I’m in Lisbon this week preparing for my Portugal culinary tour, which starts on Monday. I am currently so jet-lagged I barely know my own name. Does anyone else have this problem? More importantly, does anyone have a brilliant solution for staving off the zombie-like disorientation and fatigue of leaping multiple timezones? If so, please do share your advice!
In the midst of all my prepping and packing and customary pre-trip stress, however, I managed to slip in a day of apple picking last weekend. My friend Sharon organizes an annual day of picking and cider tasting at her orchard and cidery in eastern Washington. So every October, I gather a group of friends and head over the pass and through miles of beautiful high dessert to Tieton, a little town just past Yakima, for one of my favorite fall traditions.
This year was perhaps the best year of apple picking yet. The thick veil of fog that greeted us at the pass, dissipated once we descended into the rolling pastures on the other side of the mountains. Leaving us with an absolutely perfect fall day: golden foliage, bright sunshine and blue sky.
And the apples! I learned about Sharon and her husband Craig and Harmony Orchards, after Rowan Jacobsen sang the praises of their amazing apples in his book, American Terroir, documenting the best growing places and producers in the country. He calls theirs some of the best apples in America, benefiting from an ideal climate of long, hot summer days and cool nights, enough wind to keep pests at bay, and a high-altitude location that yields apples with a dense, extra-crisp cell structure.
I have to agree; these are undeniably the best apples I’ve ever tasted.
Every year we pick as much as we think we can store and distribute bags to Seattle friends who couldn’t come out to pick. Beau and I usually turn many of those apples into applesauce, which needs virtually no sugar due to the amazing sweetness of the Harmony Orchards’ Ambrosias and Jonagolds, and no lemon juice thanks to the wonderful sweet-tart and floral notes of their heirloom Ashmead’s Kernels. We make quarts and quarts of applesauce and stock it in the freezer, hoping it will last at least until the new year. It never does.
This year, I wanted to make an apple recipe to share with you. I thought most of you probably had applesauce mastered, so decided on this fantastic apple cake instead. It’s adapted from Dorie Greenspan’s French Apple Cake. I added reduced apple cider to create layers of apple flavor as well as vanilla bean and maple syrup to round out the tart edges of the apples. I also favor slicing the apples instead of dicing them and layering some over the batter for a slightly fancier presentation. Like all my favorite recipes, it’s easy (you don’t even need to pull out your mixer), delicious and beautiful.
I hope you enjoy this cake. It by no means requires the sublime apples Craig and Sharon grow at Harmony Orchards to be fantastic. I’ve made it many times with store-bought apples and it’s never failed to delight. Let me know in the comments if you have any questions on technique or substitutions, and of course if you have that magic cure for jet-lag!
Apple Cake with Maple and Hard Cider
- 4 oz (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled to room temperature, plus additional for the pan
- 6 oz (3/4 cup) granulated sugar, plus additional for the pan and for sprinkling
- 6 tablespoons hard cider
- 1 tablespoon maple syrup, preferably grade B
- 1/2 vanilla bean
- 3.75 oz (generous 3/4 cup) all-purpose flour
- 3/4 teaspoon baking powder
- Pinch of salt
- 2 large eggs, room temperature
- 1 ¼ lb apples, about 4 medium (a mix of sweet and tart varieties), peeled and sliced ¼-inch thick
*Notes: This cake keeps, loosely covered with a tea towel at room temperature, for up to 3 days. I think it tastes best on days 2 and 3.
- Any dry or semi-dry hard cider will work nicely in this cake, but I especially like Tieton Cider Works Wild Washington Cider, because it’s delicious and also because once the bottle is open, I have to finish it!
- You can also make this cake in a removable-bottom tart pan (like I did). Be sure to wrap the bottom of the pan tightly with foil or some of the batter, which becomes slightly thinner once in the oven, will drip out the bottom and burn. I learned this the hard way. Luckily you get the benefit of my mistake and no smokey oven full of burnt cake batter!
Preheat the oven to 350° F. Generously butter an 8-inch springform pan. Coat the bottom and sides of the pan with granulated sugar then tap out the excess. Set aside.
Place the cider in a small saucepan and reduce by half over medium-high heat. Set aside to cool slightly, then stir in the maple syrup.
While the cider is cooling, use a paring knife to halve the vanilla bean lengthwise. Scrape the seeds from the pod using the blade of the paring knife. Add the vanilla seeds to the sugar in a small bowl. Use your fingers to rub the vanilla seeds into the sugar. (This will keep the vanilla from clumping together in the batter.)
In a medium bowl, combine the flour, baking power and salt. Whisk well to combine.
Crack the eggs into a large bowl. Whisk until frothy then add the vanilla sugar. Continue to whisk until the eggs look frothy again and the sugar is starting to dissolve, a minute or so longer. Whisk in the cider-maple reduction then whisk in half the flour mixture. When the flour is just incorporated, add half the butter, then the rest of the flour mixture and then the rest of the butter, whisking after each addition until you have a smooth, fairly thick batter.
Pour a little more than half the apples into the prepared cake pan. Pour the cake batter over the apples and smooth the top with a flexible spatula so no bits of apple are sticking up through the batter. Arrange the rest of the apples over the top of the batter in 1 or 2 slightly overlapping concentric circles. Sprinkle with 2 tablespoons of sugar, if desired, to make the top a bit more golden and crunchy.
Bake the cake, rotating after 30 minutes, for 50-60 minutes total, until the top of the cake is golden brown, a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean and the cake pulls away from the sides of the pan. Transfer to a cooling rack and let rest for 5 minutes. Carefully run a butter knife around the sides of the cake to loosen it from the pan, then unmold and cool completely on the wire rack before slicing.
Yield: 6-8 servings