Well, today was a full day of cooking. I rose before my alarm was set to go off at 7:30, made coffee, and threw my messy hair up in a bun in order to make it to my “next gig” before 9 am. Over the course of 10 hours, I harvested cherry tomatoes and kale, made kale chips, dehydrated the cherry tomatoes and froze them, processed about 6 lbs of apples and turned them into apple sauce, made orange-plum preserves, a blueberry-peach cobbler with cornmeal biscuits, and, a first for me, German Sunken Apple Cake. It was a productive day, to say the least.
I was lucky enough to get to bring my boyfriend’s golden retriever, Apollo, with me to the house. He roamed around the yard, sniffing through the woods, wandering down to the lake, chewing on an abandoned butternut squash which had inexplicably been cast from their garden and had landed, strangely, in the middle of their lawn.
During my lunch break, I reheated yesterday’s lamb curry the bakery I work for ordered for us bakers as a thank you treat for working hard during an insanely busy day. Apollo was very attentive during this time, and when I ladled some of the rich curry residue and a morsel of lamb from the bottom of my dish on top of the expensive kibble in his dog bowl (“careful, buddy, it’s a little spicy!”) he gingerly tapped his tongue to the sauce and lapped it up, leaving his dog food untouched. There goes my master plan to trick this weird dog into eating the food he is supposed to eat.
I was making him dog food, for a matter of a few months. It was actually cheaper to make than to buy the dog food we’ve been getting, vitamin/calcium supplement included. Just one of those strange things, I guess. It must take a lot of resources to turn a cornucopia of ingredients into a joyless brown pellet. I don’t know. I’ve never been to a dog food factory.
He was excited about this development, for a few short weeks. But then, he’s never been a food-motivated dog. This was almost inconceivable to me as someone who grew up with labs, and frequently dog-sat neighbor’s dogs who would nearly take your hand off if you offered them a treat.
Not so, with Apollo. He’s an all-day grazer. Some days he doesn’t even finish his scoop of food. But people food? That’s a different story. If Dad has it, it has to be good. Right? There’s no way it’s not good.
He’ll eat whatever comes from the table, but as soon as I put it directly into his dish (the only difference from what I make for him and something I might eat in terms of ingredients is, plainly, salt) he loses interest after a few bites. Sigh.
“You, Dog, give your mother grey hairs.”
So it was a nice backdrop as I cooked and cleaned, then cooked and cleaned some more–to look up from my chopping, stirring, and scrubbing to behold the golden creature, looking for friends in the garden underneath the pumpkin leaves or animatedly chewing on a gourd. His persistent happiness intermittently confounds, annoys, and inspires me. Such is the appeal of a golden, I guess. I think I am starting to “get it.”
While I danced around the literal piles of produce that greeted me when I arrived in order to organize the space, the vibe, and reacquaint myself with the location of the tools in their kitchen, I eventually had to confront the apples. The tree in their yard is laden with them, with no end in sight. It’s a beautiful thing, really: having so many apples.
I picked out four of the smallest per the recipe’s instructions, though I took a few liberties with the ingredients–but it’s such a simple cake, I didn’t want to stray too far in order to maintain the integrity of its traditional flavor. I’m pretty happy about the combination of honey and apples (I mean, who wouldn’t be?) and Marie Helene’s French Apple Cake is one of my go-to classic desserts when I want something that I know is going to be delicious without tons of sugar. (I mean, there’s definitely sugar–it’s a French cake! But there’s only enough batter to coat the myriad of apple chunks, which carry the majority of the Flavor Load, if you catch my drift. And if you don’t, and you DO like apples, you should seriously consider making this slightly boozy cake. Or leave the booze out! I don’t care! Marie Helene might, but I think she’s dead?) [Edit–I checked. She’s definitely dead.]
After peeling and trimming the apples, I cored them and prepared lemon juice and sugar. The next step of slicing the apples halfway through was definitely a test of my knife skills, but I’m happy to report I only cut all the way through one of the apple halves. Nice!
