Really Good Sour Cream Coffeecake with Serious Amounts of Crumb Topping

That's one descriptive title, isn't it?

I've loved coffeecake all my life, but only certain types. No berries, thanks. Yes to apple or rhubarb. Sour cream makes it so nice and moist. But always, always, it's really about the crumb topping.

A while back I found a great rhubarb coffee cake recipe that fully addressed the crumb topping issue. But I can't leave well enough alone so I tinkered with it a bit. When I went to make it today rhubarb wasn't in season and I couldn't find any frozen rhubarb. Hence, this amalgamation/refinement.

Inspiration #1: Big Crumb Coffee Cake on the Smitten Kitchen blog. Full endorsement of this recipe as-is if you don't have ingredients for my variation on her crumb topping. (She just uses flour--I added additional nutrition and flavor with ground flaxseed, walnuts, and oatmeal.)

Inspiration #2: Favorite Sour Cream Coffeecake from King Arthur Flour

Also--I don't understand why anyone ever makes a 9x9 coffeecake. Why go to all that trouble for just a couple of days of coffeecake? (At my house, at least, where my bike-racing husband runs a nuclear power plant he calls a metabolism, a 9x9 coffeecake doesn't last long.) So I always double coffeecake recipes. I've learned that this more than doubles baking time so keep an eye on this and test with a toothpick. The recipes linked above are for a 9x9 pan.


1/2 cup unsalted butter
1/2 cup canola oil or another bland vegetable oil
2 cups white sugar
4 large eggs
4 cups whole wheat pastry flour or unbleached all-purpose flour*
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon salt
2 cups sour cream or yogurt**

* Whole wheat pastry flour is my preferred baking flour. It behaves like all-purpose white flour but gives you more nutritional bounce for the ounce.

** Feel free to use reduced-fat sour cream/yogurt, and vanilla yogurt would add a nice touch. If you like fruit in your coffeecake I suppose you could use fruit yogurt but I won't vouch for it.

Crumb Topping 

2/3 cup dark brown sugar
2/3 cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
3/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 t. nutmeg
1/4 t. cloves
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup unsalted butter, melted (you need this much to make it clump deliciously)
1 c. ground flaxseed
1 c. walnuts, finely chopped or whizzed in blender
1 c. oatmeal (quick or regular--doesn't matter--can substitute oat bran too)
1/2 c. whole wheat flour or unbleached all-purpose flour

Cream together the butter and oil, sugar, and eggs. In a separate bowl, mix together the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Add the flour mixture to the butter mixture alternately with the sour cream or yogurt, stirring after each addition.

(Honestly, if you're like me you just sprinkle the flour and leavening agents in rather than going to the whole separate-bowl trouble. Just don't dump the baking powder or soda all in a clump; you can end up with bitter white spots in your final product if it doesn't get mixed in. Sprinkle it over the surface of the batter.)

To make crumb topping, mix sugars, spices, and salt into melted butter, then stir in flaxseed, walnuts, oatmeal, and flour. Leave it pressed together into the sides and bottom of the bowl.

Grease and flour a 9x13 baking pan. Spread half the batter in the pan, and lay half the topping mixture over it with your fingers in chunks of 1/2"-3/4" (don't stress over the size--just go for chunks). Repeat with remaining batter and topping.

Bake at 350 degrees for 60 minutes, covering it halfway through with foil to prevent the topping from over-browning. Test with a toothpick. If it doesn't come out clean, bake another 10 minutes and test again. It may need another 10 minutes; oven temperatures do vary.

The Words You Speak

I wasn't going to immortalize this exchange because it's the kind of thing I'd rather forget. It didn't add to the stock of positive energy in the universe, except maybe a very little, at the end. I couldn't tell.
But then these three quotations came my way and I thought I'd tell the story. Maybe one day when you're inclined to snap at a stranger you'll remember this instead of your mom's admonition about sticks and stones.

