Monday, January 24, 2011

When Life Is Crummy, Savor the Crumbs

Crumb cake enjoys iconic status in our family.

By "crumb cake" I don't mean just any old coffeecake with a little bit of streusel topping. Oh, no. A crumb cake is actually far more crumb than cake; the cake exists merely as a platter for the heavy, sweet topping of buttery, cinnamon-flavored crumbs.

For me, growing up in New York, a crumb cake meant just one particular cake--the confectioner-sugar-dusted square of pastry nestled in a white box with the name "Entenmann's" stretching across it in bold navy blue. A cellophane window allowed you to peek in at the winterscape atop the yellow cake and long for the moment when Mom or Dad would slit the little tabs on each side to open the box.

I loved this cake so much that I requested it for my birthday cake several times. I remember candles sticking up out of the perfect square of crumbs; I remember enjoying my little rectangle cut from this square while the other kids at my party tucked into triangular pieces of normal, frosted birthday cake.

That cake had the perfect balance of crumb and cake. Though the yellow cake was subordinate to the crumbs, its texture and depth were important. It had to be moist (so moist that it was compressible, like Wonder Bread) and thick enough so that you tasted it, because without that gentle taste, the crumbs were overpowering. A stale crumb cake was unsavory; a fresh cake made at a bakery nearby that was practically all crumb (and was flat and round, billed as a Pizza Crumb) was surprisingly unappealing.

I remember we all liked the middle part of the cake best, where the crumbs stayed fresh the longest and were concentrated in a dense layer. And if you couldn't wheedle a between-meals slice from my parents, you could certainly snitch a few crumbs off the cake (and, if the cake's appearance was questioned later, claim that they had "fallen off").

When we were older, we would audaciously cut into the cake starting in the middle and working our way out to the edges. The sliced cake would take on odd shapes as people angled to get the most crumb-laden pieces; it resembled an ongoing game of tangrams.

And when the cake was all gone, there were still the crumbs to enjoy--the ones that really, truly fell off the cake without any help and rolled into the tiny alleys between the foil cake pan and the box's interior edges.

Jumping forward a few years and across a continent, I found myself in the crumb-cake-less land of the Pacific Northwest. For two long years I learned how to order lattes and what "venti" meant but lacked the appropriate crumb cake to accompany the coffee.

Then one day as I drove to work, a white billboard with a familiar blue signature appeared on the horizon. Drawing closer, I realized it announced that Entenmann's was coming soon to A Grocery Store Near Me. It was like seeing a glorious sunrise. Upon arrival at the office, I rounded a corner and bumped into a fellow East-Coaster who worked there and we simultaneously exclaimed, "Did you see? Did you see?"

It was a nice taste of home--for a while. After about a decade, though, the cakes started disappearing from local stores. The Entenmann's displays dwindled to a pathetic assortment of boxed doughnuts. A desperate plea emailed to the new company that owned the Entenmann's line yielded only a curt reply that no, the company had no intention of making the cake available in the northwest again.


Ordering online was an absurd option--it would cost about $15 to buy and ship the cake from a deli in New York. The only other option was to learn to bake the darn thing myself, and that's where Cook's Illustrated came to the rescue. It published a recipe for New York Style Crumb Cake in May 2007.

I finally baked this cake about a week ago. Its baking wasn't just out of a desire to sate a sweet tooth or sweet nostalgia, though. This cake was freighted with more than just crumbs. It was baked for a dear relative facing surgery that would result in being diabetic. This cake consisted of sweetness and sweet memories.

The cake was served, with crumbs still intact (none had "fallen off" en route). We sliced the cake in time-approved manner, from the middle out. The central square went to the guest of honor.

The crumbs were pronounced delectable and "just right." The yellow cake was too dry, but this wasn't the recipe's fault--I'd baked it in a glass pan because I didn't have a metal one, and this affected the texture. We didn't mind, though. I figured the cake was just taunting us, reminding us that even though the crumbs get all the glory, the cake counts, too.

It's a sad and worrisome time for our family as life changes now and forever. But we've also shared plenty of stories, and many hugs, along with the crumb cake. That silly square of sweetness serves as a reminder in a couple of ways: Don't save the best for last. Enjoy life from the middle out, right up to the edges. And when life is crummy, savor even the littlest crumbs you can find.