Battle of the Apple Cakes: Apple Nut Coffee Cake vs French Apple Cake

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It's officially fall here in Edinburgh- I mean, obviously, it has been for awhile, but we've had a bit of an Indian Summer here and it's been great. Judson and I have been taking the dog for long walks in crunchy leaves that she loves to pounce around in, and she's totally camouflaged when she goes frolicking in them. I've gotten out my tonka beans and my tiny nutmeg grater, have had my annual desire to spend an afternoon peeling and chopping apples and have finally given up on stone fruit and have started experimenting with pork chops, roasts, pies and anything I can think of with potatoes in it.

I've gotten really into having friends over for brunch lately- this new habit has two root causes: 1) the brunch scene in Edinburgh is fine, but it doesn't compare to the brunch scene in any other city I've ever lived in, so there aren't a lot of options outside of my own kitchen (or at least, not options for breakfast foods I enjoy) and 2) I now have a doggo who gets me up every Saturday morning at... well, not the crack of dawn but awfully close. Which means I've got time in the morning to put the finishing touches on brunch things I prepped the night before, like quiches and fruit salads and baked eggs and loads of danishes and coffee cakes.

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My rules of thumb for planning a brunch are as follows, made up entirely by me so don't take these as etiquette gospel, but they've served me well in two cities in two countries for countless brunches with my lady friends, so you should probably still write this down:

  1. One savoury dish (usually egg-based; baked eggs en cocotte are my current go-to, but in the past I've been really into quiches laced with bacon, cheese, mushrooms or onions, and I'm about to host my first large-scale poached egg brunch)
  2. One salad (berries with mint or greens with bitter vinaigrette).
  3. One sweet dish (pound cake or homemade danishes or muffins or a sweet bread or one of these apple cakes)
  4. Hot drinks: coffee and tea
  5. Cold drinks: OJ and sparkling water
  6. OPTIONAL booze: prosecco or bloody marys or Bailey's to add to the aforementioned coffee

While banana bread or pumpkin squares or pound cake or gingerbread are all great options for a sweet dish because you can prepare them the night before, there's something about apple cakes that make your entire house smell like fall- a smell that somehow always persists until the next morning, and anyone who cooks always knows the faff that is peeling/coring/chopping a billion pounds of apples, so I feel like you enjoy it more because you know you worked for it.

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So here are two different recipes for apple cakes- one marginally simpler than the other, both delicious, one coffee-cake bar-style and the other bundt-pan, sliced and served with sauce style, but both totally worth serving the next time you have weekend guests or friends coming over on a Sunday morning or you just need a treat to reward yourself for making it through another harrowing week.

The verdict:
Apple Nut Coffee Cake:

3 spoons out of five. This is very much my own preference, because this cake was great. Crunchy cinnamon mixture on top; pillowy-soft cake underneath? What's not to like? The answer: Nothing, I just liked the other one better.

French Apple Cake:

4 spoons out of five. I knocked a spoon off because the first time I made this, it broke coming out of the pan. Since then, I've made it successfully about a billion times, but I feel like I should provide you with the warning. Caramel-y and sweet with a brown sugar toastiness you'll love, this cake is everything I love about breakfast in the autumn.

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One year ago: Red & White Delight

two years ago: Baked Noodles Romanoff

the recipe:

Apple Nut Coffee Cake

the directions:

Grease a 13x9 pan and preheat oven to 175C/350F.
Cream together shortening and sugar.
Add eggs and vanilla, then beat well.
Stir together flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt, then add to creamed mixture alternately with sour cream.
Fold in apples, then spread in prepared pan and set aside.
In a small bowl, combine nuts, brown sugar and cinnamon.
Stir in melted butter, then sprinkle nut mixture over pan.
Bake 20-30 minutes until cake batter is cooked through.

the ingredients:

½ c shortening or Stork
1 c sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla
2 c flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
¼ tsp salt
1 c sour cream
2 c apples, peeled, cored and finely chopped
½ c pecans, coarsely chopped
½ c brown sugar, packed
1 tsp cinnamon
2 tbsp butter, melted

the recipe:

French Apple Cake

the directions:
cake:

Grease and flour a 10-inch tube or bundt pan.
Preheat oven to 175C/350F.
Beat eggs.
Add oil and sugars, then beat for another three minutes.
Sift together brown sugar, white sugar, cake flour, baking soda and cinnamon, then add slowly to creamed mixture, stirring constantly.
Fold in apples, nuts and vanilla.
Pour into prepared pan and bake for 55-60 minutes until a wooden pick inserted in the middle comes out slightly sticky (if in doubt, poke the cake a few times as batter will look thinner if you poke a piece of apple).

