Creative Cooking: Crumb Cake

“Your EKG is abnormal.”

A couple of weeks ago I was asked to make an allergy friendly version of a crumb cake recipe for an office party.  I was told, though, “Please don’t change anything other than to make it gluten and dairy free for my co-workers.  It’s a delicious recipe, and I don’t want to lose the taste.”

I did as instructed, but it killed me emotionally. Simply reading the ingredients was enough to give anyone a heart attack. Between the cake batter and the crumb topping the recipe called for two cups of full fat sour cream, four cups of sugar, four cups of butter, four whole eggs, and of course, white flour.

I’m sure the gentleman was correct in saying that the crumb cake was delicious. All that butter and sugar, how could it not be. My question, though, was whether it couldn’t be just as delicious as a healthier version of itself. I thought about that question again this week as I laid in a hospital bed after a severe stomach flu rendered me completely dehydrated which in turn caused an abnormal EKG.

I was sent home yesterday and spent this morning being checked out by a cardiologist. Fortunately, because I do lead a healthy lifestyle of exercise and good eating choices, the abnormal EKG did appear to be caused by low potassium levels and not anything being wrong with my heart itself. I thought, though, about how differently the results could have been if I did eat crumb cake the way a lot of people do.

Food is to be enjoyed, and I want to eat delicious crumb cake just like other people. I think, though, that what one eats should be the best it can be for my body’s health. So, I confess, that after I made the crumb cake as I was asked, that I went to work creating a healthier version which I shared with my writing group, a friend, and my family, all of whom declared it to be delicious. It took a little though, but I was able to make a few simple changes which made all the difference.  Let me share….

The Sugar: Four cups of sugar is crazy. Really. As I’ve mentioned in the past, sugar is a poison to our body, and we’re better off avoiding it if we can. As I’ve also mentioned, sugar replacements aren’t the end all as well. They still have calories and still can cause some fluctuations in one’s glycemic index, but that you can lose so much less in a recipe and are not as refined has pluses which sugar does not. So, I opted to use a cup of Agave for the cake batter and 1/2 cup of coconut sugar in the crumb topping which reduced the sweetener from 4 cups to 1 1/2 cups. Everyone agreed the cake was plenty sweet enough.

The Butter: Four cups of butter is A LOT. I agreed, though, that for a good crumb topping you did need a substantial amount of butter to get the right consistency and taste. So the question was how to create a balance between quantity and quality. In the end, I swapped grapeseed oil for the butter in the cake batter. As a plant based oil it has health benefits which butter does not, and as a liquid fat, I only needed to use 1/2 cup versus the two cups of butter in the original recipe. For the crumb topping, I decided I could halve the amount and use one cup of a vegan soy free butter which still reflected the taste and consistency of a good crumb topping. So, I was able to decrease the fat from 4 cups to 1 1/2 cups.

The Eggs: Eggs are not bad in general. In fact, they’re quite good for you. But as with all things, moderation is the key, and four whole eggs carry a lot of cholesterol in those egg yolks, which is not always good for people with certain health risks. This was an easy enough fix, though. I simply opted to use 3/4 cups of liquid egg whites which eliminated yolks altogether but kept the liquid ratio needed for the cake batter.

The Sour Cream: I admit, I love sour cream. Even the tofu version I have to eat because of my dairy allergy. It’s creamy texture and tangy taste definitely make for a delicious crumb cake. The problem is that even the vegan version isn’t really that great for you. Being made from tofu only adds a small margin of protein, nothing concrete enough to counter the fat and other additives. So, I thought about for something different to give the cake it’s moisture and flavor. In the end I decided to use pureed pumpkin because it would lend a pretty orange color to the cake as well as all those good minerals and vitamins which our bodies need. Two cups of pumpkin instead of sour cream eliminated a lot of extra fat and calories from the cake.

The Crumb Topping: This was key to do correctly, because crumb cake is, after all, about the crumb topping. If it didn’t meet expectations, all would be lost. As I previously mentioned, I had reduced the quantity of butter to one cup and swapped 1/2 cup of coconut sugar for the two cups of white sugar , but there was still the problem of how little nutritional value the white flour in the topping had, not to mention my allergies to wheat. I finally chose to use a combination of gluten free whole rolled oat and gluten free oat flour. With the addition of protein and fiber, I felt better about the topping being healthier than the original version. I also reduced the overall amount of “flour” and used 2 cups instead of the original three cups to reduce the extra calories.

The Flour: White flour is another food to be avoided if at all possible. There is no nutritional value to white flour, and if you’re like me and allergic to wheat, you can’t have it anyway. The problem, though, is that my usual switch, which is to use high fiber, high protein gluten free flours like bean flours and sorghum flours wouldn’t necessarily give me the texture I wanted for the crumb cake. Crumb cake batter is supposed to be a medium batter, not light and airy but not overly dense. Since I had altered the crumb topping, though, to have more fiber and protein, I decided I could be more lenient with the cake batter, and I opted to use a gluten free baking mix that was a mixture of brown rice flour and sweet white sorghum with potato and tapioca starches that worked well.

The Flavoring: Since I had omitted the sour cream which usually gives a good crumb cake its flavor, I needed to consider adding some spices to the pumpkin replacement. Cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves did the trick.

The Ratio: Because crumb cake is all about the crumb topping to cake ratio, and because I was reducing the amount of flour and butter, I opted to cook the cake in an 11 x 15 pan which meant I could distribute the crumb topping over a shallower depth of cake batter to ensure that there wouldn’t be more cake to crumb topping which might prevent enjoyment of the any piece given.

The Appearance: Crumb cake usually has a powdered sugar coating which makes for a beautiful presentation. I admit, I didn’t want to eliminate the aesthetics because for me presentation is important, too. I could, however, greatly reduce the amount used. The original recipe called for 1/2 cup of powdered sugar. I was able to use one tablespoon and create the same appearance without all the added sugar.

Crumb Cake


Cake Batter:

2 1/2 cup gluten free flour blend (use a version with brown rice flour)

2 tsp ground cinnamon

1 tsp nutmeg

1/2 tsp cloves

1 1/2 tsp baking soda

1 1/2 tsp baking powder

3/4 cup liquid egg whites

2 cups cooked, pureed pumpkin

1/2 cup grapeseed oil

1 cup Agave

1 tbsp apple cider vinegar

Crumb Topping:

1 cup gluten free whole rolled oats

2 cups gluten free oat flour

1/2 cup coconut sugar

1 tsp ground cinnamon

1/2 tsp ground nutmeg

1 cup vegan soy free butter

1 tbsp powdered sugar

Baking Instructions:

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and line a 11 x 15 pan with parchment paper. Set aside.
  2. Mix together the gluten free flour blend, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, baking soda, and baking powder. Set aside.
  3. Blend together the liquid egg whites, pumpkin, grapeseed oil, and agave. Add to the dry ingredients with the apple cider vinegar, and blend until the dry ingredients are fully moistened.
  4. Pour cake batter into the prepared baking pan.
  5. Combine the whole rolled oats, oat flour, coconut sugar, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Using clean hands incorporate the vegan butter into the mixture until everything is completely mixed and you have no dry ingredients leftover. You’ll have a nice clump which you can then crumble for the crumb topping.
  6. Evenly distribute small chunks of the crumb topping over the cake batter.
  7. Bake the prepared cake in the preheated oven for 30 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean and the cake is puffed and golden.
  8. Cool the baked cake on a wire cooling rack. Using a sifter, gently sprinkle the powdered sugar to completely cover the crumb topping.




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