I’ve known my husband for 21 years, and for 21 years he has waxed rhapsodic about his bubbe’s apple cake.
His brother and eight cousins are equally enamored. These people can’t finish a meal without sharing memories of the cake and debating its merits.
“She rolled it,” one cousin told me a couple of years ago when we met her for dinner in Manhattan.
“Like a pie?” I asked.
“No. Like a cake.”
“But the dough is kind of like a pie,” another cousin chimed in. “Kind of.”
“It had raisins,” my husband recalled.
“So it’s an apple-raisin cake?” I pressed.
“No. Not too many raisins. Just enough to know they’re there.”
“It was square,” my brother-in-law added. “With strips of dough across the top.”
“Like a lattice crust?” I asked.
“No. Like a cake. With just a few spaces in between.”
“You should make it,” my husband said.
Oy vey. For the past few years, I’ve tried. I’ve found apple cake recipes from Italy, Russia and Holland. I’ve baked cakes from the kitchens of Lynne Rossetto Kasper, Dorie Greenspan and Martha Stewart.
But the perfect version of the perfect apple cake is always out of reach. Every time I turn one out, I learn something new — and crucial — about Bubbe’s version:
* The type of apples are important. They have to cook to a soft, almost mushy consistency, but they need to remain intact. Granny Smiths are too solid; Jonathans too saucy.
* The cake should not have a delicate crumb. It needs to be hearty; heavy almost.
* The apples can’t be strewn throughout the cake. They need to be enveloped by the dough. But there ought to be a thin layer of dough in the middle.
* The cake should be delicious right out of the oven. But it should be better the next morning.
And the list goes on.
Why, you may wonder, does my husband devote all this attention to an apple cake? What makes it worth its almost mythic status?
Well, it comes from almost mythic people.
“Bubbe” is my husband’s maternal grandmother, Lena. She immigrated to this country in the early 1900s from Minsk. Her husband, Ike, went ahead of her, hoping to carve out a life free of the pogroms and religious persecution the couple faced in their native Belarus.
Lena followed Ike with their baby son, who died on the voyage here and was tossed to sea. (No formal burials for those in steerage.) Ike made a small fortune buying real estate on Staten Island but lost it all when the stock market crashed in 1929. He went on to open a butcher shop in Bayonne, NJ, where he worked until he died.
Stern and stoic in formal photos, Ike and Lena eventually had five children, 10 grandchildren and untold numbers of great- and great-great-grandchildren. Yiddish was their language of choice. Lena was a wonderful cook (and baker). She didn’t crack a cookbook in her life. And she didn’t record any of her recipes.
This past weekend, I came the closest I ever have to replicating Lena’s apple cake. It’s a recipe in the December issue of Martha Stewart Living for a Dutch confection called an appeltaart. I share it with you here. But if any of you has a recipe for an Eastern European apple cake or pie, please let me know.
I’m still searching for Bubbe’s apple cake.
Appeltaart (adapted from Martha Stewart Living, December 2012)
Place 2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour, 1 tablespoon baking powder, 1 teaspoon salt and 1/2 cup light brown sugar in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse until combined.
Add 12 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into small dice. Pulse until combined.
Add 1 beaten egg, 2 tablespoons water and 1 teaspoon vanilla extract. Process until dough forms a ball. Form 2/3 of dough into one disk and remaining third of dough into another disk. Refrigerate for an hour.
Peel and core 2 1/4 pounds apples (I used Stayman and Nittany). Cut into 3/4-inch chunks. Combine with 3/4 cup raisins, 1/4 cup granulated sugar, 2 teaspoons cinnamon, 2 teaspoons lemon juice, a pinch of salt and 1 1/2 tablespoons semolina flour. Set aside, stirring occasionally.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9-inch round springform pan. Roll out larger dough disk on lightly floured surface. Press into the bottom and up the sides of the pan. (The dough will break. I didn’t worry about getting the entire disk into the pan; rather, I pressed it in piece by piece after it was rolled.)
Sprinkle bottom of dough with 1 1/2 additional tablespoons semolina flour. Transfer apple filling to pan, leaving any accumulated juices behind.
Roll out remaining dough disk and cut into strips. Place strips across filling in a lattice pattern. Brush with milk, heavy cream, or a beaten egg and sprinkle with sugar.
Place pan on a rimmed baking sheet and bake 1 hour and 15 minutes, until crust is golden and apples are tender. Let cake cool for 30 minutes before removing the pan’s sides. Let cool an additional hour before serving.