Gravenstein Apples: Heirloom Apple Cake

photo of heirloom apple cakeThis 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.

photo of ingredients for gravenstein apple cakeAfter 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. photo of mixing batter for apple cakeSo, 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.

photo of how to bake an apple cake

Gravenstein Apples: Heirloom Apple Cake
Recipe type: Dessert
Prep time:
Cook time:
Total time:
Serves: 12
The best recipes begin their lives on notecards.
  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 Tablespoon baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon cinnamon
  • ¼ teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1 teaspoon table salt
  • 3 eggs
  • 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 50 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.

photo of finished apple cakeMore about the Wonderful Gift of Heirloom Apples

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.

Photo of heirloom apples and pieThis time when he offered to send apples, I dispensed with the coy protests and just exclaimed, “YES, please!”

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:

New York Times: Gravenstein Apples Struggle To Survive In Sonoma County

Slow Foods USA: Ark of Taste, American Heirloom Apples

Slow Foods USA: Let 2010 be the year of the Heirloom Apple

Boston Tree Party: About apples and a whole lot more. A very interesting group.

PERC Heirloom Apples: A Market Taste?

Long Branch Environmental Education Center: Heirloom Apples in Central and Southern Appalachia

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.



  1. Ann Foley says

    you have my mouth watering for apple pie and your lovely apple cake. I may bake one while watching my football games! Your article was so informative. Thanks again for “the meaning of pie”.

  2. Karen Mertens says

    I have had the memorable experience of sitting under a Gravenstein apple tree and sinking my teeth into those delicious apples. There is nothing like September and October in Nova Scotia if you love apples.

  3. Elle Hyson says

    The closest I have gotten to a Gravenstein apple is when I buy a jar of Gravenstein unsweetened applesauce at Trader Joe’s – it is really wonderful and so altho we are two elderly people, I buy two jars at a time when I see them (limited cupboard space) and then hope there will be more when I go to replenish. And I’ll look further to see if there are any in the vicinity of North Carolina when I hit the Farmers Market next weekend. The recipes sound wonderful and apple pie is my husband’s favorite.

  4. Kelly says

    Elle, that makes a lot of sense because the one other thing I keep hearing about the Gravenstein is that it is the very best single source apple sauce apple. Perhaps I need to spare a few of my few remaining apples for applesauce. No…I suspect I’ll use every last one in pies!

  5. Courtney says

    This will be the next cake I make. It looks and sounds unbelievably good. My MIL’s friend hosted a recipe shower for me and I have greatly enjoyed all of my recipe cards!

  6. Charlene says

    I am quite fortunate to have an apple orchard literally across the street from my house in beautiful Long Island NY. What is even more spectacular is that they grow many heirloom varieties of apples, Gravensteins included. I will be making both the pie and the cake today. I was quite fascinated by your post and spent a number of hours researching the heirloom varieties of apples. I have to say that we are “blessed” out here on the East End to have so many local farmers preserving the heirloom varieties of so many fruits and vegetables. It is always fun to go to the farmers market to see what is in season and what is even better is knowing that I am tasting the same fruits and vegetables that my relatives tasted many moons ago. Thank you for opening my eyes to the Gravenstein. I may just have to make some apple sauce too!
    Have a wonderful day!

  7. Kelly says

    Thank you for sharing this Charlene. From my dry, drought parched perch in Dallas it is hard to believe that anyone in the whole world actually lives across the street from an heirloom apple orchard. But clearly some of you lucky souls do. I am deeply envious. How wonderful to have that kind of access to the apples and all of the other wonderful vegetables. We have a burgeoning local eating movement around here, and some charming markets, but eating local in TX is a far different ballgame. I was recently in San Francisco and simply wondered at all of the produce that they get to call “local.” But, then again, if my eyes were fixed solely on local foods I would miss out on all of these wonderful opportunities for heirloom apples and maple syrup and huge artichokes, etc..

    Here is another reason to love your neighbor. I recently learned that an obscene amount of the apple juice concentrate and juice we consume in the U.S. is actually from China. Much like garlic and catfish and hundreds of other foods, we assume we are eating food made (or caught) at least in this country but it is actually all imported. The garlic and catfish discoveries really made me nuts. There are some things I just want to be from here, and catfish, garlic and apples are just a few of them. So part of my journey to learn about these wonderful apples, and every other food I feed my family, is so that I can at least make rational and informed choices about what my people eat. When I hear that apple orchards are being pulled up in favor of other crops, and then I read that so many of our apple products come from China, a little lightbulb goes off.

    I am so impressed that you are going to consider tackling both of these recipes today. Please let me know how they turn out for you. I love feedback and I love to hear about interesting ways that people change the recipes. Have a beautiful day!!

