While William Tangorra enjoys the many charms of New England, one thing is missing from his adopted region: crumb cake. The North Shore bakers may protest that we have delicious crumb cakes, but he disagrees, opining that our version is seriously lacking in crumbs.
“If you can see the cake through the crumbs, it’s not a crumb cake,” insists Tangorra, owner of Colossal Crumb in Merrimac, noting that in New Jersey, the thick, dense cinnamon crumb leaves no gaps, creating a firm, waterproof crust on top of a yellow pie.
“I have fond memories of crumb cake from local bakeries in northern New Jersey because there was a lot of crumb, with just a little bit of cake on the bottom,” says the Merrimac resident, who still has family in the Garden State. Look down on the supermarket versions, for example. “It’s an eight by eight square with fresh crumb sprinkled on top. It’s basically a coffee cake. I wouldn’t even call it a crumb cake. It’s so far from that.”
The dearth of local options led Tangorra to make a heavily crumbled version himself. But it wasn’t until the pandemic hit that his hobby turned into something more. Teaching virtual art classes in elementary school left him with free time and he started baking a lot. His extended family, especially his local New England in-laws, became obsessed with his crumb cake in particular. And Tangorra did too, altering the recipes he found online to replicate his ideal. After tripling the crumb topping and adding sour cream to the yellow base, Colossal Crumb was born, with a whopping two inches of crumb and just an inch of yellow cake supporting it.
It’s no wonder the cakes took off when Tangorra began being sold at the Newburyport Farmer’s Market in May 2022. How could it not be popular when each cake boasts three sticks of butter: two for that towering crumb and one for the cake? On baking day, that requires a massive double boiler to melt about 66 sticks of butter for the thick, sweet, and crispy tops of 36 cakes. Add the melted butter to a large amount of brown sugar, cinnamon, and cake flour for the topping. “Cake flour keeps the crumb soft, because cake flour is finer,” he explains, noting that he uses all-purpose flour on the cake, because it helps it build a base of sour cream and vanilla that can hold up to that coating. .
Cake flour doesn’t make things much clearer, though: The industrial mixer at Kitchen Local in Amesbury, where she bakes her cakes every other Friday night, can handle the ingredients for just nine crumbs at a time: the topping is stiff as a cookie dough. .
And mixing the topping is just the beginning of your biweekly baking regimen. Making the perfect pastel de migas takes a lot of time and a lot of ingredients, Tangorra says. “You have to do it in two parts, the crumb topping and the cake separately, put them together in the pan, and then bake them.” For that reason, producing those 36 pies at once takes from 5 pm to 2 am on baking days, which includes a lot of dishes to wash. Right now, he’s flying solo, wedged baking between teaching and his family, but his hope is to eventually expand the operation into a full-time job.
For this, in addition to the “Original” cake, Tangorra has quickly launched into seasonal flavours. A pumpkin version was so popular this fall that it added two special Christmas flavors for December: gingerbread, which uses a gingerbread cake for the bottom layer, with the classic crumb on top, and a blueberry cake, with fresh, sweetened whole blueberries baked right into their classic sour cream and vanilla base. Put the raw blueberries, because all the other ingredients soften the acidity. “There is already enough sugar, butter, sour cream in the base,” says Tangorra. “When it comes up to temperature, it cooks and sweetens the blueberries.” Spring and summer offer a plethora of options, he says, especially with local fruits like blueberries. We expect a peach to enter the rotation as well. Because once you taste the New Jersey classic, there’s no going back unless you have crumbs.
At press time, Colossal Crumb was preparing to move from the Newburyport Farmers Market, which will be closed this winter, to the biweekly Amesbury Farmers Market (BareWolf Brewing, Sundays 1pm-4pm). For more details, to reserve cakes, and for special orders, visit ColossalCrumbCake.com.