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.

Even 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.

Next, 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.

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

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

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

Lastly, fold in the shredded pear.

I 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.

Layer 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?

You 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!

I 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

Pear Walnut Coffee Cake

Prep Time: 30 minutes

Cook Time: 1 hour

Total Time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

Category: Dessert

Yield: 16

Serving Size: 1 piece

Calories per serving: 240.1

Fat per serving: 14.3

Carbs per serving: 28.1

Protein per serving: 3.6

Fiber per serving: 1.4

Sodium per serving: 202.3

Cholesterol per serving: 48.7


  • 4 oz walnuts
  • 1/2 cup packed brown sugar
  • 1 stick salted butter, softened
  • 1/4 cup white sugar
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp kosher salt
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 tsp ground nutmeg
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp ground cloves
  • 2 cups flour
  • 1 cup sour cream
  • 2 firm pears, peeled and grated (about 1 cup)
  • cooking spray
  • powdered sugar for dusting


  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees and prepare your pan or pans with cooking spray.
  2. In a food processor, pulse walnuts and brown sugar together until the mixture resembles a coarse meal. Set aside.
  3. With a hand mixer or stand mixer, cream butter and sugar until creamy and light. Mix in eggs one at a time, mixing thoroughly in between additions. Mix in baking powder, baking soda, vanilla and spices.
  4. Blend in half the flour, then all of the sour cream, then the remaining flour, mixing until just combined.
  5. Layer half your batter, then all of the filling, then the rest of the batter, spreading to have each layer even.
  6. Bake for 30-35 minutes for mini bundts or mini loafs, and 50-60 minutes for a full bundt. Cake is done when a skewer or knife inserted in the thickest part comes out clean. Allow to cool completely before dusting with powdered sugar and serve.