  8. says

    Loved your article on heirloom apples. While I would not consider myself a lovacore, I do try to buy locally when and if I can, or at a minimum buy food procured and grown within the U.S. I was not aware of the issue that garlic was grown in China but was aware that much of the fish available is from China, Vietnam, etc. I refuse to buy fish from those areas because of the lack of regulations governing the waters that these fish are raised. Most of this type of fish is not “wild caught” but farm raised in these countries. The lack of environmental controls should give one pause before purchasing. Always look for the country of origin and then pause before purchasing.

  9. Margaret says

    I loved your comment about never being alone when you cook – and then you went on the enumerate all the people who were with you from the apple grower to your family and friends. YES YES YES:)

  10. Linda M says

    Kelly, after reading your post and all the comments, I feel truly honored and blessed to have sampled this special cake from your kitchen. It was delicious and I savored every bite.

  11. Barbi Norton says

    I have a family recipe, Apple Blossom Cake, that is very similar to your recipe. I do add a small amount of ground cloves to my version, I love the smell and taste of cloves! This is our family favorite and after reading your version with the “drizzle glaze” I will have to try this recipe. I love Fall and all the baking that goes on during the holiday season. :)

  12. Ann(MattY"s Mom) says

    Kelly, love your website!! How cool to see your apple cake! Will research some family recipes for you.. My Mother was a champion baker and she saved ALL her recipes!

  13. Kelly says

    Hi Ann! I’m so pleased that you dropped by. Between my and Matt’s recipe, and Jon’s apples, and a little tweaking for good measure, we ended up with a really great cake. I really do love family recipes. Somehow they just taste better. BTW…you raised a great son. Pitts and I feel lucky to call Matt a friend. And Liz and the kids are fantastic, too. (I also wish I could go to their wedding over and over and over again…what a great occasion!).

  14. Kelly says

    Thank you! It is kind of a dangerous cake because you never quite O.D. on it like you can with a lot of chocolate cakes (which I adore too). But this you can just eat and eat and eat and eat. I’m so glad you like it, and I hope you make it 1000 times more.

  15. Kristin says

    Hi Kelly —

    I just stumbled across your site and I’m glad I did. This cake looks fantastic, and I can’t wait to make it after I go to the farmer’s market tomorrow (this time of year, there’s always a big range of heirloom apples there and I love trying the varieties). I’m usually a pie and crumble girl, so I’m excited to do a cake for a change. You’re also an exceptionally evocative writer; I’ve really enjoyed reading the entries I have so far, and look forward to future entries, and to reading all the past entries, too :)

  16. Barbara says

    Since my husband retired and I will soon, we bought over an acre of land. We are in the process of planting an orchard. So far it has four apple trees. Three are heirlooms. The gravenstein is my newest child. So I am researching information on my new addition. I can hardly wait for the first apples. In the meantime I will buy from the fruit stands. I will use your recipe with bought apples. Sounds yummy.

  17. Bebe says

    How odd it is to think of an apple that was ubiquitous in my childhood as being an “heirloom” apple. My late Mother, a World Class Apple Pie Baker, used Gravensteins exclusively. In a pinch, a Pippin (never called a Newton Pippin) was her second choice. Until fairly recent years Trader Joe’s continued to feature Gravenstein applesauce.

    The tart rather flavorless Granny Smith invaded from Australia and that was pretty much the end of the Gravensteins – and the Pippins as well. I have a hunch that the Granny Smiths are cheap to grow and virtually indestructible. Sturdy, like the rather plastic new strawberries.

    I do

  18. Kelly says

    Bebe, isn’t it interesting? And, to think that I had never even heard of some of these apples until a year ago. I now consider them jewels. Thank you for commenting. I think it is so nice to hear from people who have a notion of these wonderful apples going back a ways. Now that I know about all of the wonderful apples that we do not see in our grocery stores…I am vigilant about looking for something out of the top 2: Granny and Red. I will occasionally buy a Granny to mix in with other apples, but I haven’t bought a red delicious in years. I am grateful that Whole Foods and Central Market are really starting to vary their selections. I’m hopeful that we can create a bona fide market for small orchard, organic, heirloom variety apples. I’m fortunate to have a friend who sends them to me in the mean time. I should look into mail order options, too. Thanks for your insights, Bebe.

  19. says

    I live in Sonoma County, CA and grew up in Sebastopol, Gravenstein country and home of the annual fair in August. As the wine industry takes over some of the land where apple orchards thrived, I hope that the local apple farmers won’t give up on growing this wonderful variety of apple.
    I too have favorite pie & cake recipes that have been handed down from generation to generation. Lovingly kept with other recipe favorites.

  20. Kelly says

    DeAnne, I have heard a lot about the Gravenstein trees being cleared for grapes. It makes me sad. That is why I will shout about heirloom apples from the roof tops in hopes that the rest of the country can learn about them and create a better market for them. I didn’t even know the term until several years ago, and they are such special fruit. Thank you so much for your comment.


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