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.
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 Cookbook, which 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.
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.
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.
- 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)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- In a bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, salts, and spices.
- 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.
- 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.