Apple Raisin Brown Butter Cake

piece ofapple raisin brown butter cake
There are a lot of complicated ingredients in the food world. Yesterday, I was reading all about hydrocolloids—things like xanthan gum, guar gum, carageenan, and agar. They thicken store-bought salad dressings, add texture to gluten-free bread, and congeal vegan jello. Hydrocolloids are in almond milk and frozen convenience foods. Remember when it was all the rage to serve foam on plates? Hydrocolloids helped hold those suds together.

Maybe that’s why it is comforting to bake something simple and fall-worthy with a few recognizable ingredients. Filled with chopped apples and raisins, there isn’t anything complicated about this cake. I served slices of it with a spoonful of yogurt on Saturday night for a few friends. My baking experiments are not new to them—they’ve sampled a bunch of trials from Mindy’s book. And I’ve known them all long enough to know that they won’t tell me it’s delicious when it’s just OK.

They went bananas for this nothing-crazy cake. Or at least Jana went bananas.

fall color
I had planned on making a persimmon cake with brown butter, but the hachiya persimmons I had bought were not quite soft enough. So I switched to apple and abandoned the original recipe—except for idea of using brown butter.

This recipe gets its bones from an apple cake in The Gourmet Cookbookwhich came out in 2004. (Sidenote: the fatal error of this book is how Ruth & Co. picked light yellow for the recipe names, making them hard to read against a white page. Maybe that’s why you can buy the enormous book for under $10.) The original recipe used vegetable oil, but why not use brown butter instead?

When you brown butter, you evaporate water from milk solids, thus losing some mass. So browning 2 sticks/1 cup of butter will be a spoonful short of 1 cup vegetable oil. To compensate, I decided to fold in some whole-fat plain yogurt.

apple raisin brown butter cake

At first the batter looked too thick. I had my doubts. But when it baked, it rose and held its shape naturally, not collapsing in the center like some cakes do when ingredient ratios are off (or when you add too much baking powder).

Jana wasn’t the only one who went bananas. Her kids wanted seconds – thirds, if I’d let them. (I let Jana field that question. She said no.) That was fine with me—the cake comfortably serves 12 and there were only six of us. That’s why the recipe looks like it’s heavy on the butter and sugar;  it’s actually not that sweet or rich. When I make this again—and I will, sooner than later—I want to add a little almond meal in place of some of the flour. It will change the texture somewhat, but it might enhance the apple flavor.

hydrangeas in fall

So the peanut gallery has spoken. This simple, seasonal cake is a keeper. And it does keep—three days after baking, it made the perfect afternoon snack.

Apple Raisin Brown Butter Cake
Prep time
Cook time
Total time
Gourmet’s original recipe used a 12-cup Bundt cake (the larger size) but I went for a 9-inch square springform pan. I like cutting this cake in squares, but a Bundt cake will give it more elegant slices.
Recipe type: cakes
Serves: 12
  • 1½ cups (3 sticks) unsalted butter
  • ⅔ cup raisins, coarsely chopped
  • 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
  • 3 apples, any kind
  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • Pinch of sea salt flakes (optional)
  • 1 tablespoon cinnamon
  • ½ teaspoon nutmeg
  • Pinch of cloves
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 cup packed light brown sugar
  • 3 large eggs at room temperature
  • ½ cup plain whole-milk yogurt
  • Extra sugar for sprinkling on top (optional)
  1. In a pot (use one with a heavy bottom so the milk solids don’t burn), melt the butter over medium-low heat and cook until the milk solids have fallen to the bottom of the pot and turned golden brown and fragrant like toasted nuts, 10 minutes or longer, depending on how cold the butter is to start. Pour the butter into a heatproof bowl and refrigerate, stirring occasionally, until the butter has cooled but is still liquid, about 30 minutes. (It's okay if it solidifies along the sides of the bowl--just be sure to scrape all of it into the batter.) You can do this step a few days before and the warm up the butter to liquid before using it.
  2. Heat an oven to 350°F. Butter a 9-inch square springform pan or 12-cup Bundt pan. If using a square pan, line the bottom with parchment paper and butter the paper. For either pan, dust with flour (Wondra works well, if you have it, but all-purpose flour is fine, too) and shake out the excess.
  3. Put the raisins in a small bowl and mix with the vanilla extract. Let sit on the counter while you prepare the apples. Peel and core the apples, then cut them into small pieces about ¼-inch big.
  4. In a bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, salts, and spices.
  5. In a large bowl, whisk together the browned butter and sugar. Whisk in the eggs and yogurt. With a rubber spatula, gradually fold in the flour (it’s OK if the batter seems a little thick) and mix just until the flour is completely incorporated. Fold in the apples and raisins with vanilla.
  6. Spread the batter into the prepared pan, smoothing the top with the spatula. Sprinkle sugar on top. Bake until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean, about 1 hour and 15 minutes. If using the springform pan, let cool to warm room temperature before removing the sides. If using a Bundt pan, unmold after 15 minutes to prevent the cake from sticking to the pan. If you like yogurt as much as I do, serve a spoonful over the top of each piece.


