Growing up in the Midwest, everyone had a box of baking mix on the shelf, allowing fast preparation of biscuits, dumplings, pie crust and pancakes. Some of our neighbors favored Bisquick, in its bright yellow box. But, we and many others were Jiffy mix families. For one thing, it was a local Michigan product, produced less than half an hour away in downtown Chelsea, Michigan, best known now as Jeff Daniels’ hometown.
The Holmes family, which founded the Chelsea Milling Company in 1901, were approachable and visible figures around the small town. I’ve met the current CEO, Howdy Holmes, the former race car driver, and his father, Howard, who walked me around the factory early in my reporting days, listening patiently to my stories of all the things I baked with his mixes.
The earliest thing I can remember making with Jiffy Mix was coffee cake. The recipe is exquisitely simple: you make a batter from the mix, sugar, fat, and milk, spread it with topping, and bake it.
It’s a perfectly satisfying recipe, one that anyone can master, and one that will impress your friends. If you don’t have a coffee cake in your repertoire, you can start with this one, and people will gobble it up.
Once you’re ready to advance, you might attempt an even better version that I learned when I was working on my recent book, Satisfaction Guaranteed: How Zingerman’s Built A Corner Deli Into A Global Food Community. I spent a day inside Zingerman’s Bakehouse, where the company turns out its famous breads, cookies, pastries, pies, and most of all, its coffee cakes.
They are one of the most popular items in the Zingerman’s mail order catalog, and a favorite corporate gift, especially at the holidays. If you work at a big city law firm or an accounting practice, one of your clients has probably sent your department a Zingerman’s coffee cake, or your company sends it out to your customers.
One taste tells you that this is a coffee cake of the gods, and the result of in-depth research. The Bakehouse tested 50 different recipes before settling on the one for hot cocoa cake, which is as good as any chocolate layer cake that I’ve eaten. Those who developed it wanted the coffee cake to taste as close to a cup of hot chocolate as possible.
During my day at the Bakehouse, I settled in at the long table where the coffee cakes are concocted and saw how to enhance even the most modest of coffee cakes. You want a lot of topping. And don’t just put it on top. Put it inside the cake, too.
Zingerman’s bakers set down a layer of batter, a layer of topping (in this case, more like filling), another layer of batter, another layer of topping, and more batter. The coffee cakes are made in heavy bundt style pans, the kind that have to be greased and floured to ensure that the coffee cake can be removed without sticking. You don’t have to do that, but my observations taught me that a deeper pan is better when it comes to coffee cakes.
You can find Zingerman’s recipe in its Bakehouse cookbook, but if you are a coffee cake novice, here’s the original Jiffy Recipe, courtesy of the Chelsea Milling Company.
No matter whether you are making your first cake or your 50th, I can guarantee it will be gone by the time brunch is over.
- 1½ cups “JIFFY” baking mix
- 1/4 cup white sugar
- 1/4 cup butter
- 3/4 cup milk or milk alternative
- 1 egg, slightly beaten
- 1/4 cup brown sugar, heavily packed
- 1 Tbsp. “JIFFY” baking mix
- 2 tsp. cinnamon
- 1/2 cup nuts, chopped (optional; you can substitute raisins)
- 2 Tbsp. cold butter
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Grease or place parchment in an 8-inch square pan. Combine the baking mix and sugar. Cut in the butter until crumbly. Add the milk and egg and stir until just combined. Spread this into the pan.
Combine the first four topping ingredients, then cut in the butter until the mixture is streusel-like. Sprinkle it over the batter in the pan. Bake 25-30 minutes. Serve warm.
- Coffee cake isn’t only good with coffee, nor is it limited to breakfast or brunch. You can split a piece in two and add some ice cream, plus a sauce like caramel or dulce de leche and some whipped cream.
- Use your coffee cake as the base for a shortcake. The cinnamon and sugar in the topping will go nicely with some marinated berries.
- Coffee cake can be turned into a trifle or a bread pudding. Cut it into squares and use it as a layering ingredient. If you’ve stirred some of the topping into the cake prior to baking, it’s going to enhance the other ingredients, whether you use custard, jam, meringue, or more whipped cream.