"The words you speak become the house you live in." --Hafiz, Iranian poet
“That's what careless words do. They make people love you a little less.” --Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things
"My father would say profane words proceed from a profane heart, kind words from a kind heart, and loving words from a loving heart." --  Ron Sims, former King County Executive and Deputy Secretary of HUD

I was riding home from work on the Burke-Gilman Trail, heading toward north Seattle. The trail is great but lacking in signage in a few places to tell you what street you could get onto if you left the trail at a particular spot. In several places the street that intersects the trail has a name, not a number, so you don't know how far north you've gone unless you've memorized the map or you pull out your smartphone.

Thus it was that I left the trail at a paved intersection with a quiet street, knowing I'd passed the spot where you can leave the trail around 93rd but not sure whether I'd gone as far as the streets that climb, brutally steep, toward 123rd, which I wanted to avoid. The streets I faced had names, not numbers, and wound fairly steeply upward, but didn't seem to be as bad as I remembered being the case at 123rd the one and only time I've encountered that spot.

I was pushing my bike as I climbed to the intersection of what proved to be Exeter St. NE and 113th, where a woman stooped, working in the yard of the house at the southeast corner. She straightened her back to look at me.

"Is there a way to get up and over?" I called, gesturing over the hill behind her.

"What do you think?" she said abruptly, pointing to the Dead End signs.

Taken aback, I responded, "Well, I just thought I'd ask."

"Can you read?" she demanded. (I wonder now how she would have felt if I'd said no at this point. Adult illiteracy is not vanquished.)

"Yes," I replied patiently, already turning to push my bike up the hill to my left, away from those signs and from her. "It's just that sometimes they're a dead end for cars but there's a way through for bikes."

From behind me I heard her say sarcastically, "Only in Seattle."

I pushed my bike a few more yards, then called out, "Have a nice day!"

A bark of laughter came from behind me--whether she was startled into recognizing how her tone had sounded or laughing in disgust I don't know.

I pushed my bike to the top of the rise in front of me. As I prepared to mount and keep climbing I hesitated, thinking about going back to introduce myself by name and explain that I'm still relatively new to that part of town and learning my way around. I thought that perhaps if I put a name on the encounter she might not react that way to the next person with a bike who climbed that hill and asked her for directions.

It's so much easier to be mean to someone in the abstract than when the person is right in front of you holding out a hand, so much easier to see a label rather than a person if you don't know someone's name.

But I really didn't want to face that meanness of tone, the absolute absence of any hint of kindness toward someone asking for a tiny bit of help in the form of information. Although she was a complete stranger the encounter stung; the tone seemed so out of proportion to my simple question and I'd been having a really great day up to that point.

As I rode I imagined reasons for her to sound so crabby. There's no signage at that point on the Burke-Gilman so maybe she fields a lot of questions and she wishes people would figure out their routes before they get on the trail.

This was shortly after we'd had some high wind and maybe she was dealing with downed limbs and clutter and seething about the yard work while I was out enjoying a bike ride (albeit one caused by working on a Sunday).

Hey, maybe she's even recently widowed and it used to be her dead sweetheart who dealt with this sort of chore so she's mourning that loss while she rakes leaves.

I can come up with a thousand of these excuses when someone seems to be acting out of a very negative space because I really don't want to believe people are acting deliberately when they're like this. My husband will tell you I do the same thing when we're driving somewhere and someone passes us driving recklessly. "Maybe he's on the way to the hospital, honey." (I attribute this response pattern to my mother, who often made empathetic remarks about the kind of situation that might prompt someone to behave in a less than optimal way.)

Of course, thanks to the magic of the Web I can look up the address for my encounter and discover that someone just bought the house in July of this year, paying almost three-quarters of a million dollars for it. The house has 5 bedrooms and 3+ bathrooms. With its proximity to the trail its property value is higher than homes farther from the trail and it's already worth more than she paid for it. None of which apparently was making her happy in the moment of our encounter, however....

I told myself to forget about her. Regardless of the reasons behind our respective attitudes, I was clearly having the better day. I don't know her story--it could be far worse than anything I imagined or it could be she's just like that to everyone, all the time, in which case she is very, very lonely.

Either way, I'll take "Have a nice day!" over "Can't you read?" any day of the week and remember that when I speak, I'm creating a little piece of someone else's world, just for a moment.

