Cowboy cake: the family secret EVERYONE knows.

flag-mini-American After making several references to "Cowboy cake" in my last post, I figured it's time to share the secret recipe for my family's favorite brown sugar spice cake. We've been enjoying cowboy cake for years, and it's time to go public with it so y'all can enjoy it, too. Yeehaw!

cowgirl cowboy fabric
Cowboy cake couldn't be easier: it stirs up quickly in one bowl with no expensive, rare or fancy ingredients (except for one very special and secret addition--stay tuned) or culinary maneuverings, baked in a regular ol' 9"x13" pan and topped only with a bit of streusel sprinkled over the batter before cooking. Once baked and cooled (if you can wait that long), it is easy to consume square after moist delicious square, especially if you have a glass of cold milk nearby. Put a plateful of humble cowboy cake on the table and my family will plow through it in a flurry of cinnamon-nutmeg flavored crumbs.

Cowboy Cake 1
You probably have all the ingredients on hand for Cowboy Cake.

This is the cake we've always brought to summer picnics and family potlucks, and mom seemed to make it best. She charred many a chocolate chip cookie in her day, but she could have baked a perfect cowboy cake blindfolded. I felt like I'd joined the superspecial Cowboy Cake Club the first time I made one after moving into my own apartment. With that recipe in my then very small recipe box, it seemed I was in possession of a family treasure.

Cowboy Cake 3
Butter is worked into a brown-sugar/flour mixture to create the batter base and crumbly streusel topping.

Then one day a few years ago I couldn't find the precious recipe. PANIC. How would I replace it? had the family secret died with mom? I turned to the internet, hoping I would find some hint of the recipe out there. After "cowboy cake" yielded only some cute
cowboy themed birthday cakes, I hit on "cowboy coffee cake" and got 89,400 results (in 0.36 seconds, thank you Google). I was elated to find the exact recipe! But suddenly I realized ... this isn't a family secret at all. Dagnammit, EVERYONE knows about cowboy cake.

Pioneer woman with cowboy cakes
Can I seriously tell you ... this was a revelation to me. I really really thought cowboy cake was our exclusive family secret -- that NO one out there knew about it but us. This could have shattered me, but some rational part of my brain quickly adjusted and I thought, of course! This easy, tasty spice cake was probably created by smart pioneer women to supply energy for their hard-workin' cowboy sons and husbands.

Keep yer hands off my cowboy cake
Those hard-workin' women could easily and cheaply obtain all the basic ingredients for cowboy cake -- eggs, flour, butter, brown sugar, milk, leavening -- but didn't have time for fussiness like separating yolks from whites, mixing ingredients in five different bowls, and the extravagance of frosting. The finished cake was meant to be wrapped in waxed paper, packed into a rucksack and eaten with hot coffee around a campfire. Hence the name: cowboy coffee cake. It all makes sense now! I couldn't find any history of cowboy coffee cake, but I'm enjoying my wagontrail version of it.

Cowboy Cake 2
With a twinkle in her eye, mom loved revealing the secret ingredient in cowboy cake: vinegar. One tablespoon of red wine vinegar (or whatever you have in the pantry) mixed with a cup of milk sours it in just a few minutes and gives the cake just the slightest hint of tang. I'm sure pioneer women would have preferred straight up buttermilk -- a by-product of butter churning -- but I'm guessing souring milk was faster and a lot easier on the arms.

Cowboy Cake 4
A wooden spoon and a pastry blender (or two knives) are just about all that's required for this cake, although our pioneer sisters might have had some fun playing with a girly pink electric handmixer.

Cowboy Cake 6
A reserved half-cup of the brown-sugar/flour/butter base is sprinkled on the batter -- no frosting required!

Cowboy Cake 7
Cooks up the prettiest golden brown in about 30 minutes. OOPS. I'm drooling.

Cowboy Cake 10
Believe me ... one slice will only whet your appetite for more. Remember to have cold milk, tea, hot coffee or whatever you fancy nearby. (Have I sufficiently played up the importance of cold milk here?) Camp fire and chaps optional. Naturally, I
have to have a dollop of butter to spread on this cake. I'll need all that energy for driving cattle across the plains kids to school.

cowgirl
Git along, little dogies! Cow
girls like it too.

Cowboy Cake (also known as Cowboy Coffee Cake)
 
2-1/2 cups light brown sugar
2-1/2 cups flour
2/3 cup butter (slightly softened) or margarine (chilled)
1 T. vinegar, preferably red wine vinegar
1 cup milk (I use 2%)

2 eggs, beaten
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 to 1-1/2 Tablespoons cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

 
Optional ingredients:  nuts, strong chicory coffee, baked beans, bacon fat, chewin' tobacco.

Grease and flour the bottom of a 9"x13" pan.  Preheat oven to 350 F.

In a large bowl stir together flour and brown sugar until thoroughly blended.  With pastry blender, two knives or your fingers, work butter into the mixture until it is the texture of bread crumbs.  Set aside 1/2 cup of crumbly mixture.

In a small bowl or measuring cup, add vinegar to milk, stir gently and let stand until sour, 2-3 minutes.

Stir baking soda, baking powder, salt and spices into to crumbly mixture and mix well; add beaten eggs and soured milk to mixture, stirring just until mixed (better will be loose and lumpy).  Pour into prepared pan.  Sprinkle reserved 1/2 cup of crumbly mixture over the top.

 
Bake 15-25 minutes or until toothpick inserted comes out clean; cake will spring back when touched lightly.  Slice and eat when cooled, if you can wait that long.  Enjoy!  

Improves with age (if it lasts long enough to age) and is
amazing spread with butter. You may just find yourself standing over the pan eating slice after slice until half the cake is gone. Ain't my fault!

As always, feel free to leave a comment.