Saturday, 26 June 2010

Historical Coffee Controversy

So I've put in the time and done my research on my delicious Rhubarb and ginger coffee cake from last week, and what never fails to surprise me is the amount of controversy that is wrapped up in the history of food!  First there was the English cake/biscuit court case I discovered, and now an official call made by Pope Clement VIII on whether or not coffee was the beverage choice of Satan!  Let us begin...

Coffee was first brought to Europe by Venitian traders with strong ties to the Middle East, importing it's coffee into Italy in 1615.  It was then that Italy began it's love affair with coffee, and the Italian espresso-style coffee began what is now a multi-billion dollar industry and an eventual globalisation of the coffeehouse culture, a culture only prevalent in the Middle East at that time.  Italians are now famous for their coffee, their style of making and serving coffee, and for the prestige that comes with being a barista in Italy.  The coffeehouse culture is one that may now be associated with intellectuals, artists, writers and academics however at the time that it was first introduced to Europeans it was a different story.  According to many accounts, a group of Christian clerics tried to have coffee banned before it had become widely available. They came to Pope Clement VIII (1535-1605), claiming that coffee was for Satan's followers, and that Christians who drank it might lose their souls to the Devil. However before Pope Clement would ban coffee he insisted on tasting it. After drinking his first cup, the Pope was so impressed with the flavor, that he reasoned that such a drink could not possibly be the work of Satan and instead declared that coffee should be baptized to make it a true Christian drink.  That's right, coffee was baptised.

The first person recorded in history to brew coffee in England was an international student named Nathaniel Conopios from Crete, who was studying at Balliol College, Oxford. This simple act, which happened in May 1637, was recorded by both scholar John Evelyn and historian Anthony Wood. Although, shortly afterwards Conopios was expelled from college, his influence had a lasting effect on Oxford, as it was in Oxford that the first English coffeehouse was opened in 1650 by Jacob, a Lebanese Jew. Even though Jacob moved to London a few years later to repeat his success, he had begun a trend that saw many more coffeehouses open in Oxford during that decade.

I would like to take a moment just to thank Mr. Conopios from Crete for his tenacity by brewing that first cup of controversial coffee in England and starting the momentum for coffee culture to (albeit very late as it was fighting with the tea culture) to catch on, the eventual coffee shop on Putney High Street to be built, several hundred years later.  That coffee shop was where I spent many weekend afternoons studying when I was in graduate school and it was where I met my husband.  Surely if Mr Conopios were still alive I would have invited him to our wedding. 

Now how did we get from coffee to coffee cake?  The custom of eating some sweet yeast bread while drinking one's coffee probably began in the 17th century in Europe. Dutch, Scandinavian, French and German immigrants all brought a recipe for some sort of breakfast bread when they came to North America. All the recipes used flour, eggs, yeast, sugar, nuts, spices and dried fruit and probably were more bread- than cake-like. Over the years, people experimented with those recipes and began adding creamy fillings, cheese, yogurt and sugared fruit.

By 1879, coffee cakes were well-known in America and there were already countless recipes for crumb cakes, streusel cakes and streusel/crumb-cake combinations. Streusel cakes have that swirl of cinnamon/brown sugar throughout the center while crumb cakes have a topping of crumbly flour, sugar and butter and cinnamon.

Many of today's coffee cakes are made with a Bundt pan (a ring with a hole in the center, but clearly not the one above!). The Bundt pan is actually a fairly recent innovation.   It was created in 1950 by H. David Dalquist of Nordic Ware. Two of his Jewish customers told him how they missed the heavier European cakes they had grown up with but needed a cake pan with a hole in it. The holes allowed heat to penetrate the heavier batter and did not leave unbaked dough at the center. The women showed Dalquist a ceramic kugelhopf pan and he made a similar version in all-purpose aluminum. However, while kugelhopf pans are spherical with folds like a turban, Dalquist introduced fluted folds into the fluted edges and patented the design.

So little did I know when making my Rhubarb and ginger coffee cake last week, how much my personal history was tied into the history of what I enjoyed eating!  The recipe, which is so worth making, was found on one of my favorite food blogs, Smitten Kitchen.

‘Big Crumb’ Coffeecake with Rhubarb
Adapted from The New York Times 6/6/07
Yield: 6 to 8 servings

Butter for greasing pan

For the rhubarb filling:
1/2 pound rhubarb, trimmed
1/4 cup sugar
2 teaspoons cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

For the crumbs:

1/3 cup dark brown sugar
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger**
(So I meant to only but in 1/2 teaspoon but as I was sprinkling it in and just eyeballing it, a huge clump fell in so it ended up being about 2 tsp- was fantastic and a touch spicy!)
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (1 stick or 4 ounces) butter, melted
1 3/4 cups cake flour (I was out and used all-purpose and it worked great)

For the cake:
1/3 cup sour cream
1 large egg
1 large egg yolk
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup cake flour (ditto on the all-purpose flour–worked just fine)
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons softened butter, cut into 8 pieces.

1. Preheat oven to 325F/ 175C degrees. Grease an 8-inch-square baking pan. For filling, slice rhubarb 1/2 inch thick and toss with sugar, cornstarch and ginger. Set aside.

2. To make crumbs in a large bowl, whisk sugars, spices and salt into melted butter until smooth. Then, add flour with a spatula or wooden spoon. It will look and feel like a solid dough. Leave it pressed together in the bottom of the bowl and set aside.

3. To prepare cake, in a small bowl, stir together the sour cream, egg, egg yolk and vanilla. Using a mixer fitted with paddle attachment, mix together flour, sugar, baking soda, baking powder and salt. Add butter and a spoonful of sour cream mixture and mix on medium speed until flour is moistened. Increase speed and beat for 30 seconds. Add remaining sour cream mixture in two batches, beating for 20 seconds after each addition, and scraping down the sides of bowl with a spatula. Scoop out about 1/2 cup batter and set aside.

4. Scrape remaining batter into prepared pan. Spoon rhubarb over batter. Dollop set-aside batter over rhubarb; it does not have to be even.

5. Using your fingers, break topping mixture into big crumbs, about 1/2 inch to 3/4 inch in size. They do not have to be uniform, but make sure most are around that size. Sprinkle over cake. Bake cake until a toothpick inserted into center comes out clean of batter (it might be moist from rhubarb), 45 to 55 minutes. Cool completely before serving.

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