I'm finding I have a tendency to latch onto anything with culture attached to it. I know America is supposed to be this great melting pot (excuse me, I think "tossed salad" is that latest politically correct term) of cultures and traditions and heritage, but after a few generations and a hodge-podge of last names, I find myself to be fairly milktoast. It's difficult to say "Kiss me, I'm Irish!" with any sort of confidence when, in reality, I'm only 1/8 Irish*, and that's hardly anything impressive. (I propose a button that says Kiss Me -- I'm 1/8 Irish, a modest amount of German, & maybe a bit of English thrown in there for good measure!) I spent a fair amount of time dating a Russian, and most of our two years together consisted of me insisting he speak in Russian, poking my fork at cabbage rolls and frowning at the excessive amounts of sour cream in his mother's desserts. But it didn't stop there, his sister was married to an Indian, and in turn, I learned to make a decent curry and started stocking Indian cookbooks in desperate attempts to mimic mulligatawny soup recipes. My friend Matt is a combination of cultures: he's über-Catholic, and even more Polish, all of which seem to fit snugly underneath his funny Jersey accent**. But from what he tells me, his grandmother makes some pretty fantastic pierogies, and I'm not about to dispute that with a Polish woman.
Considering my bout with the macaroons, I try to escape to something more exotic than my white-bread Americanism whenever I can. I needed to bake something different, something with character and history not rooted in Suburban Maryland. So when my eyes spotted a recipe for Jewish Apple Cake, my stomach did a flip-flop with glee. Normally, apples aren't something that get my blood pumping, recipes titles like All American Apple Pie only induce eye-rolling because apple pie's roots are in England, not America. Come to think of it, SPAM is probably the only truly American dish, if you want to call it that. A bit of research proved there are actually hundreds of types of apples, even a Pineapple Apple that has island-flavored flesh, it's maddening! But this wasn't just apple cake, it was Jewish apple cake, and that had to mean something.
I could barely contain my excitement that I'd pretend to be Jewish for an evening, I tried to remember any Yiddish phrases I might know and imagined I had a Jewish grandmother hovering over my shoulder telling me (in her Hebrew accent, no less) that it's high time I find myself a mensch and get married. It was bliss, I tell you, bliss! The cake was a layer of sweet apples, tossed with cinnamon-sugar and sandwiched between two layers of dense cake, dotted with toasted pecans and shot through with orange zest. To be completely honest, I'm not sure what makes this cake exclusive to Jewish cooking, perhaps the Kosher salt, but as a Gentile I still found it to be insanely good.
Jewish Apple Cake
Inspired by SmittenKitchen.com
6 apples, I used 3 Granny Smith and 3 Braeburn
1 tablespoon cinnamon
5 tablespoons sugar
2 3/4 cups flour, sifted
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup vegetable oil
2 cups granulated sugar
1/4 cup orange juice
Zest of half an orange
3 teaspoons vanilla
4 large eggs
1 cup pecans, toasted and chopped (optional)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Toast pecans in a single layer for 8 minutes, stirring them once. Allow them to cool completely before giving them a coarse chop, then set aside. Generously grease a tube pan. Peel, core and chop apples into chunks and toss with the cinnamon and the 5 tablespoons of sugar and set aside.
Whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt in a large mixing bowl. In a separate bowl, whisk together oil, orange juice and zest, sugar and vanilla. Mix wet ingredients into the dry ones, then add eggs, one at a time. Using a large rubber spatula, mix in the chopped pecans and scrape down the bowl to ensure all ingredients are incorporated.
Pour half of batter into prepared pan followed by the apples. (Alternately, you could put half the apples in the center, followed by the rest of the batter, then the rest of the apples on top. I believe that is the correct way, but I put all the apples in the center and it turned out beautifully.) Pour the remaining batter over the apples and bake for about an hour and a half, or until a tester comes out clean.
It's minimum work with maximum satisfaction; it permeates the whole house with scents of spicy cinnamon, orange and sweet dough, a potpourri of nose-tinglers I imagine was made popular by Jewish grandmothers everywhere. I'm generally not one to swoon over my own creations, I'm my own worst critic, but oy vey-this was incredible. It was tender and soft with an affectionate core of tender apples both tart and sweet. It baked up with a crispy crust on top which my mother picked off, piece by piece, while it was still in the pan. That's the sort of charm this cake has over people-you can't resist. L'chayim!
* Just this past week, my mother told me that my Great-Grandpa Quinlan came to America from Ireland, thus the 1/8. He worked on the railroads (try not to get the song stuck in your head) and kept money in various banks along the route under aliases, so when he was killed by an oncoming train, Grandma Quinlan had no way to get to the money out. She took in laundry to support her fourteen (fourteen!) children and still managed to make the best danishes this side of Texas.
** Matt swears I have a Southern accent, which delights me to no end because then I get to feel somewhat cultured; kinda makes me want to go buy a sack of White Lily flour and try my hand at biscuit making.