The Food Maven Diary
Hot, Buttery Apple Cake
I talked about this cake last week on The Breakfast Club, the program I contribute to on Robin Hood Radio (WHDD 1020 AM, 91.9 FM), where I can be heard live from my kitchen every Monday morning at 7:35 until about 8.
(Robin Hood is the NPR affiliate in Sharon, Connecticut, and unless you live in the southern Berkshires or the western Litchfield Hills, you'd have to listen via the internet. You can hear the station live all day by going to www.robinhoodradio.com. My segments are archived by about 11 a.m. on the same day. You can actually hear me back to May 2008.)
Anyway, I talked about the cake by way of scolding myself for taking McIntosh apples for granted for too many years. The three pounds I just bought because they were the cheapest apples in the store turned out to be fragrant, crisp and refreshing with the perfect (for me) sweet-acid balance and, it ends up, the ideal apple for this cake, one that I have been making over and over again lately. Until I get it right! It's a recipe in what is now called "The Southern Italian Table," to be published next fall. I made the recipe only recently, following my own recipe to the letter (that's what's called "recipe testing"), but I didn't love the way it came out this time. It was only the umpteenth time I'd baked the cake. How could it be different this time?
You already know the answer. It was the apples. The Crispins (also called Muzu) I used, which I generally love for other apple cakes, are too firm to soften in the mere 30 minutes that this buttery cake is in the oven. I needed the apples to become soft in 30 minutes, to give up some of their moisture to the batter, and make the cake a bit pudding-like when hot, which I think is the cake's most delicious moment. Macs to the rescue. The quality that makes them inappropriate for most cooking -- their tendency to fall into mush in minutes -- is exactly what the cake needed. Now it tastes like the cake I met in Franca Miceli's kitchen in Siracusa, Sicily.
How did I get to cook with Franca? My dear friend Iris Carulli used to be married to Franca's brother, Renato, and because Iris learned much about cooking from Renato and Franca's mother, and I in turn have picked up a cooking habit or three from Iris, Franca and I have decided we are related through the kitchen.
While she was showing me how to make this cake, Franca taught me yet another kitchen trick: She uses the beaters of her turned-off, hand-held electric mixer to gently stir the flour into the moist ingredients. Besides that you don't have to dirty another utensil, stirring in the dry ingredients, as opposed to beating them in, makes for a more tender cake.
FRANCA MICELI'S APPLE CAKE
Serves at least 8
This is a plain, but very buttery cake. I love it just the way it is, but if you feel a need to guild the lily, vanilla ice cream or whipped cream is how you might do it.
A note on the pan: A 12-inch round cake pan is, for some reason, standard in Italian home kitchens. It is not in the U.S., although any good cookware store should have one. I bought my heavy-duty aluminum pan at Cook's Companion, on Atlantic Ave., off the corner of Court St., in Brooklyn. Lacking that perfectly sized pan, use a 9 by 13-inch baking pan, preferably metal, so that it can go under the broiler to caramelize the top. The cake will be slightly thicker.
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon baking powder
14 tablespoons butter (7 ounces or 1 3/4 sticks)
1/2 cup fine dry breadcrumbs for bottom and sides of pan
1 cup sugar
3/4 cup milk
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Grated zest of 1 lemon (optional)
5 cups peeled, cored and thinly sliced McIntosh apples (almost 2 pounds)
Combine the flour, salt, and baking powder in a large mixing bowl. Mix well and reserve.
Place an oven rack in the middle of the oven. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
Put 2 tablespoons of the butter in a 12-inch cake pan or 13 x 9-inch baking pan. Place in the oven and when the butter has melted, remove it from the oven and brush the butter around the bottom and sides of the pan.
Pour the breadcrumbs into the pan. Shake the pan to spread the crumbs all over the sides and bottom. Shake out any excess. Set aside.
Combine 8 tablespoons of the butter (1 stick) with the milk in a small saucepan. Heat over low heat until the butter has melted. Remove from the heat and let cool slightly.
Beat the eggs in a large bowl with a hand-held electric mixer, then gradually beat in 3/4 cup of the sugar. Continue to beat until the mixture is thick, foamy, and light yellow.
Pour in the milk and butter mixture and beat until well incorporated. Beat in the tablespoon of olive oil, the vanilla, and the grated lemon zest, if using.
Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients and, with the electric mixer off, use the beaters to thoroughly stir in the dry ingredients.
Scrape the batter into the prepared pan. Evenly distribute the apples on top of the batter. Many of them will sink in. Sprinkle evenly with the remaining 1/4 cup sugar. Thinly slice the remaining 4 tablespoons of butter over the top of the cake.
Bake for about 30 minutes, until the batter has risen and the top has very lightly browned. For a darker, more caramelized top, turn on the broiler for a few seconds. (If using a Pyrex pan, be careful not to overdo this as the pan can crack under the broiler.)
Preferably, serve hot, but the cake is also delicious warm or at room temperature.