This cake is a community cake. A week ago, my friend Jon Rowley sent a big box of Gravenstein apples to Dallas for me. This is the second time he has performed this great and generous task on my behalf. The rest of that story is after this recipe. Before the box landed on my doorstep, I had pie dough chilling in my refrigerator. Within an hour of the delivery man dropping off the package, I had a gorgeous pie in the oven. But I was left with a bounty of apples with which to play.
I recalled a wonderful apple cake that I had made on several occasions. The recipe, given to me by my mother years ago, was hand written on a well worn note-card. She got the recipe from her college chum Betty Keck, who also attended Midwestern University at that time. They were both lowly undergrad accounting majors in an area of study in which my mom was actually told by a professor that a woman could not succeed. Now mom is the head of the Board of Regents. So put that in your pipe and smoke it, old man. But it was also the era of bridal showers where instead of giving a prospective bride silver candlestick holders and fine bone china, friends would have recipe showers and exchange hand written recipes. Some of my favorite recipes of my mom’s come from that era, if not that very shower.
After some figuring and fiddling and tweaking, I made a delicious apple cake. The aroma of apples baking, in a pie or anything else, is the fragrance of joy and contentment. It was a great cake. A college friend of my husband’s, Matt Young, sent me a note saying that his mom also had a fantastic apple cake, called Apple Dapple, that had a caramel glaze. Matt’s family lived in New Mexico and they had an apple orchard. He knows apples, much like Jon. And, I love comparing recipes and seeing where there is room for improvement. I love seeing how other families have gone about things. I love family recipes. And, I love collaborative baking, where the memories and knowledge of a group of people lead to an amazing thing.
So, in my kitchen yesterday, there were at least four apparitions, at least four companions, baking with me. Joining me were Jon Rowley of Seattle, Matt Young of Brooklyn, Betty Keck from Lake Granbury, and my mother Carol. But of course there was also the orchard owner who is still willing to grow Gravensteins, even though other crops could be far more profitable. And, there are the ladies from the Pecan Shed in Wichita Falls, where my mother bought me this particular variety of pecans called Wichita. And, Amy Yandow of Williston, Vermont was there, as well. She and her husband make the maple sugar that I used in this cake. She always puts a handful of hard maple candy in my orders. I like Amy a lot for that kindness. If you get down to it, it would be quite difficult to count the people from all over this country that had a hand in foods that I put together to make this beautiful cake. This is my cake and this is your cake. I hope you try it, and keep in mind all of the people in the kitchen with you. I am never alone when I bake.
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 Tablespoon baking powder
½ teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon table salt
1 cup canola oil
1-½ cups granulated sugar
½ cup maple sugar (you can use all granulated sugar if you cannot find this)
2 teaspoons vanilla
3 cups of peeled and chopped apples (Gravenstein preferred, but get the best apples you have access to)
1 cup chopped pecans
1 cup brown sugar
½ cup butter (1 stick)
½ cup heavy cream
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. In a small bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt. In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine the eggs, oil, sugars and vanilla. Beat until it is creamy, about two to three minutes. With the mixer on low speed, add the flour mixture and beat until just combined. The batter will be very thick. Remove the bowl from the stand mixer and use a heavy spatula to fold in the pecans and the apples until they are well incorporated. The batter will now be exceedingly thick.
2. Prepare a Bundt pan by spraying it heavily with non-stick baking spray (I have had great results with PAM for baking) or butter the pan thoroughly. Spoon the batter into the pan and spread it evenly with the spatula or a spoon. Bake the cake for 5o minutes. Test with a toothpick. If a toothpick inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean, or with crumbs, then the cake is ready. If not, continue to bake for up to another 10 to 15 minutes, testing again every 5 minutes. Remove the cake from the oven and let it rest in the pan for 5 minutes. Carefully turn the cake out onto a wire rack to cool while you prepare the glaze.
3. In a small saucepan combine the butter, brown sugar and cream. When the butter has melted and the ingredients are combined, allow it to come to a low boil. Allow the sauce to boil (watching it carefully) for three minutes. Remove the sauce from the heat.
4. Place the cake on a serving plate and spoon the sauce onto the cake. If you should choose to, reserve ⅓ of the sauce to put on the cake just before serving. Sprinkle chopped pecans around the base of the cake. I like this serving dish because it holds the excess sauce and it pools a little at the edge. I love the way it looks with the chopped pecans.
I had never heard of Gravenstein apples, nor of any of the other heirloom varieties of apples available in our country until my friend, Jon Rowley, told me about them earlier this year. You hear people use the term paradigm shift. These apples have been a paradigm shifting event in my life.
Why? Well, you kind of need to bake and eat an apple pie made with heirloom apples to understand. It is a process, a ceremony.
Jon sent me the apples over my lame protests about not wanting to be a nuisance. When I opened the first box a few months back I was astonished. There were about a dozen varieties of these gorgeous orbs. Mind you, these are NOT the apples you get at the grocery store. The very term “heirloom apple” means the specific variety is likely over 150 years old. They are big. They are small. The range of colors of the skins and the flesh are fascinating. Cut into a Hidden Rose and gasp at the rich pinks and yellows.
