Deb’s Mom’s Apple Cake

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I’ve been living in Tel Aviv for 3 months now, which in and of itself, blows my mind, but more importantly at the moment, I’m about to celebrate my first Rosh Hashanah ever in Israel. (Okay, technically I celebrated a few as a baby, but seeing as how I was barely a sentient being, I feel like that doesn’t really count.) As a secular American Jew, I admit that I haven’t done much to mark the occasion in recent years. But here in Israel, this is an unparalleled time of year– these are “the holidays”, meaning that families gather for festive meals, people are bustling at the market to get the last things they need, and there’s a jovial buzz wafting about, just as one would expect in December in most other countries. Everyone says, “Shana Tova” or “Chag Sameach” (‘Happy New Year’ and ‘Happy Holiday’, respectively) at the store and the gym and in the street. During the period of the Jewish High Holy Days, we celebrate a time of renewal, forgiveness, reflection, and harvest.

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I’m not quite sure what I was expecting to feel. In fact, I’m not quite sure what I was expecting from all of this. The past several months have been some of the most stressful, difficult, heartbreaking, and confusing of my entire life. Last Fall I made a personal decision that I essentially needed to blow up my life as I knew it: take a break from an increasingly stressful career, leave my marriage that was sometimes great but mostly wasn’t working, and also physically leave the place I’ve lived almost my entire life. This was clearly very radical, but I felt like I had to step away from nearly everything to gain some perspective and basically figure out a lot of crap. Packing, leaving, and abandoning a bunch of unfinished business were awful, to put it mildly. And now that I’m here and the dust is starting to settle…

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Things are still so very confusing. I cannot read the letters that come in the mail from the bank or the medical insurance company. I got a parking ticket even though I paid for parking because I didn’t understand that it was also a permitted zone. I got swindled out of a month’s rent because I didn’t understand the rental laws… I could go on. (Now, to counter all these annoyances, there’s also beach yoga on Saturday evenings, the fluffiest pita you’ve ever eaten, and the joy of having my name pronounced correctly, so there are many wonderful things too!) Every day is so hard, although I hope I’m now getting over the hump in learning the ropes of Israeli life. Despite feeling at the time that I needed a massive change, I now wonder if it was too much change all at once. Have I mentioned that handling change is not my forté??

Still, this is what I wanted, and here I am. New life, new horizons, new everything; it is an incredible opportunity to reinvent myself, should I choose to take advantage of it. (People are all, “You’re so brave!” and I’m all, “Or stupid, not sure switch?” Maybe both??) Regardless, a part of me felt a very strong need to go on a big adventure and explore the Israeli side of me, and I’m doing that. So although most Jewish New Years go by without much fanfare, I’m trying this year to embrace the spirit of the holiday that is all around me. It’s the first time in my life that (almost) everyone gets these special days off work– what’s that, you say? I don’t have to explain, “I need to use a vacation day on [x]day for a Jewish holiday…” It is also the first time that I will get to celebrate the occasion with a huge family feast comprised of cousins galore! And practically every one of the many bakeries in Tel Aviv is selling either sumptuous honey cakes or ornate round challahs, or both– you can most likely ascertain that this makes my baker’s heart go all aflutter.

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Which brings me to cake. (Somehow I always manage to arrive at this point…) Last Fall, I triumphantly posted a lovely Tuscan Apple Cake after many, many attempts at recreating something similar to what I had in Italy a few years prior. It was frustrating and expensive, but I was ultimately so happy with my little torta di mele. And it got me thinking about other apple cakes, as the timing coincided with Rosh Hashanah. As is the case for basically all Jewish holidays, I turned to my spirit animal, Deb Perelman of Smitten Kitchen, for a traditional Jewish-style apple cake, and she did not disappoint; I became captivated with the gorgeous apple-strewn ring that she attributes to her mom. Deb’s Mom’s Apple Cake is the apple cake of all my hopes and dreams! It is dense, yet soft; sweet, yet balanced; rich, yet simple. The first time I made it, I did use the optional walnuts, this year I didn’t. I’m fine with it either way, but I’d probably leave them out going forward, although I do think they make the cake look prettier on the inside. The batter ripples with soft apple chunks, toasty walnuts, and warm cinnamon beneath a crown of golden, wrinkled fruit on top. I didn’t cut into the cake for about 48 hours, and what I found was a custardy, plush crumb that every apple cake wishes it had.

