My great-grandmother baked a version of the same cake every Friday for Shabbat, varying the fruit filling with the season. Baked in a large rectangular dish, the cake was like a double-crusted cobbler. Throughout the day, siblings, nieces, nephews, cousins, aunts, and uncles streamed through her Williamsburg apartment for a warm square of cake and a steaming cup of coffee from the percolator. On the way out they clutched paper bags, the bottoms greasy from the cookies she made with the extra cake dough.
Born in southern Russia, my great-grandmother Lily settled in Brooklyn in 1916, after working as a seamstress in France, London, and Palestine. She found the original recipe in the Forward, the Yiddish daily newspaper, and it reminded her of the cake her mother often made back home.
Her simple recipe is forgiving. Whether you add too much of this, run out of that, or leave it in the oven for a few extra minutes while you shower, the batter still puffs into soft cushions, and the fruit still sweetens the dough with its juice. She used apples in fall, blueberries or peaches in spring and summer.
My great-grandmother died well before I was born. Every Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, my mother and grandmother reminisced about her cake so longingly that it wafted scents of flour and sugar and simmering fruit through my childhood dreams. But no one could find the recipe.
“The cake was like a deep dish pie, but not a pie,” my mom said.
“It wasn’t too sweet, but not bland either,” my grandmother said. “It had a little bit of flavor, maybe a spice.”
“Cinnamon? Nutmeg? Vanilla?” I suggested.
“No, none of those,” they both insisted.
These vague and intangible descriptions made me yearn for the family recipe the way other women covet the family jewels. Every few years I’d ask Grams to call her cousins and ask if they had the recipe. No one fessed up.
I pressed Grams again one spring, when I was newly pregnant with my first kid. Fatigued and queasy, I’d determined that this cake would be the one thing besides bagels, Cheerios, and Ritz crackers I could stomach.
“Tell me again why you haven’t ever baked this cake?” I grouched one day on the phone. I used a more accusing voice than I’d like to remember. But I’d started to doubt whether this cake had ever existed—and pregnancy didn’t do much for my patience.
“We never had to bake because my mother and aunts always made enough for five families,” my grandmother said, indulging my moodiness. She promised she’d make another round of calls.
Three weeks later she sent me a recipe hand-written in her shaky script. A cousin had watched her own grandmother bake the cake. Every time her grandmother portioned out an ingredient with a jelly jar or eyeballed it, she stopped her and re-measured the amounts using measuring cups and spoons. She had read the recipe to my grandmother over the phone.
I was delighted but wary, since the directions were vague. I figured I’d have to make the cake a few times before I got the proportions and baking time correct.
To my amazement, it was perfect the first time. In summer, I make the cake with strawberries, and use nectarines and blackberries. We eat the leftovers, when we have them, for breakfast. At night in the fridge, the jammy fruit saturates the inner layers of dough, giving the cake a dense, bread pudding-like texture. It’s also become my go-to Hanukkah dessert—it’s the low-maintenance yin to the labor-intensive yang of latke production. The first time I baked the cake for my kids I worried that, with its sprinkle- and icing-free simplicity, the cake would lose out to the ever-present color-saturated Christmas cookie. But by some miracle, or possibly because of how gigantic the cake is, my kids looked at me like I’d hung the moon.
Oh, and that mystery flavor? Turned out to be vanilla. But I held my tongue.
Without further ado, the recipe for my great grandmother’s cake:
Any type of apples will work in this cake, but more flavorful varieties like perfumed Honeycrisp and sweet-tart Pink Lady or Gravenstein enhance the mild batter. I’ve tinkered with the batter over the years, decreasing the sugar from 2 cups to 1.5, and adding some whole-wheat flour for its nutty flavor (and yes, fiber). I list the classic all-purpose flour batter in this recipe, but to mix it up try using either even amounts of all-purpose and whole-wheat pastry flours, or 2 cups all-purpose and 1 cup whole-wheat flours.
Serves 12 to 15.
Time: 30 minutes to assemble, 60 to 75 minutes to bake
4 cups apples (about 5 medium or 1 pound), peeled and coarsely chopped
5 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
10 gratings nutmeg (or a big pinch of ground nutmeg)
1/8th teaspoon kosher salt
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup vegetable oil (I use sunflower but I’m sure my great-grandmother went for canola.)
4 large eggs, beaten
1/4 cup water
1 teaspoon vanilla
Preheat the oven to 325°F. Grease a 9” x 13” baking dish with vegetable oil.
Add the sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt to the bowl of chopped apples, mix well, and let stand for 15 minutes.
Whisk together the flour, sugar, baking powder, and kosher salt in a large bowl. Whisk together the vegetable oil, eggs, water, and vanilla in another bowl. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry. Stir together with a rubber spatula until just combined.
Using the spatula, spoon a little more than half the batter into the greased pan. Don’t just dump it into a pile, or it will be hard to spread. Make a line of dollops lengthwise in the pan. Use the spatula to spread the batter into a somewhat even layer. (You don’t have to cover every inch of the pan, since the batter will spread and even out in the oven.)
Spread the apples evenly over the batter.
Top with the remaining batter, using the same technique as with the bottom layer, but leave a 1-inch gap along the edges for the fruit to show through.
Bake until the top turns golden and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, 60 to 75 minutes.
Serve warm or at room temperature.