I stood in Anna’s kitchen, mixing almond flour and cornmeal with my hands. Out in the living room, Lu and Alice came down the stairs in frilly dresses with bows and silly scarves around their necks. Michael put on Bollywood music. There was much giggly dancing. Danny and Michael talked in quiet voices, watching their daughters and feeling at ease. Little Elliot pulled muffin tins and silpats out of the cupboards as we moved around her to the KitchenAid. Butter and sugar spun together, growing fluffy before our eyes. Anna and I both peered at it, curious. We were making an apple cake together.
And I could feel it happening. I was making a new friend, someone I wanted to stick around in my life.
You have too many friends. That’s what my head has been trying to tell my heart lately. It’s hard to keep up in this world. Every time I sit down at the computer, I can “talk” with hundreds of people, read newspaper articles from around the world, wish happy birthday to people whom I have not seen since high school, and look at the daily photographs of thousands of people I don’t know. It’s alluring, and wonderful, and sometimes confusing this new definition of connected.
However, sometimes I feel much more connected with the world when I’m walking in the woods, on the same path I walk every day, alone, my feet moving, my mind calm. Or when I’m having tea with a friend whom I see every week. Much of the time, I kind of wish I knew only a handful of people really well.
I wonder what Jane Austen would make of Twitter.
And so, now that we’re home more, I’ve been slowing down. Seeing fewer people. Spending less time on social media and more time cleaning the house and talking with friends on my couch. It feels good. A couple of months ago, I said to myself, “No more new friends. You have plenty. Focus on what you have.”
Silly me. Whenever I say that, someone wonderful walks in.
When it’s someone like Anna warm-hearted and fast-talking; open to the world and wary at the same time; in love with sugar and butter, as well as crisp apples and she brings this apple cake with her, there really is no choice.
This apple cake is not for the faint-hearted. It’s full of butter, sugar, and eggs. A pound of butter. A pound of sugar. Eight large eggs. This cake means business.
Anna graciously fed us rice and beans, goat sausages from the market, and a fennel-apple-radish salad I have to make again this week. It was delightful, sitting with all the girls perched on wooden chairs, sharing their dinner together. It was good food with good people. However, Danny and I both wondered, separately, if the meal wasn’t a little light. And then Anna brought out generous slices of the cake we made together and we understood. Dinner was merely a little appetizer. We needed room for this cake.
This cake is lit from within by sweet tartness, a little graininess of texture, a sweetness less blaring than most commercial cakes have. This cake doesn’t have the va-voom of birthday cakes decorated with a flourish. It looks plain, underspoken. And then you take a bite and wow. Pow! This cake is like someone with plain lips who ends up being a great kisser. When you come up for air, you realize how silly mere looks are. And then you go back for more.
I had brought a couple of jars of flours with me oat, buckwheat, and teff to stir in with the cornmeal and almond meal. Anna and I were both interested in how the cake would be different gluten-free. Anna’s a pastry chef, formerly at a great place in Brooklyn before she and her family moved here to Seattle. She and I stood in front of her bookshelf, looking at some of her favorite baking books, some of them so beaten with use they were barely a book anymore. We were both sort of flapping our hands, talking about grams and recipes that work. I wanted her opinion. She’s made this cake before, quite a few times. And she said, after we took our first bites, “Except for the top being a little darker, because the whole-grain flours are darker, I cannot tell a difference. This is the same cake.”
That made my day. And then I had another bite of cake.
So yes, this is a whole-grain cake. Does that make it healthy? Well, not with a pound of butter, sugar, and eggs. (And ahem, speaking of health, it looks like I’m not allergic to eggs after all. More on this later.) But I’d like to call for a new definition of healthy. Being with lovely people, eating a homemade meal with our kids, laughing and talking, then having a slice of this cake? That feels like health to me.
Sure, you don’t want a slice of this cake every day. But once in awhile, on special occasion? Oh yeah. It’s really delicious. And in my mind, that’s one big part of healthy.
As we sat around the table, trying to describe the joy that is this simple apple cake, Michael put it best: “I hoped that when I’d move to Seattle, and it would be autumn, there would be time to sit in front of an open window, listen to the rain, and read a book. And now, I know, I want a piece of this cake there too.”
Yep. I knew it. These folks are friends.
Whole-Grain Apple Butter Cake, adapted from Luisa, who adapted it from Huckleberrys
This is a cake that’s meant to be shared. It’s a big, bold cake. There’s nothing paltry here.
The flavors of the whole-grain flours complement the apples and the butter. The original recipe called for whole-wheat flour for a reason: all-purpose flour here would just disappear. The whole grain flours make this cake a little more complex than most, with a taste that’s even better the second day. (Danny says it makes a tremendous breakfast.)
Anna gave me a new baking tip. I noticed that she didn’t put a toothpick in the center of the cake to test for doneness. Instead, she lay one fingertip in the center, testing. When I asked her what she was doing, she said she learned early in her career to go by touch. “Someone gave me a great way to say it. Look for an athletic jiggle.” Not too loose, a little firm, but not so firm that there is no movement. An athletic jiggle. I’m looking for that in every cake now.
The moistness of this cake makes you want to gather all the crumbs on your plate between your thumb and finger and eat them too. Go ahead. You won’t want to miss a bite.
For the apples
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 pounds of apples that are equal parts sweet and tart, peeled and cut into large, even chunks
¼ cup sugar
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
Set a large skillet over medium heat and add the butter. Melt the butter. Stir in the apples, the sugar, and the salt, moving around the apples to coat them completely. Cook, stirring frequently, until the apples start to soften, about 6 to 8 minutes. Remove the skillet from the heat. Spread out the apples on a baking sheet and set them aside to cool.
For the cake batter
8 ounces whole-grain flour mix (we used equal parts of teff, gluten-free oat, and buckwheat flours)
7 ounces almond meal
2.5 ounces cornmeal
2 ¼ teaspoons baking powder
2 ½ teaspoons kosher salt
1 pound unsalted butter, softened but not soft
1 pound sugar
8 large eggs, at room temperature
2 tablespoons vanilla extract
Preparing to bake. Heat the oven to 350°. Grease and flour a 10-inch springform pan.
Combining the dry ingredients. In the bowl of a stand mixer, mix the whole-grain flour, almond meal, cornmeal, baking powder, and salt. Run the mixer until the flours are combined well but you can still see the different textures. Set aside in another bowl.
Creaming the butter and sugar. Put the softened butter into the bowl of the stand mixer. Beat the butter until it is completely soft. With the mixer still running, pour in the sugar slowly. Cream the butter and sugar until the mixture is entirely light and fluffy, about 3 to 5 minutes. Add one egg at a time, mixing until each egg is fully incorporated, until you have added all eggs. Pour in the vanilla and mix.
Finishing the cake batter. With the mixer running, add in the dry ingredients, about ¼ cup at a time, until the flours have disappeared and you have a fluffy cake batter.
Fold in the cooked apples with a rubber spatula.
Baking the cake. Pour the cake batter into the prepared pan. Smooth the top with the rubber spatula. Bake until the cake has risen, has turned a dark golden brown on top, and the center has an athletic jiggle when you touch it lightly, about 90 minutes. (Check the cake after 1 hour. The top might be browning quickly, due to the dark colors of the whole-grain flours. Tent the top with a piece of aluminum foil, if that is true.)
Remove the cake and set it on a cooling rack. Let it sit at least 15 minutes before removing the cake from the pan. Serve warm.
Feeds 10, if you are giving generous portions, or 15 with smaller pieces