DISH: Caramel Apple Cake
TYPE: College Nostalgia
This cake hearkens back to my college days in a very different way than dorm rooms, Solo cups or term papers. It was a mainstay of Adams House, where I lived sophomore, junior, and senior years. Adams was a “house” in the 400-person sense of the word, but since we called it home for three-quarters of college, there was a genuine sense of community that formed. The “parents” were a couple who taught at the Medical School, and every few Fridays they opened up their home (which sat in the middle of our dorm courtyard) to students for tea. Because they knew how hungry students would be from weeks of surviving on dining hall fare, tradition had it that the tables at these teas would be groaning under plates and plates of hearty homemade food.
Somehow, tradition also had it that those of us who volunteered to bake cookies and cakes in the nights preceding were paid by the hour. It probably was the best job I’ll ever have, since I honestly would have done the baking for free. The recipes were mainly on single-sheet print outs, an archive of family recipes from dorm chefs past. There were some strange combinations—Pillsbury croissant dough filled with marshmellows, chocolate, and walnuts, called “chubbies,” and chocolate chip cookies with pudding mix in the dough—and some classic ones, like apple and caramel.
Since college, I’ve often wondered exactly what the proportions were that made this cake so exquisitely delicious. I make a standard, oil-based apple cake on a regular basis, but it doesn’t hit the same buttery-sweet notes that the Adams House cake did. And despite attempts to feed my nostalgia, I couldn’t find a recipe anywhere that came close to the original.
I was about to get on a train to Cambridge to look for it, since it happens to be painted on a wall of the dorm’s basement, when Food52, the user-generated cookbook website, came through for me, as the Internet always seems to these days. On Food52, there was a contest going on for “Best Apple Cake,” and I browsed it, looking for something that might resemble the cake of my college days. Not only did I find the cake (Cambridge Apple Cake, by user Rachel325), but I found out a little more about its lore, too.
When I was first cooking at the teas, a recent grad named Jess was in charge. She knew all the ins and outs of the tea’s and the house’s traditions, but truthfully, I hadn’t thought much about her in recent years. It turns out that Rachel was Jess’s co-chef, though she was gone by the time I matriculated. In her Food52 recipe introduction, she evokes the atmosphere of the crowded, festive teas. I too remember the way 500 starving guests, including students who didn’t actually live in Adams House, would swarm the tables, grabbing and eating, the ambitious ones camped out by the swinging kitchen door waiting for the freshest plate of finger food to be carried out, and ready, above all, to gorge themselves on cubes of apple cake coated in homemade caramel sauce.
From my kitchen, where hungry students call for caramel on their cake, to yours,
Cara, THE QUARTER-LIFE COOK
Rachel325′s recipe calls for oil in the cake, not butter, but I had only butter on hand. It makes the cake brown very nicely, almost like a tarte tatin. The secret that makes this cake so good, by the way, is that it has an extra half cup of oil in it than I ordinarily use in such cakes.
For the cake:
1 cup (2 sticks) butter
1 1/3 cups sugar
2 large eggs
1 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon salt
2 cups chopped, peeled apples (about 2)
1 cup chopped pecans or walnuts
For the caramel sauce:
1 cup brown sugar
1/3 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup butter
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 pinch salt
Heat oven to 325 degrees. Grease a loaf pan.
In a large bowl cream the butter and the sugar with an electric mixer until fluffy. Add the eggs, beat well, then mix in vanilla.
In a separate bowl, stir together the flour, soda, powder and salt. Add these to the wet ingredients and mix until blended. Fold in the apples and the nuts. Pour batter into prepared pan and bake for 1 hour, or until toothpick comes out clean.
Meanwhile, combine the butter, sugar, and cream in a small saucepan. Over medium heat, melt them together stirring more or less constantly. When the edges start to simmer, cook for 3 more minutes, then add the vanilla and remove from the heat.