Tamarind Ginger Cookies

Tamarind Ginger Cookies //
There is a reason that cooks from all over the world like tamarind. Its pulp adds a blast of tang and pucker to food—both savory and sweet. Tamarind is like tangy MSG. It makes your mouth water.

In Mexico, it’s used in sweets and agua frescas. Fany Gerson incorporates a few recipes using the pod—like tamarind candy balls season with chile, sugar, and salt—in her fun cookbook, My Sweet Mexico.

It’s also used throughout Southeast Asia, Africa, and India. Phat thai wouldn’t be the same without it. When I visited Kerala, nearly ever meal came with a small cup of sambar, a broth of dal, tamarind, and vegetables. Louisa Shafia uses tamarind in a tangy condiment in The New Persian Kitchen, her modern Persian cookbook. In it, she writes:

“It’s believed that the word ‘tamarind’ comes from the Persian tamar-i-hindi, or ‘Indian date,’ so named because the pulp looks similar to a date.”

But I had never thought of connecting tamarind with cookies until I stumbled upon a recipe from Australian Dan Lepard, a UK-based baker who writes for a variety of publications, including The Guardian. His recipe, a spiced-up ginger cookie, adds a spoonful of tamarind concentrate, a dark-as-molasses paste you can find among Southeast Asian coconut milk and shrimp paste or Middle Eastern pomegranate molasses and rose water.

I was immediately drawn in by Dan’s genius idea of tamarind in cookies. [click to continue…]

Fall Salad: Delicata Squash, Kale, Pomegranate Seeds, and Hazelnuts

fall salad with squash, hazelnuts, and pomegranates//Modern Meal Maker
My great-grandmother Emily, a sturdy, short woman of German farming stock, did not find her sense of humor until she turned 80. Instead of comedy, she spent most of her life extolling the virtues of hard work and education. This may explain why, a few years after surpassing her 100th birthday, she “fired” the security guard at her assisted living facility. All he did was stand around. “It’s okay, though,” she then said, acknowledging his personable demeanor. “You’re the bomb.”

If my born-in-the-1800s great-grandmother Emily could work an odd bit of 1990s lingo into conversation, so can I. This kale salad is the bomb.

Say what you will about kale —I thought for sure that interest in this brassicas variety would have peaked in 2013—but there is no denying that its sturdy leaves are made for hearty fall salads.

A few weeks ago, I interviewed Cortney Burns, the co-chef at Bar Tartine in San Francisco, for a freelance piece. We ended up dissecting the restaurant’s perennially popular kale salad, which frames mildly bitter leaves with sunflower tahini, yogurt, yogurt powder, and rye bread (For specifics, look up the recipe in the Bar Tartine cookbook.) The salad is one of the few dishes that rarely leaves the menu, but Cortney said it would be off in a second if she or co-chef Nick Balla were tired of it.

“Our guests love it, but we also like to eat the kale salad,” she said. So the kale salad trend—like the burrata trend and the pork belly trend before it—is likely here to stay.

And that’s a good thing. The idea for my bomb-worthy salad came from [click to continue…]

How to Salsa Verde


An American-size tomatillo (left) and a smaller tomatillo (center), the size favored in Mexico

It’s been more than a year ago since my mom and I traveled to Mexico to spend a week with her sister’s family, the Acasusos.

Their home base is just outside Oaxtepec, a town more than an hour away from Mexico City in the state of Morelos. My aunt Pam packed our week with the kinds of activities that most gringos never get to experience. We visited the temazcali in Cuernavaca, where we sat in a pitch-black mud smokehouse sauna and flogged our backs with an herb branch dipped in water—a native nahuatl tradition for cleansing the body and mind. After the self-imposed shvitz, we wrapped ourselves in mats so the healing properties of the smoke could penetrate our skin.

We also swam in the sulfur-infused waters of an enormous community pool in Cuautla, which proclaimed itself a fuente de juventude, fountain of youth. Swimming in the water made our skin tingle and stink—we were advised to bring old swim suits—but the after effects were calming. I was a spry 28 again. Until some unknown insect bit my knee and it swelled to grapefruit-size, making me hobble about.

(My aunt, two hours later: “How are you feeling?” Me: OK, but my knee is freaking me out.” My aunt: “We can rule out a scorpion bite, then. You’d be feeling much worse.” Me: “That’s good…?”)

Apart from the stress-detox adventures, we also were there to learn some real Mexican cooking skills. Pam had asked the cooks at the family restaurant, Suz, in Oaxtepec, to show us how they make salsas at home. [click to continue…]

Weekday Kale with Roasted Chickpeas

roasted chickpeas and kale

Getting more vegetables into the rotation–especially during the weekday shuffle–is not easy to do. Salad greens bought over the weekend don’t tend to keep well in the refrigerator. My usual thing to do is to roast cauliflower florets, but I can’t eat cauliflower every week. And what about the nights when you just need a little something to tide you over until morning?

