Wednesday, February 3, 2010

the best apple cake

I don’t know why apple cakes, in particular. Whereas the mere mention of a pumpkin pie or pear crumble never fails to excite my appetite, apple cakes have always been a source of general indifference. And yet, here we are. What seemed at first to be the logical denouement to our apple-picking expedition somehow snowballed into a search for the World’s Best Apple Cake.

So far, the count is at six cakes—hardly epic, but nonetheless exceptional for someone who rarely revisits the same dessert genre. While M. and I have agreed on a tentative titleholder, each of these cakes could suit a particular occasion or appetite. And they all subvert my image of the apple cake as a ho-hum, breakfast-only affair.

#1 Sticky Spiked Double-Apple Cake

The quantity of butter in this recipe may give it an unfair edge over the competition. But when you factor in demerits for the name (I’d like to propose a moratorium for all recipe titles featuring two or more adjectives), Regan Daley's Sticky Spiked Double-Apple Cake was the uncontested champion. There’s a lot to love about this cake—the dense, moist crumb, the pronounced spice profile (Daley shares my affection for nutmeg), the textural contrast of the various fresh and dried fruits. It’s proof that the apple cake can be as indulgent as any dessert. (A scoop of vanilla ice cream and a dousing of brown sugar brandy caramel certainly helped the cause.) We served leftovers for breakfast, which seemed almost indecent.

#2 Mom’s Apple Cake

No, not my mom’s apple cake (I don’t think my mom every made an apple cake)—her mom’s, and it’s a good’un, playing on the traditional marriage of apple and cinnamon. The cake is packed with fresh apples—our bundt pan was literally overflowing—and the translucent cooked fruit made for a nice stained-glass-window effect. We served it with roasted banana ice cream, which, in addition to being delicious, was a combination that called to mind the classic Raffi tune of my youth (ee-ples and bee-nee-nees?).

#3. Applesauce-Chocolate Chip Bundt Cake

Yes, I’ve already written about this cake, and technically it was made with sauced, rather than fresh apples. (Which makes it more like a spice cake, than anything else.) But I felt I should include it in the round-up all the same. Of all the apple cakes I’ve made, this was certainly the most haunting.

#4. Buttermilk Apple Cake

Inspired by my success with the Strawberry Buttermilk Cake (one of the sleeper hits of last summer), I decided to adapt the recipe to autumnal flavors. The results weren't quite as superlative, unfortunately—I missed the way the soft, porous strawberries permeated the cake. But it had the same tender, slightly tangy crumb and, on Day Two, had matured into an extremely tasty breakfast cake.

#5. Grandmothers of Sils’ Apple and Yogurt Cake

This was another Smitten Kitchen recommendation, adapted from The New Spanish Table, by Anya von Bremzen. Though delivered on its promise of extreme moistness, it's flavor was surprisingly subtle, with a quiet anise undertone I would play up more in the future. For fans of the French yogurt cake, this will appeal to you very much, but I doubt it will wow any dinner party guests. Tea party guests, on the other hand…

Other Apple Cakes of Note:

Balzano Apple Cake: I made this cake two years ago and was impressed as much by its flavor as by its physical composition. (It probably has the highest apple-to-batter ratio of the bunch.) The thinly sliced apples makes it more refined, than rustic.

Streusel Küchen: It’s hard to argue with a streusal topping, and this one is executed to perfection. When my friend made it for a brunch party, he doubled the amount of lemon zest (one of his general rules of thumb when baking), which brought out the citrus character.


Sticky Spiked Double-Apple Cake
Adapted from In the Sweet Kitchen, by Regan Daley

1 cup Muscat or sultana raisins
1/3 cup brandy
1 cup unsulphured dried apple slices (if only rings are available, cut them in half)
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 cups all-purpose flour, sifted
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1/8 teaspoon salt
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
1 1/2 cups tightly packed dark brown sugar
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 cup unsalted butter, melted and cooled
3/4 cup coarsely chopped pecans, toasted
2 tart cooking apples, one peeled, one unpeeled, both cored and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
Brown Sugar-Brandy Sauce (recipe below) warmed slightly, to serve.

In a small bowl, soak the raisins in the brandy for 45 minutes. Add the dried apple slices and macerate for a further 15 minutes. Do not drain.

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Butter a 9 x 13 inch pan and line the bottom and up the two long sides with a sheet of parchment paper, letting the paper hang over the edges by an inch or so. Lightly butter the paper.