Glaze:

While cake cools, make the glaze.
Combine all ingredients in a small saucepan and slowly bring to a boil, stirring constantly.
Turn off heat and allow to cool completely, stirring occasionally, before drizzling or pouring over cake.

the ingredients:
the cake:

2 eggs
1 ¼ c oil
1 c brown sugar, packed
1 c sugar
3 c cake flour (or 3 cups minus 3 tbsp flour, plus 3 tbsp cornflour)
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp cinnamon
3 c apples, peeled, cored and coarsely chopped
1 c pecans, chopped
2 tsp vanilla

the glaze:

½ c butter
1 c brown sugar, packed
¼ c milk
1 tsp vanilla

Strawberry Charlotte Russe

In further efforts to continue to use up the massive Jell-O stash I came back from the US with, I decided to whip up one last summery dessert as these days are feeling more like Indian Summer than fall here in Edinburgh, and of course because I didn't want to eat an entire charlotte by myself (or even with Judson's help), I sent it to work with him. But I guess I didn't do a good enough job of explaining to him what it was, because the next time I ran into his coworkers at a happy hour a few days later, they all thanked me for 'the pink Jell-O cake', which actually only sounds marginally weirder than what a charlotte actually is.

This is one of those desserts I've always wanted to try (probably because my favourite shop as a kid was named after it) but never really had any idea what it was or how to make it, and the little amount of knowledge I had about it had me thinking it was way too difficult to experiment with. In doing some research before I started this, I learned that this is, in fact, a charlotte russe, differentiated from a regular charlotte by the fact that it's filled with fruit and bavarian cream (itself differentiated from pastry cream by the presence of gelatin) rather than cake or... other stuff. Confusingly, a charlotte royale is also completely different, being surrounded by swiss roll instead of lady fingers.

Lining for the pan

Lining for the pan

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It turns out it's not too difficult (as long as you start with pre-made lady fingers!*), but it is a pretty weird dessert so I don't know that I'll be making it again any time soon. It's good if you have a large group you're making it for, because you're not going to want more than one slice of it and it's not a dessert that keeps well.

*Ok, so my grocery store used to sell lady fingers, and I always wondered why because they're a pretty boring biscuit. Of course, as soon as I decided to make this recipe, ALL OF THE supermarkets in Edinburgh seemed to stop selling them at once. I eventually found a single package at my local Scotmid... but when I unwrapped them, it turned out they read 'BOUDOIR' on one side. Why??

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The verdict:

3 spoons out of five. Overall, it was totally worth it and I recommend making it if you really love pink... or if you have one last summer fling before autumn starts.

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two years ago: Crab Souffle

the recipe:

Strawberry Charlotte Russe

the directions:

Line the sides of a springform tin with parchment or waxed paper.
Cut ladyfingers in half and arrange them vertically around the edge of the pan, flat side down. (Note that I was afraid the charlotte would be so deep that I only cut the ends off. This was unnecessary and meant that I didn't have enough pieces to fully surround the charlotte. If you're using a standard 8 or 9-inch springform pan, you'll only need lady fingers that are about 1 1/2 inches tall, so you can slice the cookies in half without a problem).
Set prepared pan aside while you prepare the filling.
Place gelatin in a large bowl and pour boiling water over.
Stir well until dissolved, then set aside.
Combine strawberries, lemon juice, sugar and salt.
Stir until sugar is dissolved, then add to gelatin mixture.
Gently fold in whipped cream, then spoon or pour carefully into the prepared pan.
Chill until firm, at least 5 hours, but preferably overnight.
Remove the sides of springform pan and the waxed paper.
Decorate top with additional whipped cream and whole strawberries.

the ingredients:

1 pkg lady fingers
6 oz. strawberry gelatin (powdered)
2 c boiling water
1 ½ c strawberries, lightly crushed + additional whole strawberries for decorating
1 tbsp lemon juice
½ c sugar
1/8 tsp salt
2 c whipping cream, whipped to soft peaks + additional for decorating

Chocolate Plum Cake

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We spent last week in Budapest, Hungary, and it was great. Budapest is like a budget version of Vienna, where all of the buildings are just as gorgeous but slightly abandoned and with just enough wabi-sabi that you feel like you're the first one to ever find them. Highlights of the trip included a lot of amazing Hungarian food (who knew?!) and some crazy 'acquired taste' kind of cocktails. My favourite food we tried was a chilled plum soup served with marzipan shavings and toasted cinnamon crumble, and the best drinks we had were apricot palinka (a grappa-type brandy) and Unicum Szilva, a bitter cordial aged in oak barrels lined with dried plums. Notice a theme? I think the reason I was so in love with the fruits, desserts, sweets and drinks in Hungary is because it just so happens that the fruits that grow best there are all stone fruits- my favourite kind. So when I got back to Edinburgh, the first order of business was making a cake inspired by all the amazing fruit I had in Budapest.

