I associate October’s vibrant leaves with equally vibrant flavors: pumpkin spice (sorry to be a populist in this regard, but there you have it), ripe persimmons, roasted squash, savory stews and especially the mouthwatering tang of a crisp new apple. My fruit bowl is filled with apples from local farms and my fridge shelves are groaning with apple cider and applesauce. The only thing that’s left is to eat it all.
I’ve been saving my mother’s recipe for applesauce cake until right now, the peak of apple season. I wondered if I should attempt it at all, actually, since it seems a smidge complicated, but I’ve never let fear of disaster stop me before. Naturally, the handwritten recipe is barely legible. What could go wrong?
For starters, it’s not really a cake. It’s more like a custard pie or chiffon pie, but those are two things that I love, so why quibble over semantics? It bakes up with layers: graham cracker crust on the bottom, then an applesauce-y layer, then a souffle-ish layer, then a topping of cinnamon-laced whipped cream. I’m intrigued by the fact that I can’t find a single similar recipe online, even after searching for five whole minutes. There are a zillion recipes for apple cheesecake or apple custard cake, but none with a light, almost fluffy filling like this.
Which brings me to the next oddity: the crust. The recipe calls for an 11-ounce box of Graham crackers, which doesn’t exist. The standard box size is 14.4 ounces. Did they used to make 11-ounce boxes in the Olden Days of Yore, when women wore cute little aprons that matched their poufy skirts? Maybe the recipe actually says 14.4 ounces and I just can’t read my mom’s wonky scribbles. The upshot is that I had to approximate what 11 ounces would be. There are three sleeves of crackers in a box, so I figured two sleeves would be about right. (I’m not sure exactly what two-thirds of 14.4 ounces is because that would require math, and there’s a reason I write for a living.)
The final weirdness is that Mom says to use a 14.5-ounce can of evaporated milk, but cans only come in 12-ounce or 5-ounce sizes. I decided to go with 12 ounces. What’s 2½ ounces, more or less?
And so we begin. For the crust, crush two sleeves of graham crackers to a fine crumb (feel free to use my as-yet-unpatented bag-and-hammer method) and mix with 1½ teaspoons cinnamon and 1 tablespoon sugar. Add 1 stick melted butter and blend until moistened. Press into the bottom and sides of a 9-inch springform pan, like you’d do for a cheesecake. I haven’t tried making this recipe without a springform pan, but if I didn’t have one, I’d use a deep pie dish and leave the outcome to fate. I like to live dangerously with my desserts.
Now set your oven to 350 degrees so it can warm up while you’re making the filling. Congratulations! You’re halfway to your applesauce cake-not-really-a-cake. Or at least a third of the way there, unless you count baking time, in which case you’re still a long way away.
For the filling, beat the egg yolks until thick and add ¾ cup sugar along with 3 tablespoons lemon juice, 1 cup of applesauce and 1 12-ounce can of evaporated milk (make sure it’s not sweetened condensed milk). Blend the egg whites until stiff peaks form then fold the egg whites into the egg, applesauce and milk mixture.
Pour into the graham cracker crust and bake at 350 degrees for one hour. For some reason known only to the less clever parts of my brain, I decided to bake it for 1 hour and 5 minutes. Maybe I was worried about the eggs getting fully cooked or the fact that when I opened the oven to put the cake in the temperature dropped a few degrees. In any event, it was 5 minutes too long and the top had a more charbroiled appearance than I’d have liked.
Allow to cool completely after removing from the oven, then remove the springform sides. The recipe says to whip one cup of heavy cream and spread over the top, but unsweetened cream might be a bit plain. To give your whipped cream a little autumn embellishment, add 1 teaspoon vanilla, 3 tablespoons maple syrup and ½ teaspoon cinnamon. Slather over the top, sneakily covering the burnt bits. I got inventive with my whipped cream and tried squishing it through a plastic bag with the corner cut off to make decorative patterns. When I showed my daughter the completed cake, she said, “It looks like fungus.” I took her suggestion to heart and redecorated the cake, confining my fungal flourishes to the outer edges. Everyone’s a critic — until they take the first bite.