Don’t you love it when you actually make up a recipe—all by yourself—and it WORKS?

That’s just what happened to me a couple of years ago, when I enjoyed a simple fruit-nut bread at a local Italian bakery. The bread itself wasn't sweet at all; but it was packed with dried fruit, gilded with a light/crunchy sugar topping, and the entire package was simply out of this world.

Now, the place I discovered this bread wasn’t the typical American-Italian bakery with which you might be familiar. You know, the kind with light-as-air, crackly-crusted—but flavor-neutral—loaves stacked by the counter. The over-the-top pastries, everything seemingly filled with custard or topped with whipped cream or crowned with a fat swirl of butter icing. Maybe a sheet pan of thick-crust pizza behind the counter, if you’re lucky.

Don’t misunderstand; there’s nothing wrong with your typical American-Italian bakery. It's just different than an Italian-Italian bakery.

Which is the type of bakery that inspired this coffeecake. Picture this: golden loaves stacked in a basket, their creamy interior riddled with holes, courtesy of a starter and a long, slow rise. In a glass case, thin fruit tarts, plain to look at but bursting with fresh flavor. Several flavors of gelato chalked on the daily menu.

And, atop the glass case, a Tuscan-style bread stuffed with dried fruit and nuts. No, not citron and dried peel and the kind of years-old dried fruit that makes your mouth go “Uh, why?” But fresh, moist dried fruit, and nuts. With a hint of crisp sugar on top.

I saw it; I had to have it. Bought a slice; took a bite; thought I’d died and gone to heaven. That soft-chewy, creamy interior… the golden raisins and dates and toasted walnuts… and that crackly sugar crust on top…

Came back to the test kitchen and, miracle of miracles, re-created it. On the first try.

The Italian bakery has since morphed into an osteria/wine bar. I don't know if they still sell bread. But what I think of as “my Tuscan coffeecake” has become one of my favorite treats: both because it makes me roll my eyes heavenward with every bite; and because I challenged myself to figure it out—and did.

And, since you're a baker, you know how wonderful that feels.

Let’s make Tuscan-style coffeecake: Coffeecake Stars, in their holiday incarnation. For a one-pan version of this recipe, see our Tuscan Coffeecake recipe.

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First, let's put together our overnight starter. As with many starters, it's just about equal parts flour and water, by weight. Add a pinch of yeast, cover, and let rest overnight.

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Next day, the yeast has done its work very nicely. The starter should be bubbly all over, with those same kind of fragile bubbles you see on the uncooked side of pancakes as they fry.

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Combine the starter with the remaining dough ingredients. Here's a tip: Take the water you'll be adding, and swish it around in the starter container before pouring it into the bowl with the rest of the dough ingredients. Don't want any of that good starter to go to waste.

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Mix till the ingredients come together.

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Then knead till soft and smooth. Note that this dough never really completely forms a ball. That's fine; it's supposed to be soft.

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Scrape the dough into a lightly greased bowl. Cover, and let rise for 1 hour.

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It probably won't double in bulk. That's OK; it just needs to get a little puffy.

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Now you're going to knead in the dates, raisins, and walnuts. Can you use pineapple, papaya, and pine nuts? Sure, you wild and crazy thing, go for it! Kind of subverts the elegant Continental feel, but who among us doesn't feel free to amend recipes to our own taste at will?

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Put the fruit and nuts on top of the dough in the bowl.

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Wet or oil your fingers, and knead the fruit/nuts into the dough, using the sides of the bowl to help keep everything together.

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A sticky minute or so later, here it is.

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Next, divide the dough in half, and press each half into the pan of your choice. An 8" round cake pan works well; I've happened to pick one of our bakeable paper star pans. They're pretty, and they make it easy to give a baked gift without worrying about getting your pan back afterwards.

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Press the dough to the edges of the pan—in this case, into the points of the star.

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Like this.

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Here are the two coffeecakes; I've placed them on a baking sheet for support as they rise and bake.

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Let them rise, covered, until they're nice and puffy.

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Just before baking, GENTLY poke any emerging raisins down into the dough, to keep them from burning.

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Mix sugar, vanilla, and water. It'll look paste-like at first.

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But after a couple of minutes, the sugar dissolves and it becomes drizzlable.

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Drizzle the vanilla glaze over the cakes.

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No need to brush it over the surface; a casual drizzle is just fine.

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Bake the cakes till they're light golden brown, and their internal temperature reaches 190°F.

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One for you—one for your mom. Or your best friend. Or your boss?

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Look at that lovely, moist, golden interior. Stuffed with fruit and nuts. And I tell you, that crackly vanilla glaze on top is the perfect finishing touch. Salud!

Read, rate, and review (please!) our recipe for Coffeecake Stars.

Hey, I just realized something - tomorrow (November 15) is the 1-year anniversary of this blog. Well, time flies when you're having fun! Thanks, all, for chiming in here—

Buy vs. Bake

Buy: Macrina Bakery, Seattle, Budapest Coffeecake: made with eggs, low-fat yogurt, sugar, and vanilla baked with a swirled layer of cocoa, walnuts, brown sugar, cinnamon, and raisins. Slice: $2.85. Whole loaf: $28.50.

Bake at home: Coffeecake Stars, two 2-pound cakes, $4.37 per cake.

PJ Hamel
The Author

About PJ Hamel

PJ Hamel grew up in New England, graduated from Brown University, and was a Maine journalist before joining King Arthur Flour in 1990. PJ bakes and writes from her home on Cape Cod, where she enjoys beach-walking, her husband, two dogs, and really good food!