Recent Thoughts in Other Spaces

Periodically I update the archives you'll find under each tab in the navigation above. (Go ahead, take a look--I'll wait.) Then I typically put a note on Facebook or tweet out something along the lines of "Just about everything I've ever blogged, in case you're interested."

What I don't do is use the most obvious real estate of all--the actual post space on this blog--to tell you that I do blog prolifically. It just doesn't appear here all that often.

This blog houses my most personal stuff, which also means it's the most diverse in topics. If you found me because I've written a lot about biking, you really should look at the Bikes/Transportation tab above and spend more time on my Bike Style blog for my personal take on biking and the Bicycle Alliance of Washington blog for bike policy, events, and other news on everything to do with bicycling in Washington state. If you're interested in just about any other topics, it's bound to come around again but I can't guarantee when.

In the meantime, here's a round-up of some of my favorite recent posts from those other spaces. They're all about biking. Surprise!

'Twas Brillig, and the Slithy Toves

Can you recite a poem from memory? Which one(s)? Why or how did you end up memorizing it?

A friend asked on Facebook about what poems people might have committed to memory. That has sparked a great list of entries.

For me the answer is "Jabberwocky," by Lewis Carroll. For some reason--lost now in the mists of time--when I was in junior high or high school I thought it would be a great birthday present for Older Brother #3 if I memorized this and delivered it with dramatic flair. Turned out I'd guessed right; he seemed delighted, if somewhat puzzled.

I can still deliver chunks of it, although it's not seamless from beginning to end; I may need to brush up on it now, along with the fencing thrusts that go with "One-two! One-two! And through and through! His vorpal blade went snicker-snack. He left him dead, and with his head, he went galumphing back."

Then there are the arms thrown wide and the loving embrace that goes with, "'O hast thou slain the Jabberwock? Come to my arms, my beamish boy! Oh frabjous day! Caloo! Callay!' He chortled in his joy."

Thinking about this reminded me of Mom and the many poems she had committed to memory as a child, when teachers required kids to memorize and deliver poems before the entire class.

When she recited poetry she did so with dramatic flair--could be where I got that. Exaggerated expressions, eyebrows raised high, voice intonation dropping to a whisper where the words called for that.

She sometimes did "Little Orphan Annie". All I can remember of that one is the opening line: "Little Orphan Annie's come to our house to stay."

One of my favorites was "Hiding," which I had thought was a Robert Louis Stevenson poem included in the book A Child's Garden of Verses, since I remember reading that so many times as a child. Turns out it's by Dorothy Keeley Aldis. "I'm hiding, I'm hiding, and no one knows where, for all they can see is my toes and my hair. And I just heard my father say to my mother, 'But darling, he must be somewhere or other!'"

Another favorite was indeed by Robert Louis Stevenson--"The Swing": "How do you like to go up in a swing, up in the air so blue? Oh, I do think it the pleasantest thing, ever a child can do."

We had a swingset in the back yard next to the grape arbor that Younger Sister and I played on for hours. I don't remember feeling as if I was going up into blue air, exactly, but I do remember the soaring freedom and pumping my legs as hard as I could to try to get the swing up higher and higher until I shrieked half in fear, half in excitement.

My very earliest memory as a child actually involves my mother and poetry, in this case by yours truly. I'm not sure it would be in my memories now if it weren't for the number of times Mom told this story, which makes me think yet again that memories are created primarily through repetition.

The memory consists of fragments: Outside in the back yard. Billowing whiteness around me and the whooshing sound that went with it. Blue sky, sunshine, green grass underneath.

My mother's version: I was 2-1/2 or 3. (She actually wrote this all down on a piece of paper and dated it, so if I can find that I'll have documentary evidence of the exact date.)

She was outside hanging sheets on the clothesline while the breeze whipped them around, and I was playing under the clothesline.

I paused in my play, looked up, and said, "Oh Mother, oh Mother, what a beautiful day!"

Just then the wind died down. I paused, then went on, "The flowers are blooming and the wind's gone away!"

Mind you, the idea that a toddler addressed her mom as "Mother" sounds a trifle over the top to me. That's something that happens in books about well-bred English children, not a kid in the back yard of a house outside of Lewiston, Idaho, surrounded by wheat fields.

