In the recent season premiere of Mad Men, new creative director Peggy Olson explained to her team the difference between ideas and execution. Here’s what that difference looks like when applied to a novice baker’s first attempt at coffee cake.

In the lively cookbook Old-School Comfort Food: The Way I Learned to Cook (Clarkson Potter, Apr.), Alex Guarnaschelli, executive chef of NYC restaurants Butter and The Darby, provides clear, user-friendly instructions for a recipe she describes as a “real confidence builder.” I planned to finish the cake in time to dash over to my friend Nellie’s house to watch Mad Men, with some cake as my contribution to TV night.

Problem #1: I started preparing the cake less than two hours before I needed to leave.

Problem #2: I used a soy-based non-dairy “sour cream” because it was the only kind available at the health food store. When a recipe calls for a full cup of sour cream and you are not vegan, think hard about the decision to use the non-dairy substitute, because there will be consequences. With this “sour cream,” the cake required an additional 30 minutes beyond the 60 estimated, not including time to cool, and the finished cake was covered with holes from my many attempts (with wooden chopsticks) to test if it was done.

Other deviations: I added chocolate chips to the batter and mixed ingredients by hand. Despite these changes and accompanying snafus, the finished, still warm coffee cake provided a delightful counterpoint to Don Draper’s deepening existential crisis as we watched the premiere, and true to Guarnaschelli’s promise, the cake stayed moist for a full three days, serving as breakfast, snack, and late night nibble.

Deluxe Coffee Cake

Serves 10 to 12


1/2 cup walnut halves, coarsely chopped

1/2 cup pecan halves, coarsely chopped

2/3 cup all-purpose flour

1/3 cup granulated sugar

1/3 cup packed light brown sugar

2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon kosher salt

5 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted


4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, plus more for the pan

1 cup granulated sugar

2 large eggs, at room temperature

2 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1 cup sour cream

1/2 cup whole-milk yogurt

1. Make the topping: Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. In a medium bowl, stir together the walnuts, pecans, flour, granulated and brown sugars, cinnamon, and salt. Stir in the butter. The topping should form sandy clumps. Sprinkle the topping onto the baking sheet to break it up into smaller clumps. Refrigerate.

2. Preheat the oven to 350˚ F. Use butter to thoroughly grease the bottom and sides of a 9-inch round baking pan.

3. Make the cake batter: In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the butter and sugar together, on medium-high, scraping down the sides from time to time, for 8 minutes. Lower the speed and add the eggs, one by one, taking care that the first egg is thoroughly integrated before adding the second.

4. Sift together the flour, baking powder, and baking soda. In a separate bowl, whisk together the salt, sour cream, and yogurt until smooth. Turn the mixer on low and alternate adding some of the flour mixture with some of the sour cream mixture. When all has been mixed in, give the sides and the bottom of the bowl a good scrape and blend to make sure the batter is thoroughly combined. Transfer the batter to the greased baking pan and tap it lightly on the sides so it falls evenly in the pan and to remove any air bubbles. Liberally sprinkle the cake with all of the topping.

5. Bake the cake: Bake until a cake tester or small knife inserted in the center comes out clean, 55 to 60 minutes. Allow the cake to cool for at least 15 minutes, before slicing and serving. Once cool, the cake will keep, covered, for up to 3 days.

Jessamine Chan is a reviews editor at Publishers Weekly.