Certain dishes are meant to be consumed just once a year. They may be especially fussy to make, rich and fattening, highly festive in appearance or all of the above. And what I have come to think of as “Rita’s Christmas coffeecake” represents every one of those qualities. Rita was a cooking teacher whose classes I attended many years ago when I first became aware that I was curious about food and wanted to learn to cook well.
She taught in an adult education program that was a semester long and so enlightening that all the same people signed up for her classes year after year, causing Rita to come up with not just a flow of great new recipes but generous lessons in basic techniques. I often think of her when I beat egg whites so that they peak correctly without getting dry and can fold them properly into a cake batter with confidence. Rita taught us how to pair wines with dishes, and she always had suggestions for which occasions could benefit from the appearance of special dishes. This rich coffeecake was one such dish.
The recipe is made with yeast, and the dough must be refrigerated overnight. Then it is rolled and filled with beaten egg white, raspberry jam and chocolate chips. Toasted nuts are an option. I have never come across this combination of filling ingredients in cookbooks, although I confess I’ve never really searched because I prefer to think of the recipe exclusively as Rita’s cake.
The cake is baked in an angel food pan and comes out tall and shiny, just right for a Christmas brunch. From the outside, it can pass for the usual coffeecake filled with cinnamon and nuts, or possibly even a variation on a cheese Danish. But when sliced and served, the cake surprises people who are not expecting to see swirls of bright red jam snuggled in dark chocolate and roasted nuts. Although traces of the jam are noticeable in the slices, for the most part, the filling appears to be just chocolate, but with a raspberry tang, and the egg whites are completely absorbed so that the chocolate chips remain soft and silky rather than reverting back to brittle chips the way they do in cookies.
The cousin who wouldn’t share
The first time I made the cake, my mother, who had a sweet tooth, so loved it that she immediately anointed it to be a regular holiday treat, but then she also hatched a plot involving revenge. We have a cousin-by-marriage who always refused to divulge her recipes, behavior my mother considered wicked. The cousin was a capable cook with a great palate so that we enjoyed her cooking but inevitably suffered disappointment when we were denied recipes.
I have never eaten a better brownie than those made by this cousin, and her roasted duck was done to a perfect turn and was served with an exceptional sauce I have never been able to duplicate. When I tried to wangle recipes from her, I would only get a tight smile and a toss of the head before being told that she never gave away her recipes.
Since my mother was so keen on the Christmas cake, she suspected our cousin would feel the same way, so I was instructed to bake the cake for the next family get-together, which was going to feature a dessert table. I dutifully complied, and when my mother viewed my creation she got a glint in her eye and instructed me to make clear to the cousin that my recipe would not be divulged. The big day arrived and family members filled the dining room table with an array of holiday treats — decorated cookies, pies such as mincemeat, butterscotch and apple, and various chocolate cakes that ranged from a light brown German chocolate cake to a deeply tinted devil’s food that stood next to an ethereal coconut cake covered in a creamy white frosting studded with toasted coconut.
True Christmas spirit
When the highly anticipated cousin finally arrived, she had in tow a platter of miniature meringues that she declared would be the only treat she would touch because they were low calorie and she was on a diet. She shot contemptuous glances at the rest of us who were greedily piling onto our plates the various treats we found irresistible. And she never even glanced at the cake I had brought.
I was quick to notice my mother’s expression, which changed from disappointment to amusement when she saw that I was laughing. I took her aside and said, “That should teach us not to pick up Scrooge-like habits just to get even with people we find mean and inconsiderate.” She agreed and added that negative feelings have no business showing up this time of year and looked on with approval as I gave out Rita’s Christmas cake recipe to family members who had tasted and enjoyed it.
Rita’s Christmas Coffeecake
For the dough:
½ cup milk
For the filling:
- Mix yeast and sugar with milk that has been slightly warmed. When yeast has dissolved, mix in butter that has been melted and cooled. Add three beaten egg yolks, ½ cup of sugar, and then the flour and salt. Mix well and refrigerate overnight.
- Next day: Beat 3 egg whites stiff and add ¼ cup sugar gradually. Divide dough in half and roll out one half to a dimension of about 8 by 16 inches. Spread half of whites on dough.
- Warm jam so that it is spreadable and brush half over the length of the dough. Sprinkle on half of the chocolate chips and half of the nuts, if using. Repeat process with other half of the dough.
- Roll jelly-roll fashion from the long side. Place in greased angel food pan lined with greased wax paper. Repeat with other half of dough. Place second roll on top of the first with the ends of the rolls opposite each other.
- Let rise 2 hours in warm place. Just before putting it in the oven, beat the remaining egg and use that to paint the top of the cake.
- Bake at 350 degrees F for 30 to 45 minutes until top is brown and cake moves away from the sides of the pan. Let cool in pan before removing. Before serving, you may want to decorate top of cake with warmed raspberry jam from a squirt bottle.
Barbara Haber is a food historian and the former curator of books at Radcliffe’s Schlesinger Library at Harvard University where she built a major collection of cookbooks and other books related to food, and influenced the recognition of food history as a viable field of academic and professional study. She founded the Radcliffe Culinary Friends, which supported the library’s culinary collection and provided a forum for food writers from across the country to present their work to an appreciative audience. She also held monthly gatherings, called “First Monday,” where local chefs and writers came together to hear talks on timely food-related topics.
Barbara’s books include “From Hardtack to Home Fries: An Uncommon History of American Cooks and Meals” and “From Betty Crocker to Feminist Food Studies: Critical Perspectives on Women and Food,” which she co-edited. She has written numerous articles and reviews including “Home Cooking in the White House” published in “White House History.” She is currently working on a book about food and World War II in the Pacific tentatively called “Cooking in Captivity.”
She is a former director of the International Association of Culinary Professionals and currently serves on the awards committee and chairs the Who’s Who Committee of the James Beard Foundation. She is a frequent speaker on topics related to the history of food as well as popular food topics, and has appeared on television’s “The Today Show,” “Martha Stewart Living” and The Cooking Channel. Barbara was elected to the James Beard Foundation’s “Who’s Who’s in Food and Beverages” and received the M.F.K. Fisher Award from Les Dames d’Escofier.
Photo: Rita’s Christmas coffeecake. Credit: Barbara Haber