Polish Coffee Cake, a.k.a. “Placek” is lightly sweet bread studded with dried fruit and a sugary topping. Traditionally made in 3’s to represent the Holy Trinity at Easter time.
My Great-Grandma Coopersmith, “Grandma Coop” or “Coop,” as we called her, immigrated to the US from Poland with her family in 1895, when she was just 3 years old. Her family ultimately settled on a dairy farm in Michigan’s “thumb” region. Each year at Easter time, her mother, my Great-Great Grandmother, would bake 3 coffee cakes, to represent the Holy Trinity. We call it Polish Coffee Cake. The traditional Polish name for it is Placek. She would take the Polish Coffee Cake, along with their Easter meal, to be blessed at church. She would then give her priest one of the cakes, and bring the others home for her family. Grandma Coop learned to make this coffee cake as a young girl, and carried on the tradition with her family.
When Grandma Coop was in her late 80’s, she was nearly blind from macular degeneration, close to deaf, and had a nasty case of pneumonia. My sweet Aunt Jill moved her into their family home to care for her, during what we expected to be her last days.
Well, Jill must have taken pretty great care of her, because Coop lived another 9 years–to the ripe old age of 98. She was just shy of her 99th birthday.
Her goal was to live to 103, like her daddy did.
During the time that Coop lived with my Aunt Jill, she taught Jill how to make her favorite family recipes. The recipes, it seems, were passed down through word of mouth and demonstration. Women cooking side-by-side for generations. None of them were written down. Aunt Jill wanted to preserve her Grandma’s favorite recipes to pass down to the rest of the family. So Jill stood next to Coop, and while Coop was grabbing handfuls of this and pinches of that, Jill would stop her so that she could measure the amounts and write them down. I get it. I did the same thing when learning how to make my Grandma’s Mac and Cheese.
Coop got a tad frustrated with the whole process and insisted that it was going to take forever to make anything if Jill didn’t stop interrupting her. Sweet, feisty Polak that she was.
Eventually, Jill’s persistence paid off, and she was able to document the Polish Coffee Cake, and few other recipes. Fast forward a few decades later. Jill and I were chatting one day, and she asked if I would be interested in learning to make the Polish Coffee Cake. She further explains that since I am the baker in the family, if I don’t learn how to make this coffee cake, then the tradition will die with her.
It was a very dramatic moment.
See, Jill had two boys, neither of whom are bakers. My other aunt had two boys, neither of whom are bakers. My uncle had no children, so obviously none of them are bakers, because they don’t exist.
Moving onward…my mom had me. The only girl in my generation on that side of the family. Therefore, I am the baker in the family.
No pressure, man.
To be honest, at the time of our conversation, my recollection of the family coffee cake was vague, at best. But I love the generational ties brought on by family recipes, so naturally, I learned how to make the coffee cake. Then, the first time I made it and popped it in the oven, I remembered. The slightly sweet aroma brought it all back to me in a rush of childhood nostalgia.
I just love it when food brings about emotion.
So, my friends, I give you my Great-Grandma Coop’s Polish Coffee Cake recipe. Which I guess technically should be called my Great-Great-Grandma Pisarek’s Polish Coffee Cake, but it was always Coop’s, to me. 😉
The cake is lightly sweet, with a dapple of raisins, and a sweet crumb topping. The texture is a cross between a cake, and a sweet bread. The taste is nothing short of lovely. Perfect for Easter brunch!
Pour some milk into a Dutch oven, along with the softened butter. Yes, butter and not margarine as the recipe states. Butter is how I roll. Heat it all over low heat, until just warm to the touch. Turn off the heat.
Pour in a little granulated sugar–just a cup or so. That really isn’t much sugar considering the recipe makes three loaves of coffee cake.
Add the salt.
Then a bit of nutmeg.
Here’s where I deviate from the recipe…again. Forgive me Grandma Coop! The recipe as it was given to me calls for a full tablespoon of lemon peel. The lemon peel that I am thinking of is the dried stuff found in the spice aisle at the grocery store. Being that lemon peel is not a pantry staple in my house, I used a teaspoon of fresh lemon zest, instead, because I thought a full tablespoon of zest would make the whole affair a bit too lemony. This is not a lemon coffee cake, after all.
