Sunday, January 29, 2012

Grandma's 92nd Birthday: Applesauce Cake with Pecan Filling and Cinnamon Frosting

January 26, 2012 marks the third year when I've tried extra-hard to make a super-duper spectacular, unique, and special cake to celebrate my grandmother's birthday... in case it is her last one. She's actually the one that says this, every time she plans a small party at her favorite restaurant, "It's expensive, but I may as well, it might be my last one" she says. I not only have to make a cake that matches her stature, but one that the restaurant won't balk at serving to us over their own pastry-chef's.

When I asked her what type of cake she wanted, she said she wanted an applesauce cake. A little down-homey for what I had in mind as a very sophisticated soiree, but she said she had her favorite recipe in her file, so we sat down together to look for it. In an unfathomable twist of events for the most organized person I know, we were unable to locate the correct version of the recipe so she said, "make whatever you want, honey." The wistfulness in her voice was unmistakeable so I knew whatever I made had to be at least some version of an applesauce cake.

I started combing through recipes, first just trying to determine what even is and applesauce cake, exactly? How is an applesauce cake different from an apple cake? Is it just that's made with applesauce instead of whole apples? Is it supposed to have nuts and raisins in it like a carrot cake, or is it more of a spice cake? Does it get glazed or frosted? I didn't want to ask my grandmother, partly because I wanted to be creative on my own, but also because I knew that while she would answer my questions, she wouldn't be able to give me the secret to what made her want this specific cake now for this particular occasion.

After reviewing stacks of recipes (including the excellent version I made for my mom's birthday back in October), I decided to try Warren Brown's Apple Butter Cake from United Cakes of America. This in itself necessitated additional research, on the topic of the differences between applesauce and apple butter. From what I could tell, apple butter is simply concentrated applesauce - cooking down the liquid so it is a thicker, spreadable consistency with more apple flavor.

In part because it sounded delicious and reminded me of the outstanding pear cake I made for my 30th birthday, but also because I only had two apples, I decided to add a pear to my apple butter ingredients. I love the graininess of pears, and the herbal sweetness they bring.

My grandmother loves nuts in everything - cookies, cakes, ice cream. I adore nuts too, but I like to eat them plain as snacks, and always feel disappointed to find their soft crunch in the tender dough of a cookie, cake, or bread. As a compromise, I chose to use nuts in the custard filling between the cake layers, and as decoration on the frosting, but not to stir them directly into the cake batter. That way, nuts would be incorporated, but could be found in discreet and predictable locations of each bite.

Finally, the frosting. The cinnamon buttercream from the snickerdoodle cupcakes last fall was the perfect accompaniment. It's very sweet, but pairs delightfully with the moist apple cake, and is especially appreciated for it's excellent piping consistency. It's so easy to work with, and holds it's shape precisely, whether it's piped decorations or a satin-smooth finish. Decorate with whole pecans on top, and chopped pecans around the sides.

Apple-Pear Butter
makes 3 cups
2 large sweet apples (such as gala)
1 large pear
1/4 cup water
1/2 cup sugar
1 cinnamon stick
4 allspice berries
Peel, core and chop fruit into 1/2 pieces or smaller. Mix with remaining ingredients in heavy saucepan, cover, and simmer until fruit is very soft, 20-25 minutes. Remove spices and puree fruit with an immersion blender until very smooth. Continue to heat uncovered at a simmer, stirring regularly to prevent burning, until consistency is thick. 

Apple Butter Cake - adapted from Warren Brown
5 ounces unsalted butter, softened
15 ounces sugar
3 eggs
12 ounces all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
3/4 teaspoons salt
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 cup milk
1 cup apple-pear butter (see recipe above, or use purchased apple butter)
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla

Preheat oven to 350. Grease and flour two 8-inch round cake pans, preferably with removable bottoms (or line pans with parchment).

Combine butter and sugar in stand mixer and beat until well creamed. Beat in eggs one at a time.

Mix together milk, vanilla, and apple butter in one small bowl, and dry ingredients separately in another bowl. Add to butter mixture alternately in 3 additions. Divide evenly between prepared pans and bake 30-35 minutes, until tops are golden and start to pull away from sides of pan. Cool in pan 15 minutes, then invert to racks and cool completely.

I wish I could write edible script like this, but alas, the restaurant plated my
grandmother's slice and added this charming touch all on their own.
Apple Custard Filling
This isn't a great all-purpose recipe, but it worked perfectly with this cake. I wanted a way to use the apple-pear sauce in between the cake layers, but so that it was a little thicker and creamier than just a spread of jam. I couldn't find any recipes for a custard with apple in it, so I made my own. Because I mixed-in the fruit sauce, the texture is not perfectly smooth like a custard, but in a cake, it is unnoticeably. It was also not at all sweet, but that made it just the right balance against the cake and the very sweet frosting.

1/4 cup cream
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 egg
1 egg yolk
4 tablespoons apple-pear sauce
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 cup toasted pecans, coarsely chopped

Mix the cream and cornstarch together until smooth. Whisk in eggs and sugar and cook over medium heat until 160 degrees and thickened, whisking constantly. Stir in applesauce and continue to whisk another minute or two. Allow to cool, and chill before using.

Spread a thin layer on the cake, then sprinkle evenly with pecans, and dollop more custard on top of pecans, spreading gently. Top with second cake layer and frost.

Cinnamon Frosting
2 sticks plus 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
4-5 cups powdered sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 cup cream

Beat together the butter, brown sugar, and cinnamon until fluffy and smooth. Add 2 cups of powdered sugar and beat until incorporated. Beat in the vanilla and cream, scraping down the bowl, then add an additional 2-3 cups of powdered sugar, until desired consistency is reached. (I used a little more than 2 cups, then thinned down ever-so-slightly with just a bit more cream.)

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