But, well, just when you thought I had officially gotten past the rubbish recipes in the Box, here we are with this cake. It's not a terrible cake. The crumb was silky soft, which went nicely with the smooth, intensely fruity/chocolatey flavour of the frosting. The issue is more that I don't think either the cake or the frosting were supposed to have those textures.

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Let's start at the beginning, shall we? In an effort to use up all the 'ingredients' in my pantry (you know, things like 'half a bag of cashews from making homemade cashew butter a month ago' or 'a handful of dried cherries leftover from some trail mix I made for our last long-haul flight'), I've been searching out weird recipes from the box and from my own cookbook collection. Last week this resulted in a massive success when I riffed on a Julia Child recipe to end up with a shallot, broccoli and roquefort quiche that used up my leftover frozen broccoli from this dip, some shallots about to go bad and the tiniest rind of roquefort that would otherwise have gotten... well, even stinkier in my fridge.

This week, it didn't. This time I had half of a bag of dried plums (read: prunes) that I bought for a recipe or cocktail or jam or something ages ago and was looking for a way to use them when I remembered a recipe for Chocolate Prune Cake with Prune Frosting in the Box. While they're not typical ingredients in many recipes these days, prunes have a decadent, sticky flavour like a date mixed with dried cherries, and I was excited to see how they'd taste in a chocolate cake.

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First issue: the recipe (for both the sponge and the frosting) called for strained prunes, something I didn't have, didn't know where to get and definitely had never tasted before to be able to attempt to make my own. So MY first step in making this was to make my own strained prunes...which I did by soaking the prunes in 1 part boiling water/1 part brandy until they were plump and soft, then blending the whole thing (liquid and all) in the food processor until it was smooth. Super boozy and fruity, the mixture turned out to be great spread on toast and we've been eating it like jam for breakfast the last few days.

But the flavour of the prunes didn't carry over into the cake- instead, it just tasted like Chocolate Raisin Cake and have we discussed before how much I hate raisins? I'm pretty sad about how this turned out, though I have a suspicion that the texture would have been perfect for rolling up to make a Swiss Roll, something that's been on my baking phobias list for ages... so maybe this will be the earliest version of a successful Swiss Roll yet to come.

The verdict:

3 spoons out of five. It wasn't an awful cake. If you like the taste of chocolate and raisins, you'd love this. But for me, it just didn't hit the spot. Those strained prunes, though? They're the jam, literally.

Two years ago: Corned beef sandwiches and continental salad

the recipe:

Chocolate Plum Cake

the directions:
cake:

Preheat oven to 175C/350F.
Line a 13x9-inch pan on bottom with paper, then set aside.
Beat egg whites until stiff, then set aside.
Cream shortening and sugar until light and fluffy, then add egg yolks and beat well.
Add prunes, cooled chocolate and vanilla and beat on low speed for 45 seconds.
Sift together dry ingredients, then add these to the chocolate mixture alternately with water.
Beat until smooth, then fold in egg whites.
Bake 12-15 minutes until a pick inserted in the middle comes out clean.
Cool completely, then frost and decorate with walnuts.

 

Frosting:

In saucepan, mix sugar, prunes, chocolate, butter, milk and salt.
Bring to a boil and cook until a small amount of mixture forms a soft ball when dropped into very cold water.
Remove from heat, add vanilla extract, allow to cool then beat well before frosting cake.

the ingredients:
the cake:

2 eggs, separated
½ c shortening or Stork
1 c sugar
5 oz strained prunes (from 3 oz prunes plus 2 oz brandy and 2 oz very hot water, blitzed in food processor until smooth; use the extra in the frosting)
2 oz unsweetened chocolate, melted and cooled
1 tsp vanilla
1 ¾ c flour, sifted
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
½ tsp salt
1 c warm water
½ c walnut halves for decorating

the frosting:

1 c sugar
¼ c strained prunes
2 oz unsweetened chocolate
2 tbsp butter
1/3 c milk
1/8 tsp salt
1 tsp vanilla