There’s one thing my mom bakes often: her apple cake. Every Jewish holiday is marked with the smell of cinnamon and sugar folding in on each other and seeping over the top of the baking dish, under doors and through vents. She always makes two: one for whatever company we’re having and one for the fridge soon to be pockmarked with indents from where our spoons broke the crust.
“Okay, enough.” My mom would chime over my shoulder as I generously dumped cinnamon over shredded apples.
“Okay how much sugar?”
“Not too much.”
“Not too much,” a phrase that often takes the place of cups and teaspoons and pinches in my family or my grandmother’s “enough.”
Here’s the process as far as I’ve come to learn it. You take a bunch of apples, doesn’t matter the make, and peel them. My grandmother would go through the process of shredding each and every apple against the grater. My mother, more of a rushed cook, sliced, cubed, or stuck in the food processor. It depended on the day.
So you have your apples, in whatever form they’re in, sitting in a bowl. From there you add “enough” cane sugar and brown sugar and “not too much” cinnamon and let that sit while you make the crumbs. Okay, so here’s what you’re thinking, “Crumbs? Are we making a crumble?” Sure. I don’t care. It’s not a cake, it’s also not a pie, maybe it’s a crumble. But in my family it’s “The Apple Cake” so that’s what we’re going with, feel free to edit as you read.
The crumbs are just weird science. Some margarine, some brown sugar, some cane sugar, some vanilla extract, a pinch of salt, some matzo meal. Matzo meal is a year-round staple in my house. It breads chicken, makes matzo balls, and also provides the sweet topping of my mom’s apple cake. You mix all this in a bowl– there might not be enough to cover both the bottom of the pan and the top of the cake, because, again, not a single thing was measured, but who cares.
You put a thin layer of crumbs on the bottom of an aluminum pan– the only baking dishes in my house were bunt pans with removable centers that are called vundertops which I don’t think is a word or how it’s spelled but that’s how it’s heard. Then the apples go in. We don’t cook our apples first, and then the rest of the crumbs go on top and into the oven.
So when I attempted to make “The Apple Cake” on my own, I winged it and hoped I had the same instincts as my mother and grandmother. I sliced my apples and hoped I had enough, I added in sugar and hoped it wasn’t too much, I brushed my finger against the apple and dabbed it on my tongue, just like my mother, as a measuring tool, and hoped for the best.
Also I didn’t have matzo meal so I used flour and added the butter as if I was making a pastry dough. I smushed it between my fingers and once again… hoped for the best. At the end, I put it all together and stuck it in the oven. Unfortunately, unlike my mother and grandmother, I used a baking dish. Well, not a baking dish, a springform pan, and the liquid from the apples seeped through and made a nice charred hill at the bottom of my oven which I will have to tackle at a later date that isn’t today and probably isn’t tomorrow or the next day.
But in the end, it worked. The cake baked. The crumbs left that buttery sweet fragrance long after it left the oven and went into the fridge. It tastes sort of like home, but truthfully I wouldn’t care if it didn’t. I just like opening the fridge and seeing it there, with a spoon sitting across the top.