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Beatrice Ojakangas: Valentine heart coffee cake is rich and buttery

Valentine’s Day is named for two early Christian martyrs whose common feast day was Feb. 14. Medieval folk tradition maintained that the springtime mating of birds took place on St. Valentine’s Day, which led to a later custom of choosing a valentine, or sweetheart, for the day by a random drawing. Messages of affection were passed between these randomly chosen “lovers,” which were precursors of the valentine card.

The heart shape, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, was considered the “seat of love and affection.” But the symmetrical, double-lobed figure that tapers to a point at the bottom is not the shape of the heart that beats in our bodies. It has been said that the valentine heart is more the shape of the lipstick mark left by a woman’s kiss.

Valentine’s Day has always been a time to think about special baking, and here’s one recipe that I have enjoyed. With a clever snip of a rolled-up sweet yeast dough, it is easy to shape this coffee cake into a big, edible heart.

I hope this easy refrigerator dough will inspire you or the baker (young or old) in your family.

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This easy refrigerator dough needs to be mixed ahead, as much as two days ahead. To make it even easier to schedule, you can shape the coffee cake the night before baking.

From one batch of dough, you can make both an aromatic cinnamon-filled heart (maybe for breakfast, brunch or coffee break) and a savory cheese-filled one for later. I am offering this recipe as an inspiration for creative cooks to expand on the idea. Try a pesto filling or a pizza-flavored filling to make appetizers or to accompany an evening meal. For me, it’s a way to brush away the “pandemic dust” from my brain.

Oh, and besides that, check out this fun way to create a heart shape.

Slicing into the heart reveals flaky layers. (Susanna Ojakangas / For the News Tribune)

Slicing into the heart reveals flaky layers. (Susanna Ojakangas / For the News Tribune)

Valentine Heart Coffee Cake

Makes 2 heart-shaped coffee cakes.

2 packages or 2 tablespoons active dry yeast

½ cup warm water

¼ cup sugar

½ cup (1 stick) butter

1 teaspoon salt

2/3 cup milk, scalded and cooled to lukewarm

2 eggs, lightly beaten

3½ to 4 cups all-purpose flour

Filling for one cinnamon heart:

2 tablespoons butter, melted

½ cup sugar

1 teaspoon cinnamon

½ cup chopped nuts, optional

Filling for one savory cheese heart:

2 tablespoons melted butter or olive oil

½ cup shredded sharp Cheddar or Parmesan cheese (or a mixture)

1 teaspoon mixed dried Italian herbs

Icing for cinnamon hearts:

½ cup powdered sugar

1-2 teaspoons cream or milk

1 teaspoon vanilla

In a mixing bowl, combine the yeast and water and 1 tablespoon of the sugar. Let stand for 5 minutes until the yeast foams. Add the sugar, butter, salt and cooled milk; whisk in the eggs. Add the flour gradually, stirring to form a soft dough. Cover, and refrigerate at least 4 hours or up to two days.

When ready to shape, turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and cut into two parts.

Dust a work surface lightly with flour so that the dough won’t be sticky. Roll one of the parts at a time to make a 15-inch circle about ⅓ inch thick. Brush dough with butter or olive oil depending on the filling you are choosing.

Mix the sugar and cinnamon and sprinkle over the dough, sprinkle with nuts, if desired. If making a savory heart, sprinkle with the cheese and herbs.

Roll up jelly roll fashion and place on a parchment covered baking sheet. Fold the roll in half so that one half is on top of the other. Seal the open ends together. With a sharp knife or a pair of scissors, cut from the folded end lengthwise down the center of the roll to within 2 inches of the sealed end. In doing so, the folded end of the roll will separate out to form the two lobes of a heart shape. Spread out the two sides to expose the filling.

Let rise, lightly covered, until puffy, about 45 minutes, or cover and refrigerate overnight. If refrigerated, remove from the refrigerator 1 hour before baking so that the coffee cake can rise and come to room temperature.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Bake for 20-25 minutes until light brown. Remove and cool on a wire rack.

For the cinnamon-filled roll, combine the icing ingredients and drizzle over the warm coffee cake.

Beatrice Ojakangas (News Tribune photo)

Beatrice Ojakangas (News Tribune photo)

Beatrice Ojakangas is a Duluth food writer and author of 31 cookbooks. Find her online at