Cooking Hack: Streusel Topping

Nothing like a good streusel, amiright?! Crumbly, salty-sweet nuggets of cinnamony goodness. Yum. And so easy right? Amiright?

Maybe not.

It might my tendency to cook kind of by the seat of my pants (it might be said of me that I sneak up on my baking, and all my butter might usually be frozen solid when I start baking and that the first step in baking for me is figuring out how I’m going to get it softened in time to incorporate— or not), but several times now, I’ve gone to make a streusel and had it go wrong. Now, I will say that a streusel gone wrong is still pretty great— still a delectable combination of butter and brown sugar and cinnamon, after all. But when you’re expecting streusel and it turns into kind of a shell, or it sinks into your batter, and leaves canyon-esque craters across the top of a cake you intend to, you know, show people, it’s not ideal.

A lot has to do with the temperature of your butter. If it’s too warm when you mix it, it will turn into cinnamon-brown sugar spread. Delectable in its own right, but not streusel. Better for spreading across dough for cinnamon rolls, for example. And if it is too warm after you mix it and before it goes in the oven? Also bad. For streusel, use cold butter, keep it cold after you mix it, and aim for a texture like pebbles.

I’m reading that the sinking thing might say that you need more flour in your streusel mixture to bind to the butter to keep it up top. I’m passionately against too much flour in this mixture (what tastes good is butter and sugar and spice. What dilutes that is flour), so it’s a fine line. I’ve also read that the temperature and melting point during baking of the fat relative to the batter can be a factor here. Cold butter, you-all. Key. When in doubt, add a little flour.

If you’re set on making sure your streusel stays on top, start your sweet in the oven without the streusel, and add it partway through. I feel like this is a bridge too far and will result in runaway streusel, but you do you.

With my favorite sourdough coffee cake, I’ve learned to use cold butter (I think that margarine recommendation is probably creating craters in coffee cakes the world over), but this recipe calls for so much streusel that I worry about too much of it making a break for freedom when I take the cake out of the pan. With this recipe, I sprinkle the streusel into a thick layer, then I take (clean) fingers and poke the topping into the cake at regular intervals, so there are pockets of cinnamon-sugar goodness throughout and streusel on top. Somehow (possibly that same mojo that lets Tony Robbins attendees walk barefoot across flaming coals without burning themselves), if you do this without overthinking it, your fingers emerge not covered in coffee cake batter, just dusted with cinnamon sugar. And your cake emerges with a fine balance of free-floating and captive streusel. I have unusually tiny fingers, though, so maybe it’s just my superpower. If the Tony Robbins thing doesn’t work for you, you could also do alternating layers as you add the streusel into the pan. Streusel batter streusel batter streusel. It’s not fire walking, but it’ll get the job done.

Many ways to enjoy.

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