Alexander Starts Baking: Pumpkin Skillet Coffee Cake with Streusel Topping

When my friend Dorothy's son Alexander turned 12, I asked Dorothy for some birthday gift ideas for him. I was surprised and flattered when she reported back that Alexander was interested in baking and cooking lessons with me and my husband Tom. I gave Alexander a couple of cookbooks and a kitchen scale, and we were finally able to schedule a baking lesson at our house a few weeks ago. He had expressed interest in a pumpkin dessert, so I suggested making Stella Parks' Pumpkin Skillet Coffee Cake with Streusel Topping.

The recipe is intended to be baked in a 10-inch cast iron skillet. Tom and I own a couple of cast iron skillets, but they are both 8-inch skillets. So I made Alexander go through the math to figure out how we were going to adjust the recipe to accommodate the smaller pan size. We decided to make the recipe as written and bake two cakes -- one in a 8-inch skillet using two-thirds of the batter, and another in a 6-inch cake pan using the remainder.

First, we made the streusel topping. I had two types of white chocolate on hand and I had Alexander taste both -- Valrhona Ivoire 35% and Cacao Barry Zéphyr Caramel 35%. He liked them both and we decided to use the Zéphyr Caramel in the topping and the Ivoire in the cake batter. Alexander stirred together rolled oats, flour, brown sugar, cinnamon, salt, ginger, freshly grated nutmeg, cloves, and softened butter; and then added chopped white chocolate and pecans. We stuck the mixture in the fridge while we made the cake batter.

The first step in making the cake batter was to grind flour, white chocolate, and malted milk powder in the food processor. I was lazy and decided not to chop up the Valrhona fèves, which are large, flat, oval discs. That was a mistake. Alexander was entertained watching the fèves fly violently around the food processor, making an enormous racquet. We set the ground chocolate mixture aside and beat brown sugar, cool butter, salt, freshly grated nutmeg, baking powder, and vanilla until very pale and fluffy; added an egg, followed by pumpkin puree; and incorporated the flour-white chocolate-malted milk powder mixture. Alexander had coated the skillet and cake pan with butter, and we weighed out the appropriate amount of batter for each pan. We also divided up the streusel accordingly and sprinkled it on top.
After the cakes were done baking we left them on wire racks to cool. They were still warm by the time that Alexander's younger brother Liam finished up a baseball game at a park a few blocks away and the whole family convened at my house for cake. We sliced and ate the small 6-inch cake, which got a big thumbs up from Alexander, Liam, and their parents.

Stella says that the cake should be completely cooled before eating it and after tasting it warm, I can confirm that the warm cake is suboptimal. It was overly wet. I thought it tasted fine but I was disappointed that I couldn't really make out any pumpkin flavor in the cake and I thought the flavor overall was a bit understated (but this is a complaint that would probably be ameliorated by waiting until the cake was cool to eat it). I also thought that it might not have been the best use of Valrhona Ivoire, which costs a pretty penny, even for just the four ounces required for the cake batter. We packed up the intact 8-inch cake for Alexander to take home, and Dorothy later sent me an update that the cake did taste better when cool. It was still fudgy with a texture more like a brownie as opposed to a cake, but it was firmer -- and they enjoyed it with vanilla ice cream.

I wasn't exactly thrilled with the way the cake turned out, but it doesn't really matter -- Alexander liked it and we had a great time during his baking lesson. I hope he will continue baking in the future!

Recipe: "Pumpkin Skillet Coffee Cake with Streusel Topping" by Stella Parks, recipe available here at Serious Eats.