In a small bowl, sift together flour, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves and set aside.

In a large bowl with a hand held electric mixer or whisk, or in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, blend both sugars. Add the eggs and beat on medium speed until thickened and pale, about 2 minutes with a machine, 4 to 5 minutes by hand. Add the cooled melted butter and mix to blend.

Fold in the dry ingredients in two additions, mixing just enough to moisten most but not all of the flour. Add the dried fruit and brandy mixture, chopped pecans, and diced fresh apple, then fold them into the batter with long, deep strokes. Don’t fret about the ratio of fruit to batter.

Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and set in the center of the oven. Bake for 60 to 80 minutes, or until the center springs back when lightly touched, a tester inserted into the center comes out clean and the cake is beginning to pull away from the sides of the pan. Transfer to a wire rack and cool. This cake keeps beautifully, well wrapped, at room temperature for up to 5 days, although it is best within 2 or 3. Serve warm or at room temperature with warm Brown Sugar-Brandy Sauce.

Brown Sugar-Brandy Sauce
Makes about 2 1/4 cups

1/3 cup unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
1 cup packed dark brown sugar
1/3 cup granulated sugar
2/3 cup heavy cream
2 1/2 tablespoons brandy

Combine the butter, sugars and cream in a small, heavy bottomed saucepan. Stir this mixture over low heat until the sugar dissolves, then increase the heat to medium and bring the sauce to a very gentle boil, stirring all the while. Cook 5 more minutes, then remove from the heat and stir in the brandy or other liqueur. Serve immediately, or cool to room temperature, then cover and refrigerate until needed, up to 3 days. To rewarm, either microwave the uncovered sauce on low power or transfer the cold caramel to a saucepan and stir over low heat until warm.


Mom’s Apple Cake
Adapted from Smitten Kitchen

6 cooking apples
1 tablespoon cinnamon
5 tablespoons sugar

2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour, sifted
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup vegetable oil
2 cups sugar
1/4 cup fresh orange juice
2 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
4 eggs
1 cup walnuts, lightly toasted and chopped (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a tube or bundt 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, 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.


Apple Cinnamon Buttermilk Cake
Adapted from Gourmet

1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon salt

4 tablespoons unsalted butter (1/2 stick), at room temperature

2/3 cup + 1 1/2 tablespoons sugar
, divided use
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
, plus more for sprinkling
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ginger
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 large egg

1/2 cup buttermilk

1 cup peeled and chopped baking apple

Preheat oven to 400 degrees with rack in middle. Butter and flour a 9-inch round cake pan.

Whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.

In a separate bowl, beat together butter, 2/3 cup sugar and spices (cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger) with an electric mixer on high speed until pale and fluffy, about two minutes. Add vanilla and egg and beat well. With the mixer set to low speed, beat in 1/3 of the flour mixture. Add half the buttermilk and continue beating on low speed until incorporated. Scraping down sides of bowl as necessary, beat in another 1/3 of flour mixture then remaining buttermilk. Finally beat in the last 1/3 of the flour mixture until just combined.

Spoon batter into cake pan, smoothing the top. Scatter apple evenly over top and sprinkle with remaining 1 1/2 tablespoons sugar and a small pinch of cinnamon.

Bake until cake is golden and a wooden pick inserted into center comes out clean, 20 to 30 minutes. Cool in pan 10 minutes, then turn out onto a rack and cool to warm, 10 to 15 minutes more. Invert onto a plate.


  1. No Time to Cook in SacFebruary 8, 2010 at 11:07 PM

    Your #2 was divine -- We ate the first half after the Super Bowl, still warm with vanilla ice cream, and the second half cold after tonight's supper. I like the way that sticky sauce looks on your #1 but it is too ambitious for me. Next effort: the chicken and cabbage combo. Yummy.

  2. I'd say this is a pretty epic quest!

    I have to agree about Regan Daley's apple cake. It is the best apple cake I have ever had. And the sauce just takes it over the top.

  3. thank you for the roundup of apple recipes! I made #4, with a few alterations: yogurt instead of buttermilk, added crunched-up pecans, and put brown sugar on top instead of the cinnamon sugar. I also doubled the amount of apples and mixed them into the batter so the batter was just there as an apple vehicle. it was terrific! I think next time I will cut the nutmeg in half. I am now looking forward to breakfast...thanks again!

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