Coffeecake -- it's the perfect breakfast splurge, light dessert or nighttime indulgence, or afternoon treat for unexpected guests.
But it's hard to find a good one.
Many of the neighborhood bakeries that used to be reliable sources are gone, and supermarket coffeecakes might not appeal to you. If you don't want to make one yourself, mail-order coffeecakes, available from catalogues and online, are an attractive alternative.
A good coffeecake should be moist and have an appealing aroma and taste. Ideally, it should have a little crunch on top and a texture that's somewhere between cake and bread. It also doesn't hurt if the cake looks appealing.
Recently, we invited Stratford University pastry chef James Sinopoli, pastry chef Valerie Hill and Quartermaine Coffee Roasters President Roger Scheumann to taste and compare six catalogue coffeecakes (also available online). They met at the Majestic Cafe in Old Town Alexandria, where Hill prepares the desserts. We asked Scheumann to suggest appropriate coffee matches as well.
Prices do not include shipping and handling. Each of the cakes provides 10 to 12 servings, except the one from Zingerman's, which serves four to six.
The clear winner:
* CINNAMON STREUSEL COFFEECAKE, the Baker's Catalogue (King Arthur Flour), $24.95; call 800-827-6836.
This cake was shipped without fancy wrappings -- just professional baker's paper. At first the judges were put off by its plain appearance, but upon closer inspection, they liked its traditional look and the quality of its streusel topping. They liked the aroma, too, praising the spiciness that came from the nutmeg and brown sugar in the topping. "I can tell they used good ingredients, not imitation anything," Hill said. Scheumann praised "its nice well-balanced flavor." Sinopoli liked its moisture content, spices and "caramelly swirls." He also noted that its nuts weren't burned -- a problem with some coffeecakes.
The judges' ratings on a 1 to 10 scale: Hill and Scheumann gave it a clear 9; Sinopoli, an 8 (because of the paper wrapping) or 9.
Coffee match: A nice medium-bodied variety with a refined flavor, such as an Ethiopian coffee. The coffeecake is so good you don't need a dark roast to cut through it.
* SWISS COLONY STREUSEL SWIRL COFFEE CAKE, $19.95; 800-544-9036.
This cake had an ugly-duckling quality. "It looks like it's bounced around a lot, or something smashed into it on top," Hill said. But the judges all liked its spicy, clear aroma. Once they tasted it, they admired its dense, buttery quality -- until an aftertaste set in.
Rating: Hill and Sinopoli, 6; Scheumann, 5.
Coffee match: A dark coffee, such as a Central American blend, not a mild one with some acidity.
* ZINGERMAN'S NOSHER SOUR CREAM COFFEECAKE $27; 888-636-8162.
The company's smaller size cake, which arrived in a handsome wooden container, was a little disappointing. "It smells kind of plain," Scheumann said. The judges found its appearance underwhelming, and the nuts on top too large for the smaller scale of the cake. "It needs a little dressing up," said Scheumann.
"I kind of like it," Hill said. "It's an old-time bakery cake. But there's no flavor that jumps out. . . . It reminds me of a cake doughnut."
Rating: Hill, 7; Scheumann, 5; Sinopoli, 4.
Coffee match: A good estate Colombian -- nothing too fancy.
* MY GRANDMA'S OF NEW ENGLAND CINNAMON WALNUT COFFEECAKE WITH STREUSEL (Kosher) $19.95; 800-847-2636.
The judges liked the appearance -- "like a nice homemade cake." The sweet aroma of coconut, pineapple or a citrus surprised them pleasantly, and they liked the cake's lightness. "I like the way that it feels in your mouth," Hill said, "but I'm getting a little bitterness." Sinopoli liked the texture, too, and also pointed to "a little bitterness in the taste," saying that sometimes that happens when nuts are overroasted. Scheumann didn't notice much aftertaste, bitter or not.
Rating: Hill, 4; Sinopoli and Scheumann, 6.
Coffee match: A straightforward coffee -- Guatemalan or Costa Rican -- with a little cream.
* TRADITIONAL CINNAMON WALNUT COFFEECAKE, CoffeeCakes.com, $19.95; 800-830-2696.
The judges liked the "nice old-fashioned appearance" of this cake. But it had fallen prey to one of the challenges of mail-order purchasing: It looked flat, smashed, as though something had fallen on it. Noting a tropical aroma, like pineapple or coconut, they found that the smell was echoed in the taste, although they described it as "not too bad." Hill liked the "light and moist" texture. Scheumann found it a little dry.
Rating: All three gave it a 5.
Coffee match: A smooth, even blend of Central or South American.
* MISS GRACE'S COFFEE CAKE, through Mrs. Beasley's catalogue and site, $29.95, 800-800-2253.
A very pretty cake, the judges said of this nicely shaped version with swirls of icing. But inside, the cake was judged kind of bland, without much aroma and dry, though sweet. "Sugar is the most forward component," said Sinopoli.
Rating: All three gave it a 3.
Coffee match: A full-bodied coffee, such as one from Sumatra, with a really nice flavor and hints of caramel or cocoa. Or a bold coffee such as a French roast because of its smoky, carbony taste. With cream.