1939 Sour Cream Coffee Cake

1939 Sour Cream Coffee Cake

In 1939 Irma S. Rombauer first wrote what is now the official cookbook of many a modern kitchen: The Joy of Cooking. For the first time cooks had access to huge volume of dishes both American and international- all with precise measurements that the average person could understand. One of those recipes was for a sour cream coffee cake, at the time not a well-known treat.

In the days before all-purpose flour or even consistent access to baking powder and baking soda, the German and Scandinavian baking traditions used sour cream to leaven baked goods. They brought this custom to the U.S. when they immigrated in large numbers during the 1800s.

The sour cream they used was not like what we buy at the grocery today. Instead, it was a sour, fermented cream which was a by-product of making clabber milk. For reference if clabber milk is left to ferment long enough it will become curds and whey. Today many people will use buttermilk as a leavening agent, but this is not the same substance as traditional sour cream.

1939 sour cream coffee cake

The Germanic immigrants also brought with them a love of coffee, something which had not been all that popular in the Americas until the 19th century. They also brought with them their traditional coffee cakes, which at first contained coffee in the batter. Around World War I is when coffee was first served alongside the cake instead of in the batter.

The Joy of Cooking recipe introduced a whole new generation of bakers to the German specialty and it’s been a hit ever since. The first version of this recipe from 1931 did not include the streusel layer, but was added to later editions.

1939 Sour Cream Coffee Cake

To make this old fashioned recipe you’ll need to make sure that all ingredients are up to room temperature. You will also need to grease and flour your pan before baking to ensure the best result.

buttering and flouring a bundt pan

This lovely coffee cake has a rich flavor and decadent topping, which can be sprinkled on the bottom of the bundt pan before the batter goes in. Alternately, you can make this recipe in a 9×13-inch baking pan and sprinkle the topping over the batter. However you choose to make this coffee cake, you won’t be disappointed with the flavor.

adding topping and batter to bundt pan for sour cream coffee cake

This style of coffee cake was one of my grandmother’s signature breakfast dishes, but was usually reserved only for special occasions. Once you try this recipe you’ll understand what makes it such a winner!

slice of sour cream coffee cake with rest of cake in background

1939 Sour Cream Coffee Cake


  • Cake ingredients:
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 1/3 cups sour cream
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 large eggs
  • Topping ingredients:
  • 2/3 cup finely chopped walnuts or pecans
  • 2/3 cup packed light brown sugar (can substitute white sugar if needed)
  • 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2/3 cup all-purpose flour


  1. It is very important to have ingredients up to room temperature for this recipe.
  2. Preheat oven to 350°F. Position a rack in the lower third of the oven. Grease and flour a 10-cup bundt pan.
  3. Prepare the streusel layer by combining all topping ingredients and placing in the fridge until the cake batter is ready.
  4. For the cake, whisk together dry ingredients except sugar.
  5. In a separate bowl mix the sour cream and vanilla together.
  6. Cream butter and sugar together in a large bowl until fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time, mixing well between each one.
  7. Alternate adding the sour cream batter and butter mixtures to the dry ingredients in 3 parts.
  8. Sprinkle topping evenly across the bottom of the bundt pan. Then pour batter evenly into the pan over the topping.
  9. Bake 30-40 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean. Best enjoyed with a hot cup of your favorite coffee or tea!

Recipe adapted from NPR.