On the other hand, I've always loved language and playing with words. If I had recently been told that "Mother" was another label for my mom I could well have been playing with that word, testing it out as something I could call her instead of Mommy. She both read and recited to us a great deal so the possibility of me being able to put together a rhyming phrase doesn't surprise me.

Mom speaks only Jabberwocky now, and constant repetition was one of the early signs of her dementia as it developed. But when I was a child and she recited poems to me I marveled at the power of her memory.

Related Reading

Holding Mom

A few weeks ago I got this email from my older sister, who has been on the front lines for my parents ever since they moved to Lewiston over a decade ago to live in housing appropriate to my mom's increasing dementia:

"Just thought I should share this sobering update. I have noticed lately that Mom seems thinner and she is often sleeping when we stop by. I checked with the nurse and she said that Mom is not eating much. Most of the time they have to feed her to get her to eat anything, although she does have days where she does a little better. The nurse said this is what to expect since she is in the end stage of the disease, and added that she would be surprised if Mom made it to summer. Of course she also expected Dad to go a good year before he did, so it is just a guess on her part. Still, the nurse got my attention. I always kind of thought their deaths would come in close proximity. I am sure that somewhere inside Mom's poor tangled self, she misses her lifelong companion and is ready to go."

Dad died late last November, having made it past his 95th birthday. We didn't tell Mom. After he spent some time in the hospital for hip surgery and pneumonia, when he came back she regarded him with suspicion and no longer seemed to retain that last bit of connection that had outlived the departure of almost everything else she ever knew, including the names of her children and how to speak English. (I dubbed her speechlike vocalizations "Klingon," a nickname that stuck among all the Star Trek fans I grew up with.) She can't retain or fully comprehend anything we say to her, and if she could, why give her even that passing moment of pain before the new information vaporized?

After Dad died we moved her into a smaller single room at the care facility and she began to retreat into herself even more. When I got my sister's email I laid plans to get to Lewiston for a visit. 

Not exactly for Mom, since she doesn't know who I am, although she brightens when she sees me. They're sort of for me--a fulfillment of a sense of duty to the mother who did such a good job for so many years even though that woman packed up her bags and left a bit at a time, years ago. They're definitely for my older sister, who has borne the brunt and who can skip a visit if I make one.

Over the past few years I've felt lucky that I usually got a good visit. "Good" meant that Mom was awake, seemed happy to see me, and might even occasionally get a phrase or sentence out in the midst of the Klingon. 

The last time I was down for a visit to see Dad a few days before he died, with my older daughter and her husband accompanying us, at the lunch table Mom brought out quite clearly, "Aren't we having fun!" with a pleased expression. We heartily agreed that yes, yes we were.

My visit this Monday is one I'll cherish. She looked at me a bit uncertainly when I arrived and said to her, "Hi, Mom, it's your daughter here to visit!"

She asked quite clearly, "Who am I?"

"You're Gladys Greene, and I'm your daughter," I said, squeezing in alongside her on the big upholstered chair she sat in facing the TV, where a very young Clint Eastwood confronted the judge in Hang 'Em High.

"Buh--" she began, looking at me and raising her eyebrows questioningly.

"Yes, I'm Barb," I answered, thinking that she really did seem to be trying to get my name out and had the right linguistic association.

She smiled and began telling me something in Klingon. Thanks to Second Daughter pointing out years ago that one could interact with her quite smoothly by simply ignoring the meaninglessness of the words and responding solely to tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language, I'm pretty fluent in our interactions. I smile, nod, provide verbal filler like, "Oh really!" or "I see" when she pauses, and generally go with the flow. 

As my friend Maggie said years ago about visiting her mother-in-law who had Alzheimer's, "You're going to a foreign country and observing the culture. It isn't your job to try to change them--you just use good manners, thank them, and then come back to your country when the visit is over."

Mom seemed worried about something. She went on at length in Klingon and then asked me something like, "How did you manage all those people?"

I said, "Oh, it went all right. It was fine." She didn't seem convinced. 

"When was this?" she asked.

"A couple of weeks ago--a while ago," I answered.

The phrase "a while ago" seemed to get stuck--she couldn't repeat it back and puzzled over it, and was still worried about whatever it was I'd done with all those people.

