The first time I went to my mother-in-law’s apartment in the Bronx, she brought out her famous apple cake to be served with tea at the end of our Shabbat meal. To this day, my husband Allan continues to choose this simple, nostalgic taste of his childhood over any other fancy dessert I prepare.
It was only a few years later that I found the exact same recipe, labeled Jewish Apple Cake, published in two Maryland church cookbooks. I realized then that the cake was named such because it called for vegetable oil instead of butter, making it pareve.
Throughout the years my recipe for this Polish Sabbath staple has changed as others have shared their own variations with me. I used to prepare mine in a 9-by-13-inch aluminum pan. Now I make it in a spring form pan with a circle of apple crescents on top.
While in Paris working on my latest book “Quiches, Kugels and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France”, I met Danielle Fleischman in Paris. Danielle, whose Polish-born parents moved to Belgium before World War II and then to Paris after the war, spent the war, separated from her parents with a Christian family in the Alps. She bakes this apple cake in the same beat-up rectangular pan her mother used. When Danielle makes the cake, which she calls Gâteau de Hanukkah, or Hanukkah Cake, she uses very little batter and a mix of sweet and tart apples, a combination that results in a very tasty version of this simple Polish cake. Unlike her mother, who grated the apples, Danielle cuts them into small chunks and, in a nod to the French, adds almond extract and ground nuts.
I made the cake last Shabbat for my husband, who had just returned from an international law conference in Cleveland. Since the subject of the conference was Katyn, the slaughter of thousands of Polish soldiers by the Russians at the beginning of the war, they had Polish food with dessert made by a Polish American non-Jewish bakery. What was served? The exact same Polish apple cake that his mother made throughout his childhood. It seems, he concluded, that the differences between people are not as great as they often appear.
Something like this cake is a great finale to a strictly Eastern European Shabbat menu of gefilte fish, chicken soup with matzo balls, chicken schnitzel, carrot tzimmes, and salad. It also pairs wonderfully with a very eclectic Jewish seasonal menu of an Alsatian green wheat soup, a chicken pandora with artichokes or a French chicken with braised fennel, Ukrainian crispy kale, and a Moroccan salad of carrots or cooked canned tomatoes and peppers.
Jewish Apple Cake
Adapted from “Quiches, Kugels and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France” (Knopf)
5 apples (3 Fuji and 2 Granny Smith, or any combination of sweet and tart apples), peeled, cored, and cut into 1/2-inch pieces, about 6 cups of apples
Grated zest and juice of 1 lemon
10 walnut halves, roughly chopped
1 ½ teaspoons cinnamon
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/8 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons chopped almonds
1 ¼ cups plus 3 tablespoons sugar
4 large eggs
1 cup vegetable oil
¼ teaspoon almond extract
1) Preheat the oven to 350 degrees, and grease a Bundt pan or a 9-by-13-inch baking pan.
2) Toss the apples in a large bowl with the zest and juice of the lemon, the walnuts, and the cinnamon.
3) Pulse together the flour, baking powder, salt, almonds, and 1 ¼ cups of the sugar in the bowl of a food processor fitted with a steel blade. With the food processor running, add the eggs, oil, and almond extract, processing until just mixed.
4) Spoon half of the batter over the bottom of the pan. Scatter the apples on top, and cover the apples with the remaining batter. Sprinkle the top with the remaining sugar (you’ll need less if using a Bundt pan).
5) Bake for 45 to 60 minutes or until golden and cooked through. Note: the cake will take a shorter time to bake in the shallow rectangular pan than in the Bundt pan.
Yield: 8 to 10 servings (P)