What to CookCake

There's Something (Or 1191 Things) About This Smitten Kitchen Apple Cake

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In 2008, when Smitten Kitchen was still an infant in blog years, I shared a recipe for my mom's apple cake. It's a great cake and I know why we love it so much: It's huge. It keeps well and only gets better as the days pass. It's extraordinarily loaded with apples, like a pie inside a cake. It's actually better dairy-free than with butter (I know!). You probably already have the ingredients around and, finally, look: I've been apple picking. I know you overdid it. This cake is here to help.

But 1191 comments? I have to be honest that while this exceeds all of my recipe-sharing hopes and dreams and it means everything to me that so many people go to this cake through my site, I have sometimes quietly wondered what makes it so much more interesting than the other five apple cakes on my site, or the 12.7M one can find via Google. What is it about this apple cake?

The apple cake in question.
The apple cake in question. Photo by Deb Perelman

Sure, the base level requirement of any recipe is that it works—for everyone, in every kitchen, without requiring an advanced cooking degree, voodoo, prayer, or the clouds in the correct formation outside. If the recipe printed in a publication intended for home cooks doesn’t work for most of us at home, it sucks as a recipe. But once you get that out of the way, what makes us say, "I'd like to make this again forever." Or "I’m headed to the kitchen to make it for the 648th time!!" Or "I’m converting to Judaism just for the cake!!!"

And so I reread every comment hoping to glean some sort of master-level truth / a-ha moment / oft-repeated theme I'd missed only reading comments one or two at a time as they come in about what makes a good cake an unmissable one. Maybe I'd find some surprise within and I could write a longform thinkpiece along the lines of "We Don't Like What We Think We Like" or something equally aggro. Or I could write a memoir! "Everything I Know About Writing Recipes I Learned From My Mom's Apple Cake." I had plans, people. Big plans. Major plans.

The truth is so much less dazzling.

It has history.

This isn't just my mom's recipe, it's probably yours or friend’s or acquaintances’ mom's, too. My mother got it from a friend who got it from a magazine and it's been published under as many names as Jewish Apple Cake and German Apple Cake and Polish Apple Cake and then some. Reading all of the comments together, I was amazed by how many people said they went way back with this cake.

  • "This exact recipe was considered a family heirloom. I remember adding it to my family tree history for a school assignment. My father made up stories about it—something about escaping Poland with it. And then one day my mother came clean, it was just a recipe my mom got at the tennis club from one of her friends. The horror!"

  • "Wow it’s amazing how many names this cake gets. My grandmother used to call it Jewish Apple Cake, here in MD it’s referred to as Carolina Apple Cake, and I’ve also heard it referred to as Ma’s Bundt Apple Cake."

  • "My mom says she originally found the recipe 40 years ago in a Mazola Corn Oil ad!"

  • "This cake was the first thing I made for my husband and his family (before we were dating even)."

  • "I got this recipe from an ex-boyfriend’s mother over 30 years ago and I will say that it is without a doubt the best apple cake you will ever eat."

The recipe Deb's mom passed to her, in kind of perfect cursive.
The recipe Deb's mom passed to her, in kind of perfect cursive. Photo by Deb Perelman
  • "My 96 yr old mom actually said it almost tasted like the cake her mother used to make… Can’t get any higher compliment than that. I am throwing out all the other apple cake recipes."

  • "I have been looking for this exact recipe for YEARS. My Nana made this cake all the time for me and I’ve been trying all the different apple cakes I could find."

  • "I have been using the very same recipe given to me by my Mom’s mom who is Pennsylvania Dutch and my copy is handwritten in pencil dated 1947 or 1949..."

  • "This is my mother-in-law’s go-to cake that she is well known for and makes ALL the time. My husband grew up thinking that it was an old family recipe from his father’s side (Germans), some of whom have been here since pre-Revolutionary war. I have been making it for almost 20 years and just learned that my MIL clipped it from a magazine when my husband was small!"

Photo by James Ransom

It's really hard to mess it up and forgiving of tweaks.

  • "I’ve tried this cake with pears, slightly underripe peaches or nectarines, plums, persimmons, fresh strawberries and bananas with great success."

  • "I made this today using vegan ingredients. I used flax egg in place of the egg. I used gala apples that were kind of small so I used eight to total about 3 1/2 cups. I used evaporated cane juice over granulated white sugar and reduced it to 1 1/2 cups as I layered the middle loosely with brown sugar. It is amazing."

  • "I substituted half the oil with unsweetened applesauce (1/2 cup oil; 1/2 cup applesauce). And, lowered the sugar to 1 1/2 cups. You would never know!"

  • "This recipe must be invincible! I thought I would try whipping the egg whites and folding them into the batter lastly. Once I had assembled the cake with the layers of apple I realized the whipped whites were still in the KitchenAid(!)... I have never received so many compliments."

It's an explosion of September/October/make this right now-ness.

  • "HUGE success. Fall heaven on a plate."

  • "This cake screams ‘fall.’

  • "This is really making my home smell like a slice of apply heaven goodness."

  • "Everyone loved it and it tasted like autumn."

  • "It was everything you said it would be Deb—flavorful, moist and full of cinnamony apple chunks."

And maybe that's the upshot, the thing we probably knew all along: drama, mystery and a-ha's on our plate can be fun once in a while at a restaurant, but what most of us really want is just really great slice of cake—the kind that you'll think of every year on the first day of fall and think, "Ooh, let's make that apple cake again!" I know I do.

Deb Perelman is our latest Writer in Residence, and she'll be making this very cake—yes! this one!—on Facebook Live with us today. Tune in at 4:15 P.M. EST.

Automagic Spring Menu Maker!
Automagic Spring Menu Maker!

Tags: Fall, Weekend Cooking