by Gennie Truelock
Working from home over the last several weeks has brought me some unexpected challenges, but also some new insights. In my job at the Museum, I have grown very accustomed to the fact that no two days are ever alike. But since the Safer at Home Order has been in place, there are times I feel like one day blurs into the next. After sitting down, yet again, to work on my laptop on the dining room table for a few hours, I decided I needed to take a break, and that’s when a thought struck me. I never really considered how important it is to take a break from things. I hadn’t realized how often, after a few minutes of chatting with a coworker or getting a cup of coffee, an idea for a program or research topic had come to me. Now working from home, while I feel very lucky to be able to do so, I’ve noticed that without periodic distractions, I struggle to have that same sense of creativity and inspiration. So, I got up from my make-shift work desk and made a cup of coffee, just like I would at the office whenever I felt “stuck” on a project. My mind started to wander and I caught myself thinking about the origin of the coffee break. Which then, because of my love of baking, led me to wonder about the history of coffee cake, and by the time I had finished my cup of java, I had a new topic for this week’s post.
The origins of the coffee break
Americans have always loved coffee. Since the Boston Tea Party in 1773, when it became a patriotic duty to drink it instead of tea, the number of coffee drinkers in the US has continued to grow, and I, for one, am a fervent consumer. While the love for this caffeinated seed has a long history in the US, the coffee break has only been around for the last 120 years. The origins of the coffee break are a bit unclear, but the two most prevalent backstories for how it became popular in the US stem from one similar idea: the working-class needed a break.
The town of Stoughton, Wisconsin, claims it is the originator of the coffee break in the US, noting that in the late 1800s, due to a shortage of male workers at a local tobacco warehouse, immigrant Norwegian women were hired in their place on the condition that they would get a break every morning and afternoon to take care of chores at home and have a cup of coffee. The town even holds an annual Coffee Break Festival to commemorate this story.
The more likely reason we enjoy a coffee break, however, has to do with the development of the eight-hour workday, unions, and workers’ rights. By the 1900s, as more workers left rural areas and trudged into urban factories, various trades were organizing and advocating for better treatment of employees, which included shorter work days and breaks during their shifts. At the same time, coffee consumption in the United States was undergoing its own revolution. The first vacuum-sealed coffee grounds were produced by the San Francisco company Hills Brothers, and soon coffee kiosks began to appear on city streets. The brewed beverage quickly infiltrated office buildings and factory floors.
The evolution of the coffee cake
Eating sweets is nothing new. Practically every culture on the globe has found a way to create their own versions of sweetened baked goods meant to be paired with a particular beverage. When coffee was introduced to Northern and Central Europe in the 17th century, a tradition arose of eating specific sweet breads or cakes with coffee. Recipes for these “coffee cakes” reached American shores by the 1870s, where they quickly became popular. While some early recipes did actually contain coffee, this practice seems to fall out of favor in the US by the turn of the century. The American-style coffee cake, a single-layer, cake-like sweet with a crumb topping, is likely based on a German treat known as streuselkuchen, which was popularized here with the continuing arrival of German immigrants throughout the 19th century and became extremely popular on the East Coast during the early 20th century. Although the German version is traditionally made with yeast, Americans quickly added their own twist to this dish by making it into a quick bread thanks to the introduction of baking powder here in the late 1800s.
Which takes us to our featured recipe
I once again turned to the trusty pages of Any one can Bake from the Museum’s collection (a previous post featured another recipe from this cookbook) and discovered an interesting recipe for a Mrs. Gray’s Spice Filled Coffee Cake. While I couldn’t find out anything about who Mrs. Gray was, I did have an unexpected surprise. The ingredients of this coffee cake are typical to what you see in most American-style coffee cakes, except for the inclusion of almonds (nuts are typically added to the German version), but it is in the assembly of the cake where things took an unexpected twist. After the cake has cooled, the recipe recommends that you split the cake in half to create two layers, place whipped cream on the bottom layer, and replace the top layer. This presentation style seems to take a nod from the British form of coffee cake, which is a two-layered cake traditionally made with coffee and a layer of coffee buttercream and walnuts.
I decided to give Mrs. Gray’s recipe a try and here’s how it turned out:
In the end, I hope this post reminds you that when you are feeling a little stuck or struggling to figure out what you should do next, take a break, have a cup of coffee or a piece of cake, and open your mind to new inspiration.