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America’s Apple Cake

For anyone that has a sweet tooth but is concerned with how much sugar they’re currently consuming, America’s Test Kitchen‘s new cookbook is here to solve that problem. Naturally Sweet is a collection of baked recipes that call for sweeteners that have been minimally processed. ATK includes sweeteners such as whole cane sugar (think of brands like Sucanat), coconut sugar, honey, and maple syrup. All this in response to fans of ATK who have been asking for reduced sugar recipes in an effort to gain greater control over their overall sugar consumption.

The bakers and writers of the recipes in Naturally Sweet explain in the introduction why they rely on particular natural sweeteners. And they explain why some sweeteners have been left out (industrial/artificial, inconsistent manufacturing processes, incompatible textures). The book includes an interesting diagram that explains the differences in processes that turn sugar into white sugar, cane juice into products like Sucanet, and coconut sap into coconut sugar. It takes approximately 15 steps to produce white sugar. Those steps include two separate chemical clarification and whitening processes. In comparison, coconut sugar is a four step process. Maple syrup and honey are essentially two step processes.

While these sweeteners may not be the cure-all for the diabetic looking to splurge on decadent sweets, it does give guidance to those who are trying to cut back on processed sweets while also adding nutrients (minerals) to an otherwise nutrient-light indulgence.

The apple cake recipe in the book is definitely a winner. As I was skimming through the book, the picture and recipe caught my attention. The flower-like top of the cake made with slices of apples was just too delicious looking not to attempt. The cake itself was made with dried apples that had been rehydrated with apple cider. I added candied ginger and a shot of bourbon to the dried apples which adds a little kick to the cake. I also substituted half of the all-purpose flour with wheat flour, just for some more added nutrition and texture.

When I mixed up the cake I realized that the batter was a little too thick. My first instinct was to add an extra egg, but I decided against it. I also may have baked the cake a little too long, or the dark colored cake pan that I used could have conducted too much heat. Whatever the problem, the finished cake was dry. It really needed the extra egg to give it more moisture. It also needed a little less baking time. I also added a bit more bourbon to the honey-butter mixture that gets brushed on the finished cake. There was also a problem with the salt in the original recipe. When added to the flour it just didn’t work. The salt didn’t have time to dissolve and make the cake flavorful. For that reason, I have adjusted the process of adding the salt by including it in the purée of dried apples.

While I think the ATK recipe is a great start, the few tweaks I’ve made to the recipe make it even better. I will definitely be making this cake again soon. Especially now that it’s apple season!

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Apple Cake
adapted from Naturally Sweet

12 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
2 apples (golden delicious, gala, pink lady, or baker’s choices), peeled, halved and sliced in to 1/8″ pieces
2 cups apple cider
1 cup dried apples, cut into small pieces
1/4 cup candied ginger
1 cup (5 ounces) all-purpose flour
1/2 cup (2.5 ounces) whole wheat flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons bourbon
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
2 large eggs
2 teaspoons honey

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Grease a 9-inch cake pan and line the bottom of the pan with parchment paper, cut to size.

Add 1 tablespoon of melted butter to a skillet over medium high heat. Add the apples and saute until translucent, about 3-5 minutes. Set the apples aside in a bowl.

Add the cider, dried apples, and candied ginger to the empty skillet and simmer over medium heat until most of the liquid becomes tacky and syrup-like, 10-15 minutes. Transfer to a food processor and allow to cool slightly.

Whisk the flours and baking soda together in a large bowl, set aside.

Add the salt, 1 tablespoon bourbon, vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves to the rehydrated apples in the food processor. Process until smooth, about 30 seconds to 1 minute. Scrape down the sides and, with the processor running, add the eggs, one at a time. Continue processing and add 10 tablespoons of the melted butter. Add the processed apple mixture to the flour mixture and fold together until combined.

Add the cake batter to the prepared cake pan. Shingle the cooked apple slices around the cake in a decorative flower manner. Place the cake in the center of the oven and bake for about 30 minutes, rotating the cake half way through baking. The cake may still be a little undercooked in the center.

While the cake is baking, heat the remaining tablespoon of butter with the honey, remove from heat and add 1 tablespoon of bourbon.

Once the cake is removed from the oven. Turn up the oven temperature to broil. Brush the top of the cake with the honey-butter-bourbon concoction and place it under the broiler for 4-6 minutes until the apples start to brown and caramelize on the edges.

Let the cake cool in the pan for 10 minutes. Run a knife around the edge of the cake. Invert the cake on to a plate, then invert again onto a wire rack. Let cool for about 30 minutes before serving.

Best served warmed with ice cream, or whipped cream.

The gnarly beasts. Loaves second and third.

Bread

I’ve been baking a lot lately. A LOT! We taught our first bread baking class a couple of weeks ago and it seemed a great success. We’re looking forward to the next round of classes in May. The preparation for the classes along with the recipe research has been exhausting and yet at the same time exhilarating. Our “office” desk is lined with all the cookbooks we have on bread baking along with a large handful of books we’ve checked out of the library and I’ve been scouring the web for even more. Just looking at the spines of all those books gives me a much-needed mental boost to continue baking and our oven hasn’t gotten much rest as a result.

A collage of the steps in bread making.

I’ve been experimenting with baking bread using “harvested” wild yeasts. I have one yeast starter made of a chopped apple and peel that has a very sweet vinegary smell. I made another out of golden raisins that first developed a very sour ammonia smell that has mellowed to a sweet earthy yeasty aroma. We’ve tried harvesting yeast from juniper berries in the past, but the only thing we created was a bacteria farm that smelled worse than dirty socks. We’ve tried to capture yeast out of thin air, unsuccessfully. This time, using William Alexendar’s leavin method from 52 loaves and the yeast starter made from golden raisins and one from apples, I’ve produced two wonderful loaves of bread. The starters seem to be thriving now and will likely be a source of many loaves in the weeks and years to come. I’m looking forward to experimenting with different yeasts, including Chad Robertson’s method of just using the yeast that collects naturally on his hands.

The gnarly beasts. Loaves second and third.

The challenge I’m facing now is in the transferring of the dough from the basket to the peel and then to the oven. With my first loaf of bread I tried something non-traditional in baking: I dusted a lot of corn flour over the bottom of the bread while still in the basket. Next, I placed the peel on top of the basket and then, in one quick swoop, flipped the dough-filled basket over to transfer the dough to the peel and then, with a quick tug of the peel, the dough was in the oven on a heated pizza stone. The only problem was that the bottom of the bread had a lot of flour on it and it just wasn’t crisp enough coming out of the oven. With the subsequent two loaves I’ve tried the traditional method of dusting the peel and then flipping the dough onto the peel and then again sliding the dough from the peel to a pizza stone that has pre-heated in the oven. My first attempt at this method resulted in a fold over of the dough and my next attempt wasn’t much better as the dough oozed over the edge of the stone and between the wires of the oven rack. While both loaves of bread turned out gnarly and twisted they both tasted great.

The bread created by members of our first class. Top – L to R: Kathleen (before), Joe. Bottom – L to R: Jess, Kathleen (after).

Once I feel like I have my dough transfer method down to a science I’ll be sharing the bread recipe with others on our blog and in another baking class. So, stay tuned for more in our ongoing quest for the best homemade loaves and congratulations to the bread baking 101 class for their successful loaves! I hope we have inspired you to keep baking.