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.

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Top Comment:
“Just add some milk, move the eggs around a bit and you've got that classic French dessert.”
— Nancy

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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Emma is a writer and recipe developer 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., reviewing restaurants, and writing articles about everything from how to use leftover mashed potatoes to the history of pies in North Carolina. Now she lives in Maplewood, New Jersey with her husband and their cat, Butter. Stay tuned every Tuesday for Emma's cooking column, Big Little Recipes, all about big flavor and little ingredient lists. And see what she's up to on Instagram and Twitter at @emmalaperruque.


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.
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.
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!
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.