Recipe for History: Pear Walnut Coffee Cake

Pear Walnut Coffee Cake.

Ask any American about coffee cake and I guarantee you they’ll have a heartwarming memory of enjoying a piece with family or friends. My memory is of plucking extra nuggets of streusel off of my dad’s piece of Entenmann’s coffee cake when he wasn’t looking, popping them into my mouth and savoring the sweet cinnamon butteryness that both melted in my mouth, and gritted between my teeth like sand.

The History of Coffee Cake

Where did coffee cake come from? Why is it called coffee cake? In the early 1800s small sweet yeast cookies made to accompany coffee were called “coffee cakes”. Eventually coffee cake became one of two things: a variety of cake flavored with coffee, or a variety of sweet cakes, usually yeast based. With the advent of the invention of chemical leaveners (baking powder and baking soda), American coffee cakes became what we know them to be today. Around the same time, clabbered cream (the predecessor to modern day sour cream) began to be used as an acidic component to aid leavening and enhance flavor and texture. 

Later in the 1800s, the German streusel topping began showing up in Pennsylvania recipes. A mixture of flour, butter, sugar and usually cinnamon, streusel adds a unique textural experience to the top of a mildly sweet, finely crumbed cake. After World War I, pasteurization brought modern day sour cream into being, and, with the addition of streusel, the modern coffee cake was born.

My recipe skips the streusel and instead has a rich layer of nuts and brown sugar in the center, breaking up the cake with a sweet surprise.

Pear Walnut Coffee Cake

This recipe for Pear Walnut Coffee Cake, while simple, creates a moist, rich cake that carries the warm spices, nutty walnuts and the delicate, faintly floral hint of pear. I made four small loaves, but this recipe could easily be adjusted to a full sized bundt, just extend the baking time to 50-60 minutes.


The base of this cake is a simple sour cream coffee cake recipe: flour, butter, eggs, sour cream, baking powder, baking soda, salt and vanilla. Blazing Caribou Studios own matriarch, Kari McGinnis, presented me with a family recipe for a coffee cake with a delicious swirl of walnuts, pecans and cinnamon, served at Thanksgiving celebrations for those who don’t prefer pumpkin pie. Without fail, I adapted my own version to suit the holiday season, adding grated pear for additional moisture, simplified the nuts to walnuts, as well as cloves and nutmeg for that spice cake feel.

making the nut fillingEven the preparation is simple: in a food processor, if you have one, pulse the walnuts with the brown sugar until it’s coarse like gravel. If you don’t have a food processor, simply chop the nuts finely and blend with the brown sugar.

peeling and shredding pearsNext, peel and grate two pears. I used slightly underripe Bartletts. You don’t want the pears to be too ripe, or your cake will be soggy and overly sweet. You’ll need about a cup of shredded pear total.

creaming the butter and sugarIn a stand mixer or with a hand mixer, whip the softened butter, then blend in the granulated sugar until creamy.

mixing in eggs and spicesThen, one at a time, whisk in the eggs thoroughly. Add the spices and vanilla and blend.

adding flour and sour creamAdd in half the flour and mix, then the sour cream, then the remaining flour, blending thoroughly in between.

mixing in the shredded pearsLastly, fold in the shredded pear.

preparing the pansI used small bundt and loaf pans, but you can definitely use a full sized bundt for this. Spray whatever pans you’re using liberally with cooking spray.

layering the batter and nut fillingLayer the batter, then the filling, then the batter. There is a LOT of filling, but  Bake in a 350 degree oven for 25-30 minutes. The cakes are done when a skewer or toothpick inserted in the thickest part comes out clean. Allow to cool completely before unmolding.

Aren’t they gorgeous?

the nut layer in the finished cakeYou can see how beautifully the nut layer stays distinct from the batter. It’s a LOT of walnut filling but it’s so delicious you won’t mind at all!

pear walnut coffee cake ready to eatI simply dusted the little cakes with confectioner’s sugar and they were ready for their closeup – and ready to be eaten! This recipe was a HUGE hit with everyone that tried it. The walnut filling offers a textural variation from the most cake surrounding it and the burst of richness from the brown sugar floods your mouth. I can see this cake gracing my Christmas table this year, it’s that good.

I hope you give this Pear Walnut Coffee Cake a try and let me know how you love it!

Andrea Freitas