Baking For Others: Nostalgic for Apple Cake

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.

We made the apple cake of this post for every single tea, without fail. But though the recipe calls for pouring the caramel on top of the cake, as pictured above, we had quite a singular—and frankly, a little bit gross—way of serving it. 

We’d make two cakes each time, and we’d bake them in bundt pans. Then, on Friday afternoons before the hordes arrived, we’d pry them from the pans and cut them into awkward cubes. This was the job I liked best, since bundt pans aren’t that conducive to cube-cutting, and I got to eat the scraps as I went. We’d simmer an easy caramel topping and pour it into a bowl, which we’d set in the middle of the apple cake platter. Toothpicks accompanied the platter when we served it, so students could dip the cubes into the caramel. By the end of the tea, the caramel would be thickened from cooling and from the conglomeration of crumbs that had fallen off in it. 

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,



Apple Cake with Caramel Glaza
Makes 1 very rich loaf cake

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.

When the cake has cooled for 20 minutes, prick all over with a fork and spoon the caramel sauce evenly on the top.

Posted in: Baking For Others
  • Kate

    I just found my Sunday afternoon activity! My friends and I are going apple picking shortly, so I can't wait to try this recipe when we get back, it sounds like the perfect accompaniment to a fall afternoon and lots of thesis work. Thanks for the great idea!

  • Kelsey B.

    This is awesome!! I am in the apple mood these days and will definitely be trying this shortly. When I was in high school I was in charge of our school baking company – we made chocolate chip cookies during reading week & donated the proceeds to charity. Had I known where my life would go I should have just made it into a business then and there! I love your college baking story!

  • Evan


    i had 4 pieces…

  • jesschao

    miam miam. i'm so happy you were able to rediscover the magic of apple cake + mulled wine + chocolate fondue on friday afternoons. i'm headed back to apthorp in a month for more…

  • S

    I live in Pfoho and cook for Master's Open Houses there, and we made this exact cake with caramel dip yesterday!

  • Kdprendergast

    The instruction include adding powder but I don’t see it in the ingedients??  How much?

    • BGSK

      1 teaspoon – thanks for noticing! I’ll add it into the recipe.

  • Adrianne

    I only have half and half in my refrigerator.  Can that be used for the carmel glaze, or no?  

    • BGSK

      That should work. You might decrease the 1/2 and 1/2 by a tablespoon or two and add in an extra tablespoon of butter.

  • Amy P.

    Made this last weekend, it was delish!

  • Amanda4065

    Hey Cara,
    I made this and it was SOOO GOOD!  I want to send this overnight to my parents, but don’t know how it would travel.  What do you think?  And any ideas for keeping it from breaking in half while en route to Miami?  Thanks! 

  • Jayne Carman Portnoy

    Can this recipe be doubled without a problem, do you know? Want to bring two loafs over to my in-laws for the up coming holiday. Thanks!

  • Ηλιάννα Μ.

    I’ll tell you what.. I made this thingy 3 hours ago, all there is left now is a smaller piece than the one in the first picture…! I think I wanna marry you! Have your babies! I can settle with washing the dishes while you are cooking though…!

  • Amanda

    How many mini loaves do you think this recipe will make?
    I’m making this as a favor for a baby shower and need 13. Thanks!

    • Amanda

      And what would you reduce the cooking time/oven temperature to?

      • BGSK

        The recipe should make about 4 mini loaves. Same oven temperature, but I’d start checking for doneness at about 25 minutes. Enjoy!

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