pulled it out…sliced it…served it…and it was HEAVEN. Pure heaven. It beats my original recipe hands-down. (And that’s a pretty good recipe, so you can imagine that this sour cream apple pie is really delicious.)

During my in-laws’ visit over Christmas, my mother-in-law recounted again the story of how she found this amazing recipe. About forty years ago, she was working with a woman who was a student at the University of Arizona. This woman was in possession of a recipe that had come from the culinary school there, and she shared it — with an admonition for Kay to keep it to herself. However, since it’s been forty years, and the recipe has been altered a bit, she willingly gave me permission to share.

I made it for Christmas this year, my third or fourth attempt at this recipe over the years. The first time, I had followed my carefully-copied recipe exactly, not knowing of her adjustment — she made twice as much sour cream sauce as the original recipe called for —  and it was a little bit of a disappointment. This time, more experienced, I made her adjustment and added one of my own, too, increasing the amount of apples by about 60%, doubling the sour cream filling as she had done, and adding cinnamon (which was, oddly, omitted from the original recipe) and nutmeg too, which I love but my father-in-law doesn’t. So the recipe I’m including here is quite similar to what you’d eat if my mother-in-law were making it, but different by several incarnations from the original recipe from the University of Arizona.

Start by making or defrosting a pie crust. I use the Pioneer Woman’s Perfect Pie Crust recipe. It’s horrible to work with after being frozen, stiff and almost brittle after it’s rolled out — sorry, Pioneer Woman, but it is — but once shaped and baked, it makes amazing crust. Because of the mouthwatering results, I continue to make it ahead and freeze it to use whenever I make pies. I’ve just come to accept that it will fall apart, and I just piece it back together in the pan…or, alternatively, I start with the ball of dough in the pie pan and press it into shape instead of rolling it out. It’s worth the extra effort. Best pie crust ever, seriously. Below are some pictures of the crust so you can see I’m not exaggerating at all when I say it is REALLY REALLY HARD to work with:


Now, on to the pie filling. The original recipe called for three cups of apples; I increased it to about 5 cups, which juuuust filled my large earthenware pan. You could do 6 cups and it would fit fine, but then you’d need to make a corresponding increase in sour cream and flour. Choose fairly tart apples; other than that recommendation, I just buy whatever is on sale. To make my life easier, I use a peeler/corer/slicer I found this summer. I peeled all my apples in under 5 minutes.

Next, make a mixture of 2 cups of sour cream, 1 1/2 cup of sugar, 2 teaspoons of cinnamon, 2 teaspoons of vanilla, a pinch of nutmeg, and 4 tablespoons of flour. As you can see in the photo below, a 2-cup measure isn’t the best tool for the job. That’s what we call a negative example. Get a bowl, for heaven’s sake. When it’s thoroughly mixed, add this deliciously creamy mixture to your apple slices, then pour it all into the crust.

In a small bowl, make a streusel topping: Mix 1/3 cup of brown sugar, 1 teaspoon of cinnamon, and 1/4 cup of flour.  Blend in 1/4 cup of firm butter until the butter is incorporated into the sugar and flour in evenly sized, pebbly chunks. I have the best success when I use a pastry cutter, but I know people who do it with a fork and never use a fancy tool for it. Sprinkle the topping onto the apple mixture in the pan, and you’re ready to bake. Use strips of tinfoil or a crust shield to keep the crust from becoming too brown during the long cooking time. The pie sometimes bubbles over, so to be safe, put it on a baking sheet or spread tinfoil underneath the pan. Bake the pie for 45 minutes to an hour at 400 degrees.

When it’s done, the whole pie will be bubbling, the top will be browned, and a fork or knife plunged into the middle will slide easily into tender apple slices. Let it cool a little before serving so the filling has a chance to set slightly. And there you have it. Best pie ever.Sour Cream Apple Pie

Irish Bakewell Buns

I’d never heard of these before reading this post. I think my family will be trying them before too long! They look so delicious!



Growing up in Canada, I’d never really heard of bakewell tarts until a few years ago.

In fact, since I moved to Ireland almost exactly 1.5 years ago, I’ve been introduced to a whole slew of new things (I’m sure you’re shocked to hear that).


Some things I’ve learned:

1. Sliced Pan = sliced bread

2. Potato chips are crisps. Most of you know that. But did you know crisps can be a sandwich filling? And, in fact, all you would need for this sandwich are crisps, sliced pan and butter? Did you know that was a thing? I didn’t.

3. When someone asks you if you want salad with your sandwich at a cafe and you say yes, you generally get several kinds of mayo-laden potatoes and coleslaws. Gotta say, I don’t always mind. I really like mayo.

4. What we think is breakfast in Canada is a piece…

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Holiday Smells

There’s not much that can compare with the smell of spiced fruit baking into a cake. Rich, sweet, aromatic. Allspice and cloves, cinnamon, orange and lemon, all mingling in a kitchen whose mess might be overlooked for a nibble of the tiny fruitcake that baked alongside the big loaf pans. Today, the fruit that had soaked up the warm flavors of rum and brandy and then simmered in apple juice and spices, was finally mixed into a cake batter and baked in the oven. It will be weeks more of spraying with brandy every few days before the flavors will have mellowed and blended and matured to be the perfect holiday treat. This tradition will be sticking around for a long time in this home.



Holiday Fruitcake Begins NOW

For the last several years, Aaron has made the most amazing fruitcake this world knows. Its creator is Alton Brown of the Food Network, the god of our family’s kitchen. It’s made with actual dried fruit, not that nasty stuff that’s mostly sugar and food coloring. It’s soaked in rum and brandy. So much rum. Copious amounts of brandy. So much that after Sofia was born (she came right before Christmas), after nine months of alcohol abstinence, I got a buzz from eating (way too much of) it.

Tonight I said casually to Aaron, “Maybe I’ll start chopping fruit for the fruitcake,” and he said, “Okay,” and just like that I’ve been made the Master of the Fruitcake. It’s a big responsibility. I’m taking it very seriously.