I know the turbulence created by the political elections lately here in the United States has been hard and difficult to beat down no matter what the results you were hoping for, but if I asked you for one short afternoon to forget it all and bake away merrily…will you do so?
My mother’s apple cake, or torta di mele, is a classic and quite simple. Yet like all simple things, it is difficult to get right and easy to mess up. I became obsessed with recreating the flavors and textures of my mother’s cake as I remember those afternoons when I would return home from school to find a beautiful fluffy, yet buttery cake chock full of sweet apples! I know that memories distort things more than a bit, but I remember this cake to be wonderously wide (maybe 12 inches!?), three inch high, and light and airy – enormous! With my teenage hunger in full gear, I would easily pack away three slices. Since then it has been difficult to reproduce the same lightness as the cakes my mother used to bake in Rome. When she came to the States, she had to recalibrate the recipe and I never succeeded until now. After much discussion, we decided that several things were different, essential ingredients such as the butter, the flour, the leavening, even the apples! And so we went from the original recipe from the quintessential Italian cookbook Il Talismano della Felicità by Ada Boni to the rough notes in my mother’s hand to the version I have below.
What I have here to share with you is the result of some tinkering with the basic recipe to produce a very satisfactory result. Begin with some good apples, sweet and juicy. I tried several kinds, but ended up with the Golden Delicious as my favorite because they remained juicy, yet still somewhat tangy when cooked. Notice I suggest Crisco or vegetable shortening to lighten the butter and I used potato starch, a basic in Italian baking, to produce a fluffier cake.
Torta di Mele della Nonna
Yield: Makes one 9-inch round cake
3-4 Golden Delicious apples – peeled and cored
7 tablespoons room temperature unsalted butter (5 tbl. for the cake, 2 tbl. for greasing the pan)
2 tablespoons Crisco or vegetable shortening
¾ cup sugar
3 eggs (room temperature)
¼ cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
¾ cup all-purpose flour or Italian flour tipo 00
1/4 cup potato starch flour
¼ teaspoon salt
4 teaspoons baking powder
Powdered sugar as needed to decorate
1 (9 x 3) inch round springform pan (non-stick works well)
Parchment paper (optional)
Stand mixer with 2 bowls, two other small bowls to hold ingredients
1. Heat the oven to 350°F and prep the 9 inch round springform pan. If you do not have a non-stick pan, it is best to place a parchment disk at the bottom of the pan. Use 2 tbl. to grease the bottom of the pan and sides.
2. Organize your ingredients according to how you will use them.
- Sift the dry ingredients (the flours, the baking powder, and the salt) in a small bowl.
- Separate the eggs, the yolks in a small bowl and the whites in a mixing bowl.
- Peel and core the apples. If you want more fruit, more “appley” cake, use 4 apples, or if you like more cake, use 3. Cut 2 or 3 apples laterally and thinly. The other two apples, cut lengthwise. These will be used for the decoration on top.
- Place the butter and Crisco in the mixing bowl and keep the measured sugar, vanilla, and milk near your mixer.
- Spread the laterally cut apples evenly on the bottom of the greased pan.
3. Whip the egg whites with the mixer at high speed until stiff and light. Set aside.
3. Cream the softened butter and the Crisco with the mixer. Add the sugar slowly until the butter mixture and sugar are light and fluffy. Add the egg yolks one at a time and the vanilla. Then gently add the four, slowly mixing. The mixture will be very thick. Add the milk to loosen it up a bit. Then by hand, gently fold the egg whites into the batter with a spatula until they are just incorporated paying attention to not overbeat the batter.
4. Pour the batter into the pan over the laterally cut apples, using the spatula to smooth the top. Tap the pan gently to release any gaps. Then place the slices of apple in concentric circles tucking each slice inside another and pushing slightly downward in the batter.
5. Bake for 50-60 minutes or until the top of the cake is golden and a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean. Baking will vary according to the apples and heat of your oven.
6. Cool on the counter or on a rack for 10-15 minutes. Gently run a butter knife around the edges, then remove the springform circle. Cool completely before sprinkling powdered sugar on the top.
I wish you the joy of making this cake to share with your friends and family. Buon appetito!