I leaned forward, put my arms around her, patted her back, and said, "It's all right. It will all be okay."

Immediately I felt her relax into my arms as her arms went around me in return. She gave a deep sigh, then another. I rocked her a bit, holding her and patting her back. She pulled back, looked at me, and said, "Thank you very, very much." I leaned forward and wrapped my arms around her again.

Victoria, a South African aide I hadn't met before, stopped by our chair and asked if I wanted her to take our picture--I was so glad she did.

We stayed like that for 20 minutes or more, mostly silent. Every once in a while she gave a little start--perhaps that falling sensation that gets you when you're falling asleep was happening--and I'd pat her back again and tell her it was all right. She would relax again. I got tears in my eyes more than once as we sat together, holding each other.

I realized how little loving touch she receives any more and how important that is. She is assisted, moved, bathed, and more by very nice aides, but they have to handle her in a very clinical fashion. With Dad gone there isn't anyone there every day to give her hand a squeeze or make eye contact and smile with something passing between them.

When it was time to leave I eased my arms out from around her, told her I needed to go, and kissed her on the forehead, telling her I love her. She yearned toward me--I could see it in her expression--and I stroked the side of her face. She sat with eyes closed, absorbing my touch.

I didn't want to go. It makes me smile just thinking of how contented we were, holding each other. It was the best visit ever.

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A Pause to Remember

Today on Twitter someone mentioned running across a picture of a friend from college that made her stop to remember someone who is gone now. I thanked her for that reminder to stop and think about the people we've lost.

That brought me back to the post I wrote about my friend Christianne Sharman, among other posts I've written about people who have touched my life and who are gone now.

In the past year three of my uncles died along with my dad. They were old, they had lived long and successful lives, but it still hurt to lose them.

I can still hear their voices and I hear Christianne, who had a wonderful voice.

I want to stop every so often to remember. For those of us who did a lot of growing up before the Internet we don't have a thousand gigabytes of sound and picture available just a click away. I have no recordings whatsoever of my uncles' voices. I have to rely on my memory and that will fade with time.

I do have a DVD of my dad thanks to brother Jim, who interviewed Dad for a story about his career as a World War II bomber pilot, but I haven't watched it since he died last November. I need to do that.

In the meantime we have memory, which is all we've ever had, and it needs to be cherished. The cave paintings of Lascaux may still be there but the full richness of what they stood for lived within the beings who painted them. The story of Gilgamesh meant so much more to real people listening to real storytellers than it can mean left to us on clay tablets. The repetition in The Odyssey is there because that aided the memories of those who performed it. We tell the same stories time after time at family gatherings because there's something about the way we hear it together that carves those memories deeper and deeper.

So here's to Uncle Russ, who looked so much like my dad, his older brother, and to his son Jerry Joe, who would have been my age had he not been hit by a driver in a pick-up truck while riding his bicycle--something that finds a haunting resonance for me now in my work in bicycle advocacy.

Here's to Uncle Wayne, with the hearty laugh, the knock-knock jokes, the loud Hawaiian shirts, and the ranch in northern California that we visited for family reunions. I still have a wooden winery box made by his company that I got as a kid on a tour of one of the wineries he supplied with shipping containers; it holds some of my sewing supplies and I think of him every time I use it. I remember his eternal patience when we rode in the motor home with him and Aunt Lorraine all the way from Lewiston, Idaho, to Cloverdale, California, for a visit, playing Elton John's Greatest Hits and singing "Crocodile Rock" at the top of our lungs. That's 855 miles of patience, mind you.

Here's to Uncle Bud, who had my birthday--or I suppose I had his birthday since he was born long before I was!--an architecture who designed many schools in California. He featured prominently in a story my mom told about challenging him to a race to see who could eat an ice cream cone fastest, during the Depression when an ice cream was a very rare treat. He chowed down only to find that she was still enjoying her cone in leisurely fashion when he finished first in short-lived triumph, and Grandma Humphrey made Mom hand over the rest of her ice cream cone in a lesson about selfishness as the older sister who should have known better.

And here's to my dad, who died Nov. 27, 2012, after a long life well-lived.

Pay attention to the people you love so you can hear them when they're gone.