Such was the case this week, when we were yakking about apple cake — a preoccupation around the Jewish High Holidays. Afterward, Penny Anderson of Los Angeles sent us a scanned-in copy of the recipe for “Jewish” Apple Cake, from Joan Nathan ’s 1988 “Jewish Holiday Kitchen: 250 Recipes From Around the World to Make Your Celebrations Special” (revised edition, Schocken).
I confess I’ve hardly ever sunk my teeth into an apple cake I didn’t like (unless it had raisins, that is). Secondary ingredients can be about the same — flour, baking powder, cinnamon and salt; sugar, eggs, vanilla extract, liquids and some kind of fat — but the results can be merely moist or magnificent. I had been partial to prolific Potomac cookbook author Sheilah Kaufman ’s Apple Cake With Honey Sauce, because those elements are traditionally enjoyed to usher in a sweet new year, round like an apple from beginning to end.
Nathan, a Washington resident, is a dogged and thorough researcher. She found the “Jewish” recipe in two unlikely sources: a church cookbook of St. Mary’s City, Md., and in a recipe collection from Smith Island, Md.
The layered cake has Polish roots, Nathan told me Friday afternoon as she was preparing to host a Sabbath dinner on Martha’s Vineyard. “The word ‘Jewish’ had quotes around it probably because the recipe calls for oil instead of butter, and orange juice instead of milk,” she said. The juice substitute kept the cake pareve, or suitable for a kosher meal at which meat might be served.
I found a similar recipe that Nathan tracked down more recently in Philadelphia bakeries. It called for the addition of brown sugar, thinly sliced apples and the layering ends with batter on top.
But I had told Anderson that I’d give “Jewish” Apple Cake a try. I couldn’t wait till the eve of Rosh Hashanah (this year, the holiday falls on Monday-Tuesday). Once I had prepped a mixture of early-season apples — Gravensteins and Transparents, mostly — by tossing them with cinnamon and a few tablespoons of sugar, I could tell that a standard Bundt might not hold it all. I reached for a deep tube pan, and placed it on a baking sheet just in case.
The fruit is not peeled, which makes it less fussy to deal with — maybe the skin helps maintain the shape of the chunky wedges. No thin slices here. You build six alternating layers of smooth batter and sticky, coated apples, and finish with a fruit layer. In the oven, their cinnamon sugar migrates away from the fruit to create thin, fragrant ribbons throughout the cake.
If only The Post had perfected smell-o-vision by now, you could understand the cake’s most appealing asset. The mailman picked up the scent outside the front door. The cake triumphed over the olfactory charms of the car interior on the way into work. Folks in the elevator threatened to hit the stop button and make the cake disappear.
More than one newsroom colleague said the cake’s perfume reminded themof their grandmother’s kitchen at holiday time. Needless to say, the cake didn’t hang around long.
Nathan says it’s her husband’s favorite, so she’ll bake it for him in the next few days. “I love that cake. But my husband loves it more.”
For her own Rosh Hashanah dinner, Nathan will be making Bourbon Steak chef Adam Sobel’s Holiday Brisket, a ratatouille, that fast-and-fabulous Pain Petri (Anise-Flavored Challah With Sesame Seeds; takes about an hour) from her 2010 “Quiches, Kugels and Couscous” (Knopf) and a couple of plum tarts. There’s a good apple cake in that book as well, she says, made with less sugar and a lot more apples.
God willing, there’ll be a next year to try that version. Happy 5773.
MAKE AHEAD: The cake can be made a day or two in advance. It freezes well.
3 cups unsifted flour, plus more for dusting the pan
5 medium apples of your choice, preferably those that are good for baking
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
2 cups sugar
4 large eggs
1 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup orange juice
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Use nonstick cooking oil spray to grease tall tube pan, then dust lightly with flour.
Core the apples, then cut each one into 8 equal wedges. Place in a large bowl and sprinkle with the cinnamon and 5 tablespoons of the sugar, tossing to coat evenly.
Beat the eggs in the bowl of a stand mixer or hand-held electric mixer, on low speed, until well blended. Gradually add the remaining sugar, then the oil, orange juice and vanilla extract.
Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt on a piece of waxed or parchment paper. Stop to scrape down the sides of the bowl. On low speed, gradually add the flour mixture to the egg mixture to form a smooth batter.
Pour one-third of the batter into the pan. Create a second layer using one-third of the apples. Repeat to create a total of 6 layers, ending with apples on top. Bake for 1 1/2 hours or as needed; the top should be golden brown, and a toothpick inserted into the cake should come out with a few moist crumbs.
Let the cake sit for at least 20 minutes before unmolding.