Hansel and Gretel, by Arthur Rackham, 1909
You probably know the basics of the Hansel and Gretel story: the standard wicked stepmother, a fantastic candy house, a child-eating witch, and the happy ending.
This familiar tale was recorded by the Brothers Grimm in 1812. It may date back to the Great Famine of the early 14th century, when many poorer families gave in to desperate strategies for survival. It also has elements in common with many other more obscure fairy tales, such as following a trail through the woods, abandoned children, and witches who eat children.
The idea of an entire house made of gingerbread and candy, simultaneously enticing and forbidden, stayed with me as a child, and is similar to the 14th century account of the Land of Cockayne, a fantastic medieval utopia. That house will be revisited in a later post, but for now, I’ll stick with the breadcrumbs.
The first time Hansel and Gretel are banished into the woods, they leave behind them a trail of white pebbles that helps guide them back home. The second time, unable to get pebbles, they use breadcrumbs. Later, they lose their way after discovering that birds have eaten all of the crumbs.
You will devour this crumb cake just as readily:
Despite the fact that a little goes a long way, you may be tempted to overindulge, given the wonderful combination of crust and cake. The rich, buttery crumble top contains warm spices, with just enough sugar to give it a bit of crunch. The cake itself is moist and flavorful, the ideal companion to coffee or tea.
Try it with breakfast, or with afternoon tea, or even as an accompaniment to after-dinner coffee hour.
Crumb Cake Recipe
Makes 1 8×8″ cake
Prep: 30 min. * Topping: 20 min. * Baking: 35 min
- 1 1/4 cups cake flour
- 1/2 cup granulated sugar
- 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 6 tablespoons butter, cut into 6 pieces
- 1 large egg
- 1 large egg yolk
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1/3 cup buttermilk
- Confectioners’ sugar for dusting (optional)
- 1/3 cup granulated sugar
- 1/3 cup dark brown sugar
- 3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/8 teaspoon salt
- 8 tablespoons butter, melted and still warm
- 1 3/4 cups cake flour
To make the topping, combine the sugars, cinnamon, and melted butter. Add the flour and stir until the mixture is smooth. Set aside to cool for about 15 minutes.
For the cake, preheat oven to 325° F. Grease an 8” square baking dish and line with parchment, allowing extra to hang over the sides. This extra will help lift the cake out of the pan once it is baked.
In a large bowl, mix the flour, sugar, baking soda, and salt. Gradually add the softened chunks of butter one piece at a time, incorporating thoroughly until the mixture looks like breadcrumbs, with no large chunks remaining. Add the eggs, vanilla, and buttermilk, then beat together until light and fluffy.
Pour the batter into the prepared baking pan, spreading it evenly. Break apart the crumb topping and sprinkle over the top of the batter in an even layer.
Bake until the crumbs are golden, and a toothpick comes out clean, about 35 minutes. Cool on a rack for at least 30 minutes more, then remove the cake from the pan by lifting out the parchment.
Serve warm or at room temperature. Ice cream makes a wonderful accompaniment.