Well, it’s been a minute hasn’t it? I won’t bore you with the usual routine of I meant to sit down and write every day for the past month, but then I went to the beach and accidentally spent four hours paddleboarding in the sun or I started to tell you all about this incredible cookie recipe but then I got distracted eating all the cookie dough off the spoon with a friend in the kitchen as we debated the relative merits of every season of Friends.
I won’t even go there! It’s not important! What matters is that we are all here now, and we are ready to talk about some casual, just-between-friends, ease-back-into-writing sort of topics. Like, for example, this absolutely perfect apple cake from Smitten Kitchen that you should all make immediately. (Okay, maybe not immediately, if you happen to be in the middle of open-heart surgery or giving a presentation to your boss about the next fiscal year’s budget or, say, attempting to give your unruly toddler a bath.)
We can also talk about some other things I’ve been liking lately. I like the song “Soulmate” by Lizzo. Specifically, I like pretending I am Lizzo and singing along to it while I make the bed in the morning. And I love when she sings that “she never tells me to exercise, and we always get extra fries” because that’s just a solid gold line.
In the world of music, I like driving at night with the windows down when the air is still a little warm and soft, but the sky is slowly fading from dusky to inkier blue, and playing "Polynesia” by Nora en Pure at high volume, then “Ain’t Gonna Leave” by ARIZONA.
I’ve been in a very serious kick of making Rice Krispie treats lately. And just between me and you, this is not something you should stop doing (or eating) at the age of 8. They are so quick and so easy and satisfying in that I-need-dessert way without the overwhelmingly heavy feeling you get from eating a slice of chocolate cake. They’re fun to play around with too. Once you nail the perfect ratio (alright, I’ll tell you, but just because I like you guys: 12 cups Rice Krispies + 2 sticks unsalted butter + 2 bags miniature marshmallows), you can use it as a blank canvas. Any dessert can be transformed into a Rice Krispie treat! Just steer clear of adding too much liquid (like canned pumpkin) or the bars get too soft. My favorites so far:
Ruffles potato chips (I never said I was always sophisticated!)
Snickerdoodle (brown butter + cinnamon sugar)
Chubby Hubby (malted marshmallow base, pretzels, peanut butter, and chocolate)
Mocha (ground coffee + dark cocoa)
Cinnamon spice (Vietnamese cinnamon, nutmeg, and allspice)
And oh! The cookies! I made some snickerdoodle cookies, but instead of rolling them in cinnamon sugar, I crushed up some freeze-dried strawberries with granulated sugar and some sumac. If you aren’t familiar with sumac, it has a tart and almost lemon-y flavor. I fell for it in baked goods when I tasted a slice of berry sumac pound cake made by the brilliant Briana Holt of Tandem Bakery in Maine: it was tender-crumbed and dense and bright pink, with a distinctive brightness I associate with citrus, but instead I learned it was sumac.
I also made some of the best ginger cookies ever. Don’t take my word for it; I shared them with lots of friends (including the guy who owns my local bookstore who is my best taste-tester in return for his pitch-perfect advice on books). Everyone swore they were the best they’d tried too. The recipe from King Arthur Flour is here, but I skipped the ginger syrup part and just rolled them in sugar. I imagine they’d be great with the syrup too, if you want to do the extra work.
But before you get distracted making ginger cookies and the Rice Krispie treats of your dreams (peanut butter fudge? toasted sesame halvah? triple marshmallow? apple pie?), let’s talk about this cake.
Because this cake really is not to be missed, particularly in the height of apple season. I’ve adapted it very lightly from the original recipe on Smitten Kitchen, although if you start searching around for classic apple cake recipes, you’ll find some version of this one circulating all over the place.
It’s iconic, and you’ll know you’ve stumbled upon a version of it because it’ll call for orange juice in the batter.
To be honest, I was tempted to swap the juice for buttermilk, which just sounded cozier and more delicious. Also I was afraid the orange juice would render the final result too sweet. Not so! Trust the many generations of bakers who have made, and loved, this cake recipe!
A word of advice: Don’t skimp on the apples. When you’re layering the batter and apples, it will seem as though there is far too much fruit. This is what makes this cake great: The fruit softens and slumps, creating these custardy pockets where it touches the batter.
Also lest you get too far down the path of baking only to realize you need a tube pan and don’t have one…you need a tube pan! If you don’t have one and refuse to buy one (I get it, but in this case, you should), you could probably make this in a 9” x 13” pan and just do one layer of batter topped with the apples. Hard to say how it would turn out, but I suspect it would be delicious and unusual, like a sheet cake with a soft, cinnamon-y, apple-y topping instead of frosting.
An Essential Apple Cake
Adapted from Smitten Kitchen
For the apples
6 apples, peeled, cored, and cut into 1/2” chunks
1 tablespoon Vietnamese cinnamon (I also add 1/4 teaspoon each cardamom and nutmeg)
4 tablespoons sugar
For the cake
2 3/4 cups (330 grams) all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup (235 ml) vegetable oil or melted unsalted butter
2 cups (396 grams) sugar
1/4 cup (60 ml) orange juice
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 teaspoons rum (optional, you can skip this and just use 1 tablespoon vanilla extract instead of the 2 tsp.)
Preheat the oven to 350°F and generously grease a tube pan with melted butter or baking spray.
Toss the apple chunks with the spices and sugar in a medium bowl and set aside while you make the batter.
In the bowl of a stand mixer (or by hand in a large bowl), mix together oil (or butter), orange juice, sugar, vanilla (and rum, if using), and the eggs. Add the flour, baking powder, and salt and mix until just combined, scraping down the bowl once or twice.
Pour half of batter into your greased tube pan. Spoon half of the apple mixture over top, spreading into an even layer, then top with the remaining batter (it’ll be thick but try and smooth it out as best as possible), then top with the remaining apples.
Bake for 90 minutes; start checking the cake around 80 minutes although it could take more like 95. You want to remove it from the oven when a tester inserted comes out without wet batter clinging to it.
Cool completely before turning out of the pan. Or eat it warm from the pan! You do you!