Every year, when fall rolls around, I get stars in my eyes, thinking about how wonderful it would be to make apple and quince jelly, applesauce, quince paste (or membrillo, as it is often called) and all kinds of fall-inspired desserts, from apple squares to salted caramel apple pie. Then, when the reality sets in, I find myself in the kitchen at all hours of the day in a race against time (and the inevitability of rot), either peeling apples or plucking seeds from the surprisingly stubborn cores of softened fruit, with hands so wrinkly that they too look like they are in the process of being preserved. But don’t take these complaints too seriously; I love the process and, even more, I love the results. There is nothing better than being able to reach into your cupboard in the dead of winter to pull out jar upon jar of fruit and be reminded not only of the previous season’s bounty, but also of the pleasures of a well-stocked pantry. Or so I tell myself, in moments when I seem to have more in common with squirrels than I would care to admit.
Even in the clutches of a preserving frenzy, you may find that you can spare an apple or two (or even six) for other purposes, and it will all be okay. This, at least, was my mindset last Saturday when, after a week of being on my own and cooking more than I could ever eat (why I go crazy when cooking for one escapes me, but there is something nice about being civilized, as well as about liking myself enough to make dinner an event), the Greek was returning from a conference in Utah. While this alone merited something celebratory, the very week–dreary and brutal as it was, from the moment the alarm had gone off at 5:15 on Monday morning to aid our timely arrival at the train station (we still almost failed) to the horrible news coming from Beirut and Paris on Thursday and Friday–also demanded it.
It may be that cake isn’t the most appropriate response to terrorism and human tragedy, but there is something to be said for embracing normalcy in the face of the unthinkable. When pondering how to go about writing this post, I found myself pulling out my weathered copy of War and Peace. Although it took me a few minutes to find what I was looking for, the page was worn enough to lead the way: “Meanwhile life–real everyday life, with its essential concerns of health and sickness, toil and rest, and its intellectual preoccupations with thought, science, poetry, music, love, friendship, hatred, passions–went on as usual, independent of and apart from all potential reforms” (Book II, Part III, Chapter I; if this quote doesn’t sing in quite the way that it should given Tolstoy’s abilities, blame my young and foolish undergraduate self for buying the Ann Dunnigan translation). If we were to replace “all potential reforms” with the catchwords of our own day– terrorism, war, fearmongering, the threat of ISIS–Tolstoy’s words could just as easily describe the current war on terror as they did the events surrounding the Napoleonic wars. Just as, even now, our interest in the mundane events of everyday life, whether a sign of human pettiness, a clever tool to distract us from what we can’t control or even perhaps as the only things in our lives of real significance, continues to occupy us. This, ultimately, is why I baked this cake.
This was not the first time this particular cake had helped me celebrate the pleasures of the mundane, either. A simple combination of butter, sugar, eggs, ricotta, grated apple, flour, baking powder and lemon zest, it was the first thing I made after the steroids kicked in when I had bronchitis last year. I remember how happy I was just to be baking again, let alone to be out of bed and with a whisk, rather than an inhaler, in hand. I also recall how much everybody, from the Greek’s parents who were visiting at the time to my coworkers at the office, oohed and ahhed over this cake. Given their reaction, you would think it would be fancier than it is, but the recipe, which I found on Food52 and which hails from the Italian region of Chianti, embraces the “less is more” philosophy of European baking. And the result, while not the prettiest of cakes (consider its simple, even homely, appearance the harbinger of its superb flavor and texture; when faced with choosing between a gorgeous cake and a plain cake, my advice is always, always choose the unassuming one), straddles the fine line between cake and cheesecake. The ricotta and grated apple create a soft and generously moist texture, while the whopping tablespoon of baking powder that may cause you to raise your eyebrows and think it’s a typo (it is not a typo) makes the cake feather light and springy. And who could ever complain about a good zesting of lemon being added to any dessert?
This dessert may not be your typical Thanksgiving fare, but if you’re looking to switch things up a bit and deviate from tradition, it would make a more than fine substitute for apple pie. It could, if you were really thinking of living dangerously, easily replace pumpkin pie, too. Regardless of what you’re making and baking for Thanksgiving, let this cake be a reminder that, while food may just be food and Thanksgiving might just be another dinner, there is something life-affirming in these simple acts. If nothing else, let us all have a second helping of that this holiday season.
Apple Ricotta Cake (or Louisa’s Cake as it is known on Food52)
Yields 6-8 slices
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
a pinch of salt
zest of one lemon
9 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup + 2 tablespoons sugar
3 large eggs, at room temperature
1 cup whole-milk ricotta
1 apple (I used a Cameo), peeled and grated
confectioners’ sugar, for serving (optional)
Preheat the oven to 400 F. Grease and flour a 9-inch springform baking pan and set aside.
In a small bowl, add the flour, baking powder, salt and lemon zest and whisk to combine. Set aside until needed.
Cream the butter and sugar in a standing mixer until well-incorporated and fluffy. With the mixer set to the lowest speed, add the eggs one at a time, waiting until each egg is fully incorporated before adding the next one.
With the mixer still on the lowest speed, add half of the dry ingredients, the ricotta and the grated apple. Once incorporated, add the other half and mix until combined.
Scrape the batter into the greased cake pan and smooth the top. Shake onto the cake any remaining lemon zest that might be caught in the zester, then put the cake in the oven. Bake for 25-30 minutes, or until golden and seemingly blistered in a few spots with the sides pulling away from pan.
Let the cake cool on a rack for 10 minutes, then release it from the pan. Cool completely. When serving, top with confectioners’ sugar.