Big Little Recipes

This 4-Ingredient Apple Cake Is As Easy As It Gets

September 24, 2019

A Big Little Recipe has the smallest-possible ingredient list and big everything else: flavor, creativity, wow factor. Psst—we don't count water, salt, black pepper, and certain fats (specifically, 1/2 cup or less of olive oil, vegetable oil, and butter), since we're guessing you have those covered. Today, we’re making an apple cake you’ll make on repeat all fall.

Of all the apple cakes on our site, the most popular one comes by way of our Genius column, and an unknown person named Teddie. Who is Teddie? “We don't know,” Kristen Miglore wrote. “This marks the first recipe in our series with an anonymous genius.”

While its creator stayed mysterious, the genius of the recipe itself was clear. Teddie’s Apple Cake is rich, tender, and moist. But to get there, you’ll need 10 ingredients: all-purpose flour, vegetable oil, granulated sugar, eggs, cinnamon, baking soda, vanilla extract, apples, walnuts, and raisins.

So what if I told you that we could drop that number to four? And that we could skip the oil altogether? And the baking soda, too?

It’s easy to assume that, without any fat, a cake would turn out dry (or, at least, not that exciting to be around). And it’s even easier to assume that, without any leavener, a cake would be as flat as a cracker. But in reality, neither is true.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“Also, I have gluten free guests coming soon - what flour would you recommend in place of the white whole wheat for a similar consistency? Thank you!”
— Ellen D.

If you don’t believe me, just ask angel food cake, which is little more than flour, sugar, and whipped egg whites. Or dive into a The Great British Baking Show marathon, and keep an ear out for a “fatless sponge” (more whipped egg whites).

While those classics can be tricky, this four-ingredient apple cake is anything but. Because instead of separating eggs and whipping their whites and streaming in sugar (slowly! do it slowly!), you simply crack whole eggs into a stand mixer, dump in some sugar, and let the machine do its thing.

The inspiration is Russian apple sharlotka. In Food & Wine’s version, there are flavorings like cinnamon, nutmeg, almond extract, and lemon juice. In Smitten Kitchen’s, vanilla extract and a shake of cinnamon at the end. In both, however, the core ingredients stay the same: all-purpose flour, granulated sugar, eggs, and apples.

This cake doesn't need butter or oil to be moist and decadent. For that, we have apples. Photo by James Ransom. Prop stylist: Amanda Widis. Food stylist: Olivia Mack McCool.

Here, that template is our guide—but switching up the first two ingredients changes everything. Instead of using all-purpose flour, we’ll use white whole-wheat. As writer and whole grain expert Maria Speck explains, “White whole wheat is a true whole grain, but milled from a different wheat variety that’s lighter in color than regular whole wheat flour.” Which is to say, white whole-wheat is nutty and flavorful, but not nutty or flavorful enough to be distracting. We’ll also replace the sugar. Instead of granulated, which is as neutral in flavor as it is in color, we’ll call in light brown, which has the same outgoing personality as toffee.

These two simple swaps make additions like spices and extracts utterly unnecessary. Which leaves us with white whole-wheat flour, brown sugar, eggs, and apples (plus salt for contrast). That’s it. I love when such a small ingredient list adds up to something so big.

Just like Teddie’s, this cake is chock-full of what you came for—apples, apples, and more apples—bound together by a plush, tender batter that could have been a graham cracker in another life. But unlike Teddie’s, you can count the ingredients on one hand. I’ll be using the other hand, happily, to stuff my face.

What’s the littlest cake recipe you know? Tell us in the comments!
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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

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Emma is the food editor at Food52. Before this, she worked a lot of odd jobs, all at the same time. Think: stir-frying noodles on the fly, baking dozens of pastries at 3 a.m., and writing about the history of pie in North Carolina. Now she lives in New Jersey with her husband and their cat, Butter. Stay tuned every Tuesday for Emma's award-winning column, Big Little Recipes (also the cookbook in November 2021!). And see what she's up to on Instagram at @emmalaperruque.


