An Evening in New York
Cooking for Hugo: Debbie Koenig's Barbecued Brisket

Marie-Hélène's Apple Cake


"Who will free apples from the tyranny of cinnamon?" was something I was, no joke, thinking about the other day. "I mean, I like cinnamon," I continued telling myself, as Hugo took a 17th screeching turn around the coffee table (his new thing: racing around it like it's Daytona and he's, um, one of the guys in a fast car), "but why is it in every single apple recipe I come across? Free yourselves, apples!!" I howled silently. And then, because my companion was a crazy-eyed 16-month-old coffee-table-racing machine screaming "hallo! hallo! hallo! hallo!" as he zoomed forward, I howled it out loud too. Good thing toddlers are so easily amused!

And lest you think I have completely lost my marbles, I would just like to take this moment to say that not a few hours later, I finally happened upon a recipe for apple cake with nary a fleck of cinnamon in sight. It was like someone had heard me or something! Or Dorie Greenspan, to be more specific.

The reason I'd been thinking about apples and their everpresent cinnamon fog is because we are drowning in apples at the moment. I have this irritating habit of buying a few at every market we go to,  but Max and Hugo aren't the biggest apple eaters (they're more in the pear/clementine/grape camp), so unless I eat an apple at every meal, I get buried under them pretty quickly.


And, like I said, while I have no beef with cinnamon per se, it just gets a little tedious to see it in every apple cake under the sun. So along came a fabulous French friend of Dorie's named Marie-Hélène to liberate me both of my moldering apples and my cinnamon resentment.

Marie-Hélène's apple cake is one of those genius recipes that is hardly a recipe, really, but is the kind of thing you need in your arsenal for the rest of your life. The batter is awesomely easy - you only need a whisk and a bowl and a stove for melting butter. The original recipe asks for 3 tablespoons of rum, which would make for a fabulously grownup cake, boozy and moist. But since I was making this for a playdate with a friend and her son, I decided to go with only one tablespoon of alcohol (bourbon, since I was out of rum) and two tablespoons of whole milk. The batter is silky and there's relatively little of it, especially with regards to the mountain of chopped apples that gets folded in. In fact, when you pile it into the cake pan, you'll see it is that holy grail of cakes: more apple than cake. Exactly what I wanted.


We ate it once it had cooled sufficiently and it was fragrant and delicate and the apples (I'd used a mix of Boskoop and Elstar, I think) were supple and lovely. It was perfect playdate material, though of course I was also already imagining it as a dinner-party dessert, since it was so light and appley. (Though the next time I make it, I will be reducing the sugar by a few tablespoonfuls.) By the next day, the cake had morphed into something almost akin to a clafoutis - the cake bits were more pancakey than cakey and the fleeting flavor of the bourbon was entirely gone. It was just as delicious and very well suited for breakfast.

An apple cake for every time of day! Holy grail indeed. And no cinnamon in sight.

Marie-Hélène's Apple Cake
Makes one 8-inch cake
Adapted from Around My French Table

3/4 cup all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
Pinch of salt
4 large apples (if you can, choose 4 different kinds)
2 large eggs
3/4 cup sugar
1 tablespoon dark rum or bourbon
2 tablespoons whole milk
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
8 tablespoons (1 stick/4 ounces) unsalted butter, melted and cooled

1. Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line the bottom and sides of an 8-inch cake pan with parchment paper.

2. Whisk the flour, baking powder, and salt together in small bowl. Peel the apples, cut them in half and remove the cores. Cut the apples into 1- to 2-inch chunks.

3. In a medium bowl, beat the eggs with a whisk until they’re foamy. Pour in the sugar and whisk for a minute or so to blend. Whisk in the rum, milk and vanilla. Whisk in half the flour and when it is incorporated, add half the melted butter, followed by the rest of the flour and the remaining butter, mixing gently after each addition so that you have a smooth batter. Switch to a rubber spatula and fold in the apples, turning the fruit so that it's coated with batter. Scrape the mix into the pan and even the top.

4. Slide the pan into the oven and bake for 50 to 60 minutes, or until the top of the cake is golden brown and a knife inserted deep into the center comes out clean; the cake may pull away from the sides of the pan. Transfer to a cooling rack and let rest for 5 to 10 minutes.

5. Carefully pull the parchment paper - and the cake - out of the pan and let cool on the rack until it is just slightly warm or at room temperature, then transfer to a cake plate. The cake can be served warm or at room temperature, with or without a little softly whipped, barely sweetened heavy cream or a spoonful of ice cream. The cake will keep for about 2 days at room temperature. However long you keep the cake, it's best not to cover it — it's too moist. Leave the cake on its plate and just press a piece of plastic wrap or wax paper against the cut surfaces.