Before adding the beaten egg whites, I was concerned the batter would be too stiff to incorporate the airy whites without completely losing their fluff. But, as promised in Smitten Kitten’s rendition of this cake, the stuff does loosen up with “careful” folding. This cake may have humble ingredients, but requires some patience, and a steady hand.
Laying the apples on top of the firm batter was very satisfying. It was tempting to press them in towards the bottom of the pan, but I heeded Smitten Kitchen’s advice and let them float on top as directed. The high amount of baking powder in the batter reacts with the lemon juice and causes this cake to rise around the apples. So, are the apples sinking, or is the cake rising? Hey, should this really be called “German Rising Cake Caressing Tiny Apples?” At any rate, here’s the final product, after a glaze I adapted slightly from Smitten Kitchen’s salt and honey, in order to add a hint of complexity, more sheen, and amber notes to bring out the cake’s natural, gorgeous golden brown:
Wiiiiithout further ado, the recipe!
German Sunken Apple Cake
Adapted from smittenkitchen.com
Preparation time: approx. 1.5 hours
- 4 very small apples (I used what was available but something with a denser mouthfeel and a more complex flavor profile, like a pink lady, jazz, or (dare I say) golden delicious, would really shine here)
- 2 Tbs fresh squeezed lemon juice (yes, it absolutely must be fresh squeezed!!)
- 2 Tbs sugar
- ½ cup plus 1 Tbs unsalted butter (because Samin Nosrat taught me not to be afraid of salt, I used salted butter and am happy with the result—dealer’s choice)
- 1/2 cup plus 2 Tbs honey
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 3 large eggs, separated
- 2 three-fingered pinches of salt
- 2 tsp baking powder
- 1 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
- 2 heaping Tbs honey
- 2 heaping Tbs apricot jam
- ½ tsp salt
Preheat oven to 350°F. Butter a 9-inch springform pan, and then line the bottom with a round of parchment paper. Butter the parchment paper, too.
Peel apples, cut them in half, then remove the cores using a circular scoop or strawberry stem remover. Place each apple half cut side down on the cutting board and make parallel slices, about 1/8th of an inch thick, being careful not to cut all the way through the apple to the cutting board. If you do cut through the apple, arrange the pieces later so the apple half appears intact.
Juice the lemon into a medium bowl with sugar. Toss apple halves to coat.
Beat butter and the first measurement of honey in a Kitchen Aid or in a medium bowl with electric beaters until butter is fluffly and honey is incorporated. Add vanilla and egg yolks, mixing until just combined, followed by salt and baking powder. Mix until just combined, then add flour, half at a time, mixing just until the flour is incorporated.
In a separate bowl, beat egg whites until they are stiff and appear matte and fluffy. Dollop ¼ of the whites into the assembled cake batter, and fold into the mixture as best as possible. (The mixture will be quite stiff and the egg whites will quickly lose volume, but this is part of the process.) Fold in the rest of the whites in three additions, being careful not to overmix the last addition of egg whites.
Uniformly spread and level batter into the springform pan, arranging cut apple halves facedown in the batter. Drizzle leftover sugar liquid over the apples, but do not press them towards the bottom of the pan.
Bake 35-40 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the batter comes out clean. After cake has cooled for about 10 minutes, run a knife along the edge and release the edges of the springform pan.
Heat honey, jam, and salt together on the stovetop in a small saucepan, or in a small bowl in the microwave. Stir to incorporate, then brush over the top of the cooling cake, taking care to glaze the apples. If you feel so inclined, brush the sides of the cake too. The apple slices will begin to fan out as the cake cools.
Serve at room temperature or warm with a dollop of crème fraiche.
I was pretty satisfied with the end result, and even happier to know that it lasts for 3 days at room temperature before it requires refrigeration. This cake is best enjoyed at room temp. to encourage the subtle apple flavor and honey notes to shine. And who knows, maybe I’ll even give the dog a bite.