While William Tangorra enjoys the many charms of New England, there is one thing missing in his adopted region: crumb cake. North Shore bakers might protest that we have lovely crumb cakes, but he begs to differ, opining that our version is very much lacking in crumbs.
“If you can see cake through the crumbs, it’s not a crumb cake,” Tangorra, owner of Colossal Crumb in Merrimac, insists, noting that in New Jersey, the dense, thick cinnamon crumb allows no gaps, creating firm, impermeable crust on top of a yellow cake.
“I have very fond memories of the crumb cake from local bakeries in northern New Jersey because there was so much crumb, with just a little bit of cake on the bottom,” says the Merrimac resident, who still has family in the Garden State. He looks with disdain on supermarkets’ versions, for example. “It’s an eight-by-eight square with crumb just sprinkled on top. It’s basically a coffee cake. I wouldn’t even call it a crumb cake. It’s so far from it.”
The dearth of local options drove Tangorra to make a very crumby version himself. But it wasn’t until the pandemic hit that his hobby grew into something more. Teaching virtual elementary school art classes left him with time on his hands, and he started baking a lot. His extended family—especially his local New England in-laws—fixated on his crumb cake in particular. And Tangorra did as well, altering 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 started selling at the Newburyport Farmers 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 crusty crumble top on 36 cakes. He adds the melted butter to lots 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 in the cake, because it helps him to build a sour-cream vanilla base that can stand up to that topping.
Cake flour doesn’t lighten things up much though—the industrial mixer at Kitchen Local in Amesbury, where he bakes his cakes every other Friday night, can handle the ingredients for only nine crumbs at a time—the topping is stiff like a cookie dough.
And mixing up the topping is only the start of his biweekly baking regimen. Crafting the perfect crumb cake is time consuming, and it’s a lot of ingredients, Tangorra says. “You have to make it in two parts, the crumb topping and the cake separately, marry them together in the pan, then bake them.” For that reason, producing those 36 cakes at a time takes from about 5 p.m. until about 2 a.m. on baking days—including a whole lot of dishes to wash. Right now, he is flying solo, fitting the baking in among teaching and his family, but his hope is to eventually expand the operation to a full-time gig.
To that end, in addition to the “Original” cake, Tangorra has launched quickly into seasonal flavors. A pumpkin version was so popular this fall that he added two special holiday flavors for December—gingerbread, which uses a gingerbread cake for the bottom layer, with the classic crumb on top, and a cranberry cake, with whole fresh sugared cranberries baked right into his classic sour cream vanilla base. He puts the cranberries in raw, because all the other ingredients temper the tartness. “There is enough sugar, butter, sour cream already in the base,” Tangorra says. “When it gets up to temperature, it cooks and sweetens the cranberries.” Spring and summer offer a wealth of options, he says, especially with local fruits like blueberries. We’re hoping a peach gets into the rotation too. Because once you get a taste of the New Jersey classic, there’s no going back to less crumb.
At press time, Colossal Crumb was preparing to move from the Newburyport Farmers Market, which will be closed this winter, to the Amesbury Farmers Market every other week (BareWolf Brewing, Sundays 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.). For details, to reserve cakes, and for special orders, visit ColossalCrumbCake.com.