Whisk it all together, until smooth.
Sprinkle in the yeast, and whisk until smooth again. Let the milk mixture sit for about 5 minutes, so that the yeast can warm up and get a little feisty. Just like Great-Grandma.
Gradually add the flour, stirring with a wooden spoon. I usually add a couple of cups at a time, stir it until smooth, then add a couple more, until I’ve added all of the flour.
By the time that all of the flour has been added, the dough will pull away from the sides of the pot.
The recipe calls for just enough raisins to sweeten the dough without being overwhelming. Fold in the raisins to evenly distribute them through the dough.
Cover the Dutch oven with lightly with plastic wrap. Place a clean dish towel over the plastic wrap.
Allow the dough to rise until it reaches the top of the pot, which is about double in size; about 1 1/2 to 2 hours. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees (F).
Divide the dough into three equal parts. I like to use a bench scraper, but a sharp knife would do just fine.
The dough should still be very sticky. Use the wooden spoon to scrape a third of the dough out of the pan. Don’t worry about scrapping every bit of dough from the bottom and sides of the pot because the sticky stuff will be used for the topping.
Put the dough into a 9 x 5 loaf pan that has been well sprayed with baking spray. Scoop each of the other two thirds of the dough into two other prepared pans. Set the pans aside while preparing the crumb topping.
See all of that dough stuck to the pot? That will serve as the base for the crumb topping. Seriously! It’s really fun to make, too.
Dump in a cup of powdered sugar. Then, grab a blob of dough from the pot. Things are about to get fun, and a little and messy. Notice that I neglected to remove my rings. Don’t be like me–now would be an excellent time to remove any rings from fingers before proceeding.
Drop the blob of dough into the powdered sugar to coat. Pick it up again, and rub it vigorously between your hands, to make thin ropes that will eventually crumble. Continue to rub and work the powdered sugar into the dough, and making crumbles. Think of it like making snakes out of play dough. Only you keep rolling those snakes until they fall apart. This is after working in the first cup of powdered sugar. The pieces are still kind of big and unruly.
This is after 2 cups of powdered sugar have been worked in. The crumbles are getting smaller, but are still a bit too chunky. So I added another cup of powdered sugar, and kept picking up bits, and rubbing them briskly between my fingers to break them up. It’s quite a workout.
This is after I’ve worked in 3 cups of powdered sugar with the dough that was stuck to the pan. Most of the crumbs are about the size of peas, with a lot of fine crumbs, and a few larger bits.
Sprinkle the crumb topping evenly over the three loaves. Give the tops a gentle pat to help the crumbles stay in place during the second rise.
Let the dough rise to the top of the pans; about another hour or so. I love how the crumb topping cracks when the dough beneath it rises. Place a baking sheet on the bottom rack of the preheated oven to catch any sugar crumbles that fall off the loaves while baking, thus keeping them from burning onto the floor of the oven.
Place the coffee cakes on the middle rack of the oven, and bake for 30-40 minutes, or until golden brown on top, and cooked through. Remove the cakes from the oven, and cool for about 15 minutes in the pans. Run a knife gently around the edges of the coffee cakes, to loosen the cakes from the pans. Use a thin spatula to lift the cakes up and out of their pans. Try not to invert the cakes, or a lot of the topping will fall off. Cool coffee cake completely before slicing to serve.
Notice that the topping kind of melts down the sides of the coffee cake. Then when you slice it, the topping falls off in sugary chunks. I had to smack Bacon Slayer’s hand so he wouldn’t eat all of those chunks while I was taking pictures. Believe me, those little bits are worth battling over!
Polish Coffee Cake is the perfect tasty morsel for Easter or any other time of year!
If you don’t have a pastor or friends to give the extra cakes to, wrap them tightly in plastic wrap, then again with aluminum foil, and freeze for up to 3 months.