Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Many People's Mom's Apple Cake

It turns out that what I do in the fall is make apple cake. When I realize I've been overenthusiastic about buying apples from the farmer's market, I make apple cake.

When a freak October snowstorm covers the driveway with branches and causes the power to be out for 5 days, I make apple cake. (With the assistance of my tenant, who baked it in his oven since mine--with its electric starter--was out of commission.)

When four young women who are on the Smith College crew team come to my house as part of their "rent-a-rower" fundraiser and move nearly 2 cords of wood onto my porch in 2 hours, I make apple cake.

But really, it's not like I need much of an excuse. If there are apples, I'll make apple cake. And I'm writing this now in the hopes that you will too.

I discovered this recipe last fall on Smitten Kitchen. Deb called it "Mom's Apple Cake" because it was one of her mother's specialties. As it turns out, if you read the hundreds of comments that followed, lots of people's moms made this cake.

There is a reason for that--it's delicious. Also, easy to make and large enough to feed a crowd. The other thing that's nice is that it's forgiving. Each time I make it--either accidentally or on purpose--I tweak it a bit. I swap out the orange juice for apple cider. I use some whole wheat pastry flour instead of white. Maybe I'll cut down the sugar or the oil a bit--or maybe I won't. And each time, it's delicious. The apple to cake ratio is almost even, and the cake crumbles around the apples--or perhaps it's the apples melting into the cake--in a most delightful way. I've brought this cake to parties and to work, I've fed those hardworking Smith students with it as well as my companions in the dark of the freak snowstorm. No matter the circumstances, it is welcome.

One note about baking. The original recipe calls for a tube pan. I didn't have one so the first few times I made the cake, I made it in a 9" by 13" pan instead. This works fine, for the most part. The cake is best when the cake and apples are layered, and that's a bit trickier in the sheet pan, just because it takes most of the batter to cover the bottom of the pan. Still, it's worth it to try to layer, even if you put 2/3 of the batter down and then 2/3 of the apples, then top with the remaining 1/3 of each.

This past weekend, on a bit of a whim, I purchased a tube pan. Except I didn't get the 2-parted tube pan that lets you make the cake right-side up but a one piece tube pan that you have to turn over. Using a pan with a smaller surface area meant that the layering was much easier, and the apples and walnuts were nicely integrated into the cake.

And the bottom of the cake, upon its exit from the oven, was quite lovely:

It did not, alas, come out of the pan clean, even though I had assiduously buttered and floured it. This is what it looked like after I attempted to patch up the bare spots. Still, that it was not beautiful (or whole) did not mean that it was not still delicious.

I know it is nearly Thanksgiving and everyone's cooking focus is on pie and stuffing, cranberry sauce and sweet potatoes. Even so, I hope that there might still be an occasion where a cake like this--sturdy, tasty, seasonal--can find a place at the table.

Many People's Mom's Apple Cake
Adapted from Smitten Kitchen

6 apples, MacIntosh, or a mix
1 tablespoon cinnamon
5 tablespoons sugar

2 3/4 cups flour, sifted (Can swap out some of the white for whole wheat pastry flour)
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup vegetable oil (If you cut down on the oil, add more juice or cider to make up for the liquid.)
2 cups sugar (Can go down to 1 3/4 cups; you can also swap out 1/2 cup of the white for brown)
1/4 cup orange juice or apple cider
2 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
4 eggs
1 cup walnuts, chopped (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a tube pan or a 9 x 13 sheet pan. Peel, core and chop apples into chunks. Toss with cinnamon and sugar and set aside.

Stir together flour, baking powder and salt in a large mixing bowl. In a separate bowl, whisk together oil, orange juice or cider, sugar and vanilla. Mix wet ingredients into the dry ones, then add eggs, one at a time. Scrape down the bowl to ensure all ingredients are incorporated.

Pour half of batter into prepared pan. Spread half of apples over it. Pour the remaining batter over the apples and arrange the remaining apples on top. Bake for about 1 1/2 hours, or until a tester comes out clean.

Baking Note: Keep an eye on the timer. I'd recommend starting to check after an hour. If you're making it in a 9 x 13 pan, it will probably only need an hour to an hour and 15 minutes to bake. In my tube pan (which is heavy), it baked in an hour and 20 minutes.