Cookrose December 16, 2019
Not sure what you're going to end up with here, but it won't be cake.
june S. November 24, 2019
Baked the cake and it came out like the picture and tasted the way it was described. Definitely something I will make again. Delicious and not heavy at all. I think it is pretty enough with the powdered sugar to be part of a dessert table for those who want something lighter. I enjoy your recipes and tips. Keep it up!
Ellen D. November 18, 2019
Emma, myself and my guests loved this recipe. Two questions - I made it in a 10 inch pan because I was not paying attention. If I make it again in a 10 inch, what proportions would you recommend? Also, I have gluten free guests coming soon - what flour would you recommend in place of the white whole wheat for a similar consistency? Thank you!
Donna F. November 18, 2019
I wanted to like this easy apple cake, but I did not (and neither did my family). Although I am fond of earthy, not so sweet cakes, this one felt like it came out of the depression. It needed something and would benefit from being baked in a loaf and smeared with cream cheese. It was so bland and rudimentary, as to be boring and unsatifying.
Ronnie August 28, 2021
I make a pear cake that's a similar concept (but uses white flour and sugar). Adding chocolate chips (great with pears and apples) takes it from bland to great. It's almost like a baked Dutch Baby. Great for brunch.
Sarah November 16, 2019
I made it, so delicious. Next time I will add some blueberry to it, I don't know why but I just thought its gonna add a depth of flavor.
Nancy G. November 16, 2019
I love apples but don't like overly sweet desserts. How much can I decrease the one cup of sugar before it affects the overall texture of the cake?
Author Comment
Emma L. November 17, 2019
Hi Nancy! I don't like overly sweet desserts either and, in my opinion, this isn't—especially if you serve it with unsweetened whipped cream, sour cream, or crème fraîche. If you want to reduce the sugar, I would start by taking out a couple tablespoons and going from there.
cole November 16, 2019
Can regular flour be used in this cake ?
Author Comment
Emma L. November 17, 2019
Yes, you can swap in all-purpose—the flavor will just be milder.
cole November 18, 2019
Thank you 🙏🏻
jpriddy November 15, 2019
I look forward to baking this!
Debbie F. October 20, 2019
Would a silicone “pan” work with this recipe?
Thank you
Author Comment
Emma L. October 20, 2019
Hey Debbie! Can you share a link to the pan you're thinking of? I'm not too familiar with silicone cake pans...curious to hear if other Food52ers have worked with them!
Debbie F. October 21, 2019
It is a DeMarle pan
Debbie F. October 25, 2019
RaquelO October 7, 2019
Can this be made with Gluten-free flour?
Author Comment
Emma L. October 8, 2019
Hi, not sure! Curious to hear if anyone has tried that with this recipe. I imagine your best bet would be an all-purpose gluten-free blend.
Vicki L. January 31, 2020
I just made it with half whole wheat and half almond flour .I also added 2 tsp of apple pie baking spice and 1/2 cup apple pie moonshine soaked and drained raisins and 1/2 cupped chopped pecans...Yummo!
Jaclyn T. September 29, 2019
I made these into cupcakes with a healing tablespoon of cinnamon! So delicious for a small snack! I only baked them for 50 minutes and they were moist and cooked through perfectly,!
Author Comment
Emma L. September 30, 2019
Cupcakes sound adorable! Awesome to hear that the recipe translated well to that pan.
susanbw September 29, 2019
This cake was a huge disappointment. It's more like a Dutch Baby, baked in the oven. It is easy, but not delicious. Rather flat taste and doughy. I followed the recipe exactly.
Don't waste your apples on this recipe.
Author Comment
Emma L. September 30, 2019
Hi Susanbw, sorry to hear that! The cake shouldn't resemble a Dutch baby at all, so it sounds like something went awry—maybe the eggs weren't at room temp or beaten fully enough? Wish I could offer more insight, but we didn't encounter an issue like this during our recipe tests.
preetika September 25, 2019
Would this work with pears instead of apples? I am a sucker for a good pear dessert always!
Author Comment
Emma L. September 26, 2019
Hello! I haven't tried this with pears yet, but I've been wanting to. I bet it would be great—if you give it a try, please let me know what you think.
Ronnie August 28, 2021
Very similar pear cake is great. You could probably switch the flour and sugar.

Fresh Pear Cake
3 firm, ripe (about 1 1/2 lb. total) pears, peeled, cored and sliced
2 large eggs
1 cup sugar
½ cup milk (any kind of milk works)
1½ cups flour
½ cup chocolate chips, optional
1-2 T butter

Preheat oven to 350°. Lightly butter and flour a 9 inch round cake pan or quiche pan.

With an electric mixer, blend 2 large eggs, 1 cup sugar, and 1/2 cup milk
Add flour and mix until smooth. Gently fold half of pears into batter. Add chocolate chips if using

Spoon batter into prepared pan, smoothing surface. Arrange remaining pears in a fan pattern over top of batter. Dot with 1 to 2 tablespoons butter or margarine.

Bake on bottom rack until cake is golden brown, about 55 minutes. Cool and sprinkle with confectioners sugar, if desired.

Nancy September 25, 2019
Emma - haven't tried it yet, but looks easy and delicious. Side note: it sounds like a cousin of calfoutis, very fruit-heavy and moist. Just add some milk, move the eggs around a bit and you've got that classic French dessert.
Author Comment
Emma L. September 25, 2019
Hey Nancy, thanks! It does have some similarities to a clafoutis—lots of fruit, super simple batter, both quick to come together!
Cookrose November 22, 2019
Agreed. I don't know for sure what you're going to end up with if you adhere to this recipe's ingredients and technique, but it won't be cake.
kerry B. September 24, 2019
Nowhere can I find the method for making this cake. Only the ingredients are shown. When you click on recipe, you only get a series of images.
Emily September 24, 2019
Click “view recipe” under he recipe title above.