A wonderful article by Slow Foods talks about apples being the perfect symbol of American Heritage. Apples are not native to America. They were brought over by settlers and cultivated. And, they changed and adapted and soon were completely unlike the plants from their countries of origin. By 1850 there were 500 varieties of uniquely American apples. Are we talking about people or apples? I love the parallel.
If you want the full post about the Quintessential American Apple Pie that I made with Jon’s help, please read the full post The Quintessential American Apple Pie.
But, every pie is different. Every day has its own characteristics that will affect an apple pie, be it the temperature, the humidity, the apples you can find, what kind of mood you are in, how much time you have, whether your hands are feeling strong, whether your oven is behaving, whether you are in the mood for a little less cinnamon or a little more nutmeg, whether you are making it for yourself, or if you are making it as a humble but stunning gift to a friend. Every little thing alters the course of the pie. It, too, is a metaphor for your own complex life.
Jon’s notion of the perfect pie includes a mixture of heirloom apples. Every apple brings its own gift to the pie. But in that process of celebrating the incredible diversity of the heirloom apples that he had sent to me, he did mention that there was one variety of apple that could stand alone in an apple pie and that was the Gravenstein. He warned that it wasn’t the perfect apple texturally but that because of its flavor, all of its other shortcomings would be forgiven.
However, here is the challenge. Not only do you have to be in the right time frame for the apple, but now you have to actually track them down. The Gravenstein was once a widely cultivated apple. But because these apples (and all heirloom apples) are not seen as commercially viable to many farmers, they are being cut down in favor of more profitable crops. The New York Times recently ran a piece on Gravensteins noting how they are disappearing from Sonoma County in California because they are being replaced with grapes. Jon tells of a similar situation on Prince Edwards Island. The apples are getting more and more difficult to find. It would be easy to criticize the growers, but I do not. We are the market and we are the demand. Farmers and ranchers and fishermen and orchard owners grow what sells. If we started valuing and buying these apples, the trees would have a far better shot.
Jon tracked down a grower and bought plenty of Gravensteins for the Texans. That would be me, and my fellow pie lovers Jim and Diane Gossen of Houston. How lucky we are. Jon sent enough apples for several pies (or several pies and a few really great cakes). Each was carefully wrapped in a sheet of newspaper, reflecting how strongly Jon values this gift. Unloading the box was like opening 20 birthday presents. I don’t know what I was expecting, but each of these apples were large and robust and firm. The flesh was sweet and tart and cool. Baked into a pie, they became sweet and aromatic. While some apples stand up a little better to the heat, these softened, but in a nice way. They were still distinct, and the trick of leaving their peels on probably contributed to their having retained some structure. In the cake, they were the perfect example of “apple” flavor, very sweet and just a bit tart.
Commercial apples are all different versions of the same song. They are valuable because they can be stored and transported and held for a long time at a constant temperature, thereby ensuring us a season-less existence, never without apples. I have no qualms with this. My family eats an inordinate number of grocery store apples each week. But this, my friends is a different experience. The textures, the colors, the aromas, the continuum of sweet and tart, the and the range of crisp to giving will move you.
So, if someone says to you, “Let me send you some heirloom apples”, don’t hesitate or dither. Just say “yes.” You need to make the pie, and you need to make this cake. You need to learn about the wonderful varieties at our disposal. Why did I call it a paradigm shifting event? Because now it isn’t just about apples. When I look at a peach or a tomato or a potato I think, where did this come from? Who grew this for me? Is it a variety that has been modified by the wonders of science to be shelf stable while perhaps sacrificing some of its flavor? Or, is this the exact same variety that my great-grandmother would have had in her kitchen garden? I want to know. And, I also want to know where to find these old breeds that are perhaps not so amenable to commercialization. I want to taste them so I will know what I am losing in the grocery store bargain and whether that is a bargain worth making.
I will never be one of those folks who live without a big grocery store. I am in a season of my life where convenience and cost considerations are very strong. However, I think there is a middle ground. I think the majority of people want to know the best that our country (or another) has to offer. This is, incidentally, why I will never be a true locavore. But, I am willing to bet that many of the same people that are searching for the $2.00 loaf of bread on sale at Albertson’s for their kid’s lunch are also likely to buy a dozen of the very best apples on the planet from a small farmer in Washington, if they only knew that they were there. I also think that if a chain like Central Market, which caters to the whims of thick-walleted connoisseurs, can have several weeks of Hatch Chile-fest (I am a fan), they can also have several weeks of America’s Heirloom Apples: a connection to our heritage (-fest). We just need to let them know that we know these apples are out there, and that we want them, and that we are willing to pay for them. If I am willing to spend several hours working with my hands on a labor of love and beauty that is a pie, I am willing to spend a few extra dollars to make it sing.
Here are some interesting resources about heirloom apples:
Boston Tree Party: About apples and a whole lot more. A very interesting group.
This is just a starting point for you. If you are interested in Heirloom Apples, search and look into all of the farms selling apples and tree saplings around the country. I can’t always ask Jon to send me boxes of apples, so I’m going to be looking out for some wonderful vendors.