Happy New Year and Shana Tova to those who celebrate, and Happy Fall Baking to everyone else! 😀

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Deb’s Mom’s Apple Cake
Adapted from Smitten Kitchen
Yields 12-16 servings

I used all Granny Smith apples for this cake last year, but this time I used a combination of tart and sweet apples. Deb says that her mom uses McIntosh, which I can never seem to find even back home, let alone here. The first time, my cake baked a little longer than 90 minutes because there was still a little batter on the testing skewer, no big whoop. However, when I made it this year in my smaller European-style oven, it baked much faster than normal. If you have an oven on the small side, start checking the cake at 60 minutes– I pulled mine out at 70 minutes, 20 minutes early.

For the apples:

  • 6 medium apples of your choice, peeled, cored, and cut into 1″ chunks (I used a combo of Granny Smith & Gala; Deb’s mom uses McIntosh)
  • 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
  • 5 tablespoons (65 grams) granulated sugar

For the cake:

  • 2¾ cups (360 grams) unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon fine sea salt
  • 1 cup (210 mL)* vegetable oil (or other neutral oil)
  • 2 cups (400 grams) granulated sugar
  • ¼ cup (60 mL) orange juice
  • 2½ teaspoons pure vanilla extract
  • 4 large eggs, at room temperature
  • 1 cup (130 grams) walnuts, toasted & chopped (optional)

*Deb’s mL measurement of oil seems a little high– 235mL was like another couple of tablespoons or so. The King Arthur Flour weight chart says 198g, and when I weighed out a cup, I ended up with 210mL, so I went with that.

Heat an oven to 350°F and position a rack in the center. Grease a one-piece tube pan generously. (If using an angel food pan with a removable bottom, place a parchment circle bigger than the diameter of the pan on the bottom with the center cut out, pressing the paper into the corner and up the sides an inch or so.)

Place the apples in a medium bowl. Add the cinnamon and sugar, and toss together until the apples are evenly coated; set aside.

Whisk the flour, baking powder, and salt together in a large mixing bowl. In a different bowl, whisk the oil, orange juice, sugar, vanilla, and eggs until they are smooth and homogenous. Pour the wet ingredients into the flour mixture and mix together just until combined. (I switched to a wooden spoon for this step.) Scrape down the bowl to ensure that all the ingredients are evenly blended.

Pour half of the batter into the prepared tube pan. Spread half of the apples (plus their juices) evenly on top. Pour the remaining batter over the apples (it will barely cover them), and smooth it out evenly, then arrange the rest of the apples on top.

Bake for about 90 minutes, rotating halfway through, or until a tester comes out clean. If the cake starts browning too fast before the center is baked through, cover it with aluminum foil, then remove it for the final few minutes of baking. (If baking in a smaller oven, start checking at 60 minutes– this year in my new small oven, the cake was done at 70 minutes.)

(P.S. Deb says the apples can hide in uncooked pockets of batter, particularly near the top of the cake. When testing the cake for doneness, poke your skewer/toothpick down to the bottom of the pan *and* do a shallow dip test just below the top layer of apples to make sure there’s no raw batter lurking between apple chunks.)

Cool the cake completely in the pan set over a wire rack. Run a small knife between the cake and the pan to loosen it, then invert it onto a platter and behold your apple-y glory.

Make ahead: This cake is delicious on the first day but takes on a fairly spectacular pudding-like texture over the next couple of days, so it’s a great make-ahead dessert. Store it in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 4 days or so.

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© Dafna Adler & Stellina Sweets, 2018.

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