Grandmother’s apple cake was probably the only dessert my mother ever baked. I vaguely remember her cursing over piecrust, but can’t recall the pie. Probably because the cursing, from the lips of a woman who might threaten to wash your mouth out with soap for saying "sheesh," made such an impression that other details slipped away.
I used to tease my mom that the domestic gene skipped a generation. If slogan t-shirts had been invented when we were kids, Mom would have worn the one that said, “I’d rather be painting.” Let’s just say my mother was born too soon. She was a gifted painter and sculptor saddled with four children because that was what was expected of her. She wore her wifely and motherly duties, especially cooking, like a ball and chain. A very heavy ball and chain.
Grandmother, on the other hand, took an interest in cooking. As I have mentioned from time to time on this blog, Grandmother (never Granny, Grandma, or Gran) had her shortcomings in the empathy department for her fellow humans, most notably her children, but she possessed powerful instincts when it came to food. With help from a cook and a nanny when her five children were young, Grandmother carried her motherly duties a lot more lightly than my mom did. Yet she, too, had her priorities. Her t-shirt would have said, “I’d rather be playing bridge.”
Perhaps a preoccupation with social life drove my grandmother’s interest in food. Or perhaps for her, as for me, food simply held a fascination. To glean some insights into what might have made her tick, I recently pulled a few of her cookbooks off the shelf. She had a habit of scrawling recipes and comments in the columns, on the back pages, on the book flaps, and just about anywhere there was space. Many of them were recipes from friends or from her sisters: Dolly D’Aloia’s thumbprint cookies, Twinnies’ chocolate fudge, Emma’s Icing. Somehow they all sounded familiar.
My Grandmother with admirers
Then I realized the same recipes appear in my mother’s recipe box, carefully copied. Though she took little pleasure in cooking, my mother occasionally relished recreating dishes from her childhood, particularly sweets. And she, too, took up the habit of writing in her cookbooks.
Grandmother inscribed one book, Lowney’s cookbook, produced by the makers of cocoa and chocolates, with her name, date, and the words “My first cookbook.” I imagine how pristine it once was, and how excited and grown up she must have felt to embark on her new cooking adventure. After more than a lifetime of use, it has lost its binding and the pages crumble each time I open it. The stains, faded scribbles and notes tend to congregate in the dessert section. The once blank pages are filled with recipes jotted down with lists of ingredients, no instructions: Aunt Livia’s Cottage Pudding, Molasses Layer Cake, Hot Milk Sponge Cake, Lillian's Candy. A testament to the way food and cooking connect us.
One significant discovery I made in Grandmother’s books was an entry for ‘Mother’s Apple Cake’. My mom always referred to it as Grandmother’s apple cake, and I simply assumed that the grandmother in question was my mother’s mother, my grandmother. So after this revelation, I asked my mom about it. “Yes,” she said, “that was my grandmother’s cake. We kids used to sneak into the kitchen for a slice on Sundays when we visited. They expected it, so there were usually two or three cakes cooling on the table.”
Something came over my mother when she spoke of that cake, that kitchen, that time. She had just finished showing me a photo album that my grandmother had made for her. As we looked at the album she sighed and said, “I guess my mother did love me after all. She made me this album, with pictures of me.” My mother—who is now in the looking-back stage of life—never felt particularly loved by my grandmother. Yet she recalls her childhood with happiness, surrounded by family, filled with Sunday dinners, and the constant ebb and flow of cousins, aunts and uncles. And apple cake, always the warm, inviting apple cake.
My Aunt Mary, Mom, and Uncle Billy
Mom, age 12 or 13
The cake part of this cake is not very rich; it is just an excuse to pile on the apples and end up with slices of cinnamon apple goodness. It is quick and easy enough to make for breakfast on the weekend, or anytime you need a fast apple fix. Plums, peaches and pears are welcome here, too.
Grandmother’s apple cake
Make one 9-inch cake
For the cake:
1 cup all purpose flour
1/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 /8 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, thinly sliced
1/4 cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 apples, peeled, cored and cut in 3/8-inch thick slices
For the topping:
3 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 tablespoon butter
1. Heat the oven to 425 degrees. Butter a 9 by 2-inch round cake pan. Dust the pan with flour and tap out the excess.
2. Whisk the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt together in a bowl.
3. With your fingers, crumble the butter into the flour until the mixture resembles coarse meal.
4. Beat the milk, egg and vanilla together with a fork until combined. Add it to the flour mixture and stir just until combined. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan. Spread it evenly in the pan with the back of a spoon.
5. Starting at the outside edge, arrange the apples in a circular pattern over the cake, overlapping them slightly.
6. For the topping: Mix the sugar and cinnamon together in small bowl. Sprinkle it over the apples and dot with butter. Bake for 25 minutes, or until a skewer inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean when withdrawn.
6. Cool the cake in the pan. Cut in wedges and serve warm.
More apple recipes from this blog
And still more from around the web