An apple cake to celebrate autumn and the return of life to the garden

With the first serious rains — actually three days of thunderstorms as of today — and more rain expected over the next few days, the garden is looking very refreshed. These rain episodes are most unusual — the sky darkens ominously, then come torrents of rain driven by strong gusty winds, so that we have to hurriedly close all the windows. After twenty minutes or so, the rain stops as suddenly as it began, the sky clears up to an unclouded blue, and brilliant sunshine picks out the raindrops on the sodden leaves like sparkling crystals. I wonder if this pattern is because of our location in a mountain valley close to the sea? I’ve never seen weather like this, but I rather like this alternating rain and sun throughout the day.

Life is returning to the garden after months of drought, and it is perhaps unsurprising that in the Judaic tradition, this time of year in the Mediterranean — with the onset of rains and cooler weather, and the springing up of new greens from the parched earth — is an appropriate time to celebrate a new year. Traditional foods for the Jewish New Year — Rosh Hashana (literally ‘Head of the Year’) — are apples and honey. Of all the pastries made with fruit, those with apples entice me the most, and I’ve been collecting apple pastry recipes from all over the world for some time now. Besides, apples are at their most plentiful and their best in autumn. And what better to accompany a warming drink on a cool autumn afternoon than a freshly baked cake with luscious slices of tender, juicy apples? One of the traditional foods prepared by the Sephardi community (Jews expelled from Spain in 1492, together with the Moors) is this apple cake that was posted in the blog Sephardic Food.

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I tried it yesterday, and it turned out beautifully. I made a few changes and substitutions, as I often do, especially if I don’t have all of the ingredients. I used four Granny Smith apples, as the recipe called for crisp ones, and none of the other apple varieties in the supermarket were as crisp. I also added two red Braeburn apples that were rattling around in my fridge. Fine slices were called for, so I tried the finest I could manage, but the last pieces turned out a bit thicker (I was being careful not to get my fingers sliced by the very sharp knife that I used.) That was all right, because I like having varied textures in the finished fruit layer.

Not having Cointreau or any other orange liqueur at hand, nor an orange either, I used grapefruit, which I had. I grated the zest and sprinkled it with Cretan raki (another thing sitting around feeling unloved in the pantry) over the baked apples. I could have used vodka instead, but I only found it much later. I was surprised by the liveliness imparted by the red grapefruit zest, and I shall be making this cake with it from now on. Had I thought of it beforehand, I could have steeped the zest overnight in the raki or vodka. This is the same trick I use to make my own vanilla essence, btw. Take two vanilla beans, slice them into pieces, put them in a small bottle, and cover the lot with vodka. In a few weeks, the vanilla flavour will have infused the vodka thoroughly. And this home-made vanilla essence is so much nicer than say, Dr. Oetker’s Bourbon Vanilla, and far cheaper in the long run as well, if you bake a lot. I keep replenishing the vodka until the flavour becomes rather thin, and then it’s time to add more vanilla beans. It lasts indefinitely because of the vodka.

Back to our French apple cake. Another change I made is to bake the apples for much longer than the 20 – 30 minutes at 200°C  (375°F) that the recipe specified. At 30 minutes, the Granny Smith slices were still crisp, so I removed the foil and let them bake for 15 minutes more. By then they were meltingly soft, as I prefer, and given off lots of juice. Lastly, although I usually reduce the sugar called for in pastry recipes, this time, after tasting the apples, I felt their sweetness needed boosting. Granny Smiths tend to be rather sour. So I added another tablespoon of sugar. I used pale brown Demerara sugar, btw, instead of white. This cake was delicious, even without the recommended whipped cream or ice cream. It’s more of what the British call pudding, rather than a classic cake. In some ways this reminds me of clafoutis, another simple French fruit concoction made with fresh cherries.

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The original recipe is here. My adapted recipe follows.

Grapefruit-scented French Apple Cake

Preheat oven to 200°C. Butter well a 25cm ceramic pie dish.

Apple Layer

4 Granny Smith apples and 2 Braeburn or other aromatic red apple (about 1 kilo total)

1/4 cup Demerara (pale brown) sugar or white sugar (or more, depending on acidity of apples)

2 tablespoons butter

grated zest of a red grapefruit, steeped in 2 – 3 tablespoons vodka or raki

Peel, core, and finely slice apples. Place slices in a bowl, add sugar, and toss to coat them evenly. Place in the pie dish, dot with butter, and cover with foil. Bake with top and bottom heat for 30 – 45 minutes, or until very tender and oozing with juice. Check the apples after 30 minutes, and adjust timing to how tender (or crisp) you wish the apples to be. Remove apples from the oven. Taste the apples and adjust sugar to your taste.

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Meanwhile, reduce oven heat to 180°C, and prepare the batter. The original recipe says to prepare it while the apples are baking. However, I found that this led to the batter not rising at all: the effect of the baking powder had gone from standing too long. So I suggest to prepare the batter only when the apples are done.

Batter

1/3 cup flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

pinch of salt

1 large egg

1 teaspoon vanilla essence

1/2 cup Demerara (pale brown) sugar or white sugar

2 tablespoons melted butter (I melted this in an oven-proof bowl in the oven.)

In a bowl, sift the flour, baking powder, and salt. In another, larger bowl, beat the egg with the vanilla until frothy. Add the sugar and the melted butter, then stir in the flour mixture and mix well until the batter is smooth. This step can also be done in a mixer or food processor.

Assembly

Sprinkle the grapefruit zest and vodka over the baked apples. Pour the batter over and spread evenly to cover the apples. Bake for 20 minutes, or until the batter is golden.

Serve lukewarm, with or without whipped cream or ice cream.

Buen provecho!

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