In The End, Haiti
Peter Berley's Leek Soup with Peas and Sauerkraut

Buttermilk-Cinnamon Coffeecake


Readers, my mojo is off. I don't know how it happened, or how to get it back. But the mojo is askew. Possibly even temporarily missing in action. Is it the recipes I'm choosing? The German version of all the ingredients? The anticipation of the delivery of all my earthly possessions to my mother's apartment early Thursday morning and the fact that I still don't have a place of my own? I don't know, but it's bugging me. Deeply.

Spaghetti with tomato sauce I've got down. Salads, they are coming out of my ears! Cheese sandwiches, liverwurst toasts, I don't have any problems with either of those. Oh, and I've been doing some amazing things with rice lately. But newspaper recipes are shaping up to be my challenge of the week.

The universe seemed to be giving me a little gift when the editors at the Los Angeles Times threw open the doors onto a small sliver of their recipe vaults. Oooh, I clicked away, bookmarking a new collection of things to try. Georgian cheese bread! Calamari stew! A crazy-hideous Indian chicken in mango sauce! And a buttermilk coffeecake that just screamed to be made and brought to a Kaffeeklatsch I went to on Saturday afternoon.

(Well, they didn't call it that, no.)


I know from other Americans in Berlin that it's not an easy thing to simply make American baking recipes with German ingredients. The flour is different, the leaveners aren't exactly the same, and brown sugar, the squidgy, fudgy American kind, doesn't even exist here. Our light, fluffy cakes tend to result in somewhat leaden, dry specimens. Still, I thought, rather cockily, a simple, spiced buttermilk cake? I can do that.

Hrmph. Note to self: on next trip to the US, buy brown sugar. Also, some humility.

For this cake, you make a dryish dough that seems all wrong, then separate out some of it to be mixed with sliced almonds and more spices. This ends up a streusel topping of sorts. The rest of the dough is mixed with buttermilk and oil and egg, turning it into a buff-colored batter. That batter is poured into a buttered baking dish, then strewn with the almond streusel and baked until golden brown and fragrant and puffed, just as any good coffeecake should be.


Is there anything lovelier than a house filling with the scent of sweet baking? It's awfully reassuring, I find. Mixing together ingredients in a strange country, in a strange kitchen, baking them in a strange oven, then finding the fragrance just as it should be made me feel supremely capable at a moment in my life when I feel like most of what lies before me is out of my control. That was rather nice.

The cake baked up fine - from a flat little puddle into a nicely mounding cake, splintered and studded with almond slices and pockets of streusel. But it baked far faster than the recipe said (the conversion of Fahrenheit to gas marks is an inexact science and one I'm still trying to master as long as I'm without an oven thermometer), and once we tried to cut cooled pieces out of the pan, we realized the cake had fused rather maddeningly to the pan. I hate it when that happens.


Using granulated brown cane sugar instead of American brown sugar left the cake too dry and sweet and coarse-grained. It wasn't awful, especially when dolloped with a generous amount of freshly whipped cream to balance the sweetness (essential, this is, I can't stress it enough). And the men at the gathering were darling, eating great big pieces of it and murmuring approvingly. But I think they were just taking pity on me. I wouldn't make it again.

So here's my question. Or, rather, questions. Am I just being grumpy? Should I quit making American recipes with German ingredients? Should I be spending more time studying the different chemical compounds of German leaveners versus American ones? In my move from the US to Berlin, did I go from being a good cook to a mediocre one? Am I being a total drama queen? Should I give myself a break and just buy myself a piece of cake the next time I need it? Any thoughts you might have, especially from readers who live in Europe and regularly bake and cook American recipes, would be greatly appreciated.

Cinnamon-Buttermilk Coffeecake
Makes 8 to 12 servings

2 1/4 cups flour
1 cup brown sugar, packed
3/4 cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
3/4 cup corn oil
1 cup sliced almonds
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 egg
1 cup buttermilk

1. Mix flour, brown sugar, granulated sugar, 1 teaspoon cinnamon, salt and ginger. Blend in oil until smooth. Remove 3/4 cup mixture and combine with almonds and remaining 1 teaspoon cinnamon. Mix and set aside.

2. To remaining flour mixture, add baking powder, baking soda, egg and buttermilk. Blend until smooth. Pour into buttered 13x9-inch baking pan. Sprinkle reserved nut mixture evenly over surface of batter. Bake at 350 degrees 35 to 40 minutes. Place pan on wire rack to cool. Cut into squares to serve.