Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Smitten Kitchen's Apple Cake (with Thyme and Rose)

I'm standing at the kitchen sink, looking out the front window when they arrive. I'm rushing, to finish the apples. Peel, quarter, core. Slice. Toss with cinnamon, thyme, rose petals. Squeeze of lemon. The oven is hot, and the day is cool. This is the plan: to have the ingredients five-year-old ready. He walks in. We hug. I say, hey, want to sift some flour? And the magic starts. If I can just breathe through  flour on the floor, look away when egg yolk dribbles across the counter, and let him wander in the kitchen, his way, we're in for a good night.

Apple Cake with Cinnamon, Thyme, and Rose

It does feel orchestrated. It is, and for a moment I mourned that. But at this juncture it has to be. We are practicing. We are reinventing. Connecting. Or, I am reinventing myself - as a mother, as a kitchen faery, as a not-so-laid-back cake wreck who needs to share space and time and go through the motions until baking a cake with my boy isn't such a lesson in limits. So I orchestrate an experience of apple cake.

We have five minutes alone in the kitchen before Grandma totes in the girl and we have to move on to reading and homework (!) and dinner. And I know I am rushing, and intentional living is about taking a moment and a breath and not running around anywhere because there is no use in running unless you're running for fun. But. There is room for us in-between-ers, too. We the idealists who see the vision and, oh, we hold that vision close, but living it out, slowly and consciously, doesn't mean we never break a sweat or rub raw a nerve.

Apple Cake with Cinnamon, Thyme, and Rose

My thesis adviser at Regent College and philosophy professor of all things intentional living and food and arts related, held a few courses and retreats at (and in!) his home on Galiano Island, which I attended. And he cooked for the lot of us. This is the man who talks about technology from the bough of a row boat. He is the real deal. I expected him to roll out his homemade pasta with a grounded, undaunted, unjolted kind of aura. I expected him to never rush or hurry, because his philosophy of (slow) living was so thorough. Ah! The idealism that might entrap us all. He also happened to live with the imperfection of needing dinner for thirty to be timely. And so he rushed, and he thrusted and trusted jobs at and on this or that bystander. But what he still managed was a sort of harried peace. We gathered around the single, clothed, sawhorse and plywood table and we all felt it: welcomed, graced, at ease.

So, if need be, I will rush. I will hurry up and peel the apples and measure out the oil and butter the pan. I will orchestrate. There will be a five-year-old-friendly amount of work to do. And I'll feel good about it. Because not only is baking with a boy this age a mess, life is a flour on the floor and a rush around the kitchen kind of existence. Slow living - and slow loving - is about allowing that gold-lit grace to fall on the efforts and the inefficiencies and the imperfections. And be content.

Eat well, my friends. Eat cake.

Apple Cake with Cinnamon, Thyme, and Rose

Adapted from The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook by Deb Perelman

One first meeting this is an eat-with-your-hands kind of cake. But with a glaze (more thyme and rose and honey) or a dusting of powdered sugar, and maybe a spooning of barely-whipped, whiskey-spiked cream, it holds its own at a soiree. Great with tea, not so much coffee. I played around with the recipe a bit a settled on this version. Not so much different than the original, but the subtle tweaks mean a lot to me: slicing the apples instead of chopping them into chunks and adding to them some honey, lemon juice, and an herbal element, and upping the salt to compensate for the table salt/sea salt quandary. This cake holds up to tinkering and additions. I'll try it with whole wheat pastry flour next run. And a swap out of poached quince. As long as you keep to the base ratio, its many manifestations make it a moist, understated, and potentially multivalent dessert.

ps. If you overbake this one, do yourself a favor and wrap it up and just wait a few days. The moistness will distribute, and by day three, it will be everything it would have been otherwise. If you do not overbake it - if it isn't sporting that almost black exterior, and you try it, and it is perfect, keep it loosely covered with a cloth. It will need a little release of moisture if kept and nibbled at day after day.

6 apples, or 3 pounds, preferably ones on the tart, crisp side of autumn
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 generous teaspoon fresh thyme leaves (about 3 sprigs worth), crushed and chopped
1 generous teaspoon crushed dried rose petals
1/8 wedge lemon
1 3/4 cups plus 3 tablespoons natural cane sugar
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons honey
2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons sea salt
1 cup olive oil
1/4 cup orange juice
2 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
4 large eggs
1 cup walnuts, crushed and chopped

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees, and butter a 10-inch tube pan. 

Peel and core the apples, slice thin, and spread out in a (very) large bowl or flat-bottomed baking dish. Sprinkle over the 3 tablespoons sugar, cinnamon, thyme, and rose petals. Drizzle the honey. Squeeze on the lemon. Gently flip this in layers, or toss. You are trying to get the goodness to spread without breaking up the apples too much. Set aside.

Sift the flour, baking powder, and salt together in a large bowl. Whisk. Add walnuts. Whisk again.

In another bowl, whisk together the oil, orange juice, remaining sugar, remaining honey, vanilla, and eggs.  Scrape wet ingredients into dry ingredients, stir well from the bottom. (I transfer to a spatula for this. The flour really likes to hide.)

Pour half the batter into the buttered pan. Lay half the sliced, spiced apples evenly over the top. If there is liquid at the bottom, spoon half of it over the apples. Repeat with the second half of the batter and apples. Slide into the preheated oven and bake for almost exactly 1 1/2 hours, or until a cake tester comes out clean.

Let cool completely in the pan, on a cooling rack (or unused burner), then transfer to a cake plate. Leave unadorned or brush on a glaze or dust with confectioners' sugar just prior to serving. Slice in at not too delicate wedges. Enjoy!


  1. Loved this. I relate (obviously). Always love a Wilkinson reference. And finally, when I saw your title, I said in my mind "Oh shiiiit." In a good way. See, this is so much better to me than Kinfolk. Less perfection, but with the pursuit of what is good.

    1. Such a candid response is the best kind of pat on the back. Thanks, Emily.