Yesterday, my answer was found in a can of chickpeas and a bunch of lacinato kale *also called dino kale and Tuscan kale. [click to continue…]

Moment of Zen: Afternoon Tea

Afternoon tea

It’s not often when we can push away from the computer screen, take a seat in a garden, and be treated to tea and platters of treats. But the stars must have aligned yesterday, because that’s exactly what happened.

There is no single right way to drink tea in the afternoon–and there is no shame in gulping down a cup of PG tips when the need arises. But this was an all-out throwdown of an afternoon tea. In her last life, SandyB must have been a stylist for the likes of Australia’s Gourmet Traveler. She set a table in the shade (shade being important, since we are in the middle of a heat wave), with a double layer of tablecloth and an assortment of china tea cups and plates. Zinnias–which she allows to grow nearly five feet tall in her garden–made up the simple centerpiece. My iPhone photo doesn’t do her table justice. [click to continue…]

Almond Spelt Biscotti

almond spelt biscotti
I’ve been pushing myself to bake more with alternative flours. Playing around with different flavors and textures can be a lot of fun—but it can lead to disaster. A batch of cookies I made with toasted soy flour may be one of the worst things I’ve ever pulled out of an oven. (Using sucanat in place of sugar did not help matters.) But hey, you never know until you try.

Milled from what is allegedly a nearly-forgotten strain of wheat, spelt flour is easier to use than many of the other ancient grain flours on the market. In Berlin, the Du Bonheur bakery uses it in place of other wheat flours because the pastry chef, Anna Plagens, believes it’s easier to digest.

Still, opting for spelt flour in place of conventional wheat flour is not a 1-to-1 switch. [click to continue…]

Tasting Notes: Sicilian White Wines

Sicilian white wines at A16SF

In 2007, when Shelley and I sat down to write about grapes for A16 Food + Wine, there wasn’t much new to talk about in the world of Sicilian white wines. Apart from the luscious dessert wines produced on the island of Pantelleria, Sicilian white wines—at least the ones reaching the U.S. at the time—tended to be mixed bag. Many were tropical fruit bombs made with international grapes. These exports overshadowed the nuanced, experimental wines made with native grapes that were starting to percolate on the local scene.

“Sicilian whites have been so underrepresented,” Shelley explained to me Wednesday when I stopped by to join a few members of the A16 and SPQR teams for a tasting of some of the island’s whites. “It used to be that many of the wines were very pineapple-y—and not in a good way. They often tasted overripe.”

But, Shelley continued, the native grapes have always had lot of potential; they were just waiting for vintners to tune into more nuanced ways to showcase their qualities. In the past five or six years, these wines not only have emerged on the international wine scene but also have become favorites among wine writers and sommeliers. Not bad for a region once known for growing white blending grapes for Marsala. [click to continue…]

Mattapoisett Lobster Boil

Eating lobster

Seasons come and go in California with only slight changes. In good years, rain helps delineate winter from the six-month dry spell we call summer, but as it’s been well documented, it has been unusually warm and dry since December.


In New England, seasons are much more important. Labor Day is the bittersweet demarkation of the end of summer, bringing with it a shift in mentality away from vacation and toward work. [click to continue…]

It Started in Naples

Our trip had an inauspicious beginning. A day after arriving in Naples, I set off on a ferry with Shelley Lindgren, the wine director of A16 and SPQR in San Francisco. We were bound for Ischia, a picturesque island in the Gulf of Naples known for, among other things, wines made with the local Biancolella grape.

When the ferry docked ahead of schedule, we followed everyone else aboard and hopped off—on the island of Procida, as it turned out, although it took an embarrassingly long time for us to realize we were in the wrong place.

I went up to an older Italian gentleman pulled, apparently, from central casting.

“Ischia?” I asked, pointing to the ferry terminal.

“Procida,” he corrected.

“Si, ma, ah, Ischia, ah…”

“All’ una.” Another ferry wouldn’t be coming until 1 p.m.

Procida, it turned out, was known for its prison, not its wine. Shelley pulled out her Trio (this was the pre-iPhone era) and scrambled to find a number to call to let the Ischian winemakers know that we would be at least four hours late. And then we sat in a café near the harbor, shared a ham and cheese panino, and waited for the next ferry to arrive.

This was January of 2007. Shelley was six months pregnant and in her last window of opportunity to travel abroad. I was a very green journalist. Although I had cooked at A16 a few years earlier, Shelley and I didn’t know each other all that well. Yet we had somehow finagled a book deal to write A16 Food + Wine and so we dove into the book-creation process, learning as we went along. Still, as we sat gazing out onto what I later learned had been the setting for the movie Il Postino, I had little understanding that this trip would forever inform my understanding of Italian food and wine culture. [click to continue…]