The best pastry to have with coffee is coffee cake. This is fairly obvious: It's right there in the name. If I eat a doughnut, croissant or artisan Pop-Tart first thing in the morning, breakfast is already over. But a half slice of coffee cake is an appetizer—and then you still have the other half for your afternoon coffee break.
I'm originally from the East Coast, so my platonic ideal of coffee cake is Entenmann's. You'll find homemade versions of that powdered-sugar crumb cake, which is most likely of German ancestry, all over New York and Pennsylvania. But Portland is an unsung coffee cake town, with a recent history that goes back to Coffee People and, somewhat inexplicably, Starbucks—the "Portland coffee cake" lives on at various recipe blogs.
You'll find coffee cake on the menu at lots of Portland restaurants, brunch spots and cafes. But if you want to find the finest coffee cake paired with the best versions of its natural counterparts, here are your top options.
Little T Baker
2600 SE Division St., 503-238-3458, littletbaker.com. 7 am-5 pm Monday-Saturday, 8 am-2 pm Sunday.
My usual order here is the seasonal-fruit morning bun. But one day they were out of it, and suddenly I had a new favorite Portland coffee cake. Even after sampling many others, it did not yield the crown. Little T's Marionberry Crumb Cake uses local—and, at this time of year, presumably frozen—fruit most ingeniously. There are whole berries atop the streusel for garnish, but instead of mixing fruit into the batter, the marionberries provide a semi-separate jamlike layer, in between the crumb and the cake. Deliciously spiced with nutmeg, cinnamon and maybe cardamom, and on the exact right side of moist, it's the only cake I ate entirely by myself while working on this story, though not in one sitting.
1740 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 503-384-2160, oui-presse.com. 7 am-6 pm Monday-Saturday, 8 am-5 pm Sunday.
Oui Presse's espresso coffee cake is basically an amped-up version of Jim and Patty's: a sour cream hazelnut coffee cake marbled with actual coffee, which gives this decadent and flavorful almost-dessert a certain bittersweet balance. As its recipe was once published in another publication, I already know its batter secrets: not just sour cream and butter but also buttermilk, while the impeccably crunchy crumb is equal parts ground hazelnuts and brown sugar, with the finishing touch of mixed-in leftover batter, giving more of that espresso accent. You get a gigantic piece for $3.75, and it might be even better on the second day. Buy two pieces, and on Day 3, you could even dip it in your coffee.
Jim & Patty's Coffee
Multiple locations, see jimandpattys.com.
Full disclosure: Two other people—a friend and a Portland food professional with East Coast roots—think this one is overrated, which I can understand. It might be the coffee cake you thought was best when you first had it years ago, but then some other, better versions came to town. Still, it is simple and classic: firm cake with a cinnamony, not-too-sweet topping, strewn with delightful whole hazelnuts. Except for the hazelnuts, I could have been eating this one on the East Coast, and it was light enough that I tore into two-thirds of a large slice at one sitting. Pro tip: Coffee cake has an exemplary shelf life, and that can also save you money. I hit Jim and Patty's at the crack of 4 pm, and got a huge hunk of their beloved sour cream coffee cake at the day-old price of $1.75.
939 NW 10th Ave., 503-208-3113; 33 NW 23rd Place, 503-208-3113; lovejoybakers.com. Pearl: 6 am-5 pm daily. Uptown: 7 am-5 pm Monday-Friday, 8 am-5 pm Saturday-Sunday.
When I asked the woman behind the Lovejoy counter what the seasonal coffee cake was, she told me cranberry, pear and ginger, to which I could only think, "Again?" By that time I had eaten several others with those same ingredients. Still, I was pleased to discover that Lovejoy's coffee cake follows the Entenmann's template: crunchy crumble, wispy powdered sugar, hefty yet light cake. And when I bit into it, a big chunk of red fruit, not cranberry but dried cherry. Followed by dried orange zest. And two kinds of raisins. And currants. Yes—I was eating a fruitcake! And I loved it. A very good meta-riff that still hit all the classic notes, and the use of dried instead of fresh or frozen fruit made for a better-structured cake.
Grand Central Bakery
Multiple locations, see grandcentralbakery.com.
Full disclosure, again: Two other trusted tasters—my wife and that same food professional—liked this one better than I did. With coffee cake, tenderness is usually a virtue, and so is fruit. Grand Central's cranberry-pear version was both super-fruity and nearly fall-apart moist—more berry than cake, though the generous striation of fruit was still delicious. On top of that (literally), the streusel was not as crunchy as I like, and also over-sweet. That seems a weird thing to say about something typically dusted with powdered sugar, and Grand Central's is not, but in this case, I think the crumb itself had too much brown sugar. For me, it was like eating a fruity Snickerdoodle.
Back to Eden Bakery
2215 NE Alberta St., 503-477-5022, backtoedenbakery.com. 9 am-10 pm daily.
My tastings around town included several muffin-shaped, alternative-grain or otherwise riff-happy "coffee cakes," including offerings from Seastar, Bakeshop and Beeswing. They were all tasty, but none felt sufficiently like coffee cake. That's not the case with Back to Eden's. With no egg or sour cream and, of course, a fair amount of cranberry, the vegan and gluten-free cake had a bordering-on-mushy moistness, and its streusel was a little chalky. But I still enjoyed it, in large part because the flavor profile actually hit its target.
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