Having completed reading the novels of the Bronte sisters, in book club we’ve now moved on to Jane Austen.
I can’t tell you how very much I’ve been looking forward to re-reading Jane. Although there are some titles I’ve read over and over, the way in which we read as a club – in chapter sections with detours down google rabbit holes – I’m bound to come away with something new from each.
We’re starting with Austen’s last (completed) novel, Persuasion. Published (along with Northanger Abbey) in 1817, six months after her death, Persuasion is set mostly in Somerset near Taunton, with key parts of the book also in Bath and Lyme Regis on the Dorset Coast.
For my first bake inspired by this novel, I’m picking up on the Dorset angle with a Dorset Apple Cake – although it could very easily also be called a Somerset Apple Cake given that it was popular in both counties. I’m sure purists would be quick to tell me the difference, but as Paul Hollywood says in the preface to the recipe in British Baking:
I reckon there could be almost as many recipes for apple cake as there are apple varieties.
I even saw a recipe (by the late and great Gary Rhodes) where Somerset cheddar was baked on top of the cake. While my husband said, ‘I don’t know how I feel about that,’ I get it – we do, after all, serve apple beside cheddar on a cheeseboard. And what is more Somerset than cheese and apples? (In British Baking, Paul Hollywood also reminds us of:
the Yorkshire habit of eating pies or fruit cake with a piece of crumbly Wensleydale cheese. ‘An apple pie without cheese is like a kiss without a squeeze’.
Anyways, both counties are well known for their apple cakes – with examples available in tearooms across the counties. A useful way of using up the plentiful supply of autumn apples produced by the county’s orchards, this is really my kind of cake – full of apples, simple to put together, and quite rustic in terms of both appearance and flavour.
It’s Hollywood’s recipe that I used…mostly. Many recipes call for wholemeal flour – and this would have made the result more authentic and rustic looking, I suspect – but I didn’t have any in the pantry. Besides, I wanted to serve the cake as a pudding on Saturday night and white flour gave a more refined look – if, indeed, you can use the term refined for this sort of cake. In addition to cinnamon, I also added about ¼ teaspoon of freshly grated nutmeg.
As for the apples, While Hollywood uses a combo of eating and cooking apples, I used normal eating apples – these hold their shape much better than the traditional stewing apples. I didn’t peel the apples – partly because I couldn’t be faffed, partly because I quite like the look of them unpeeled, and partly because the skin also helps them keep their shape in the cake.
When it comes to cutting the apples, slice them thinly, but don’t worry too much about having them all the same size – I think it adds to the appeal of the cake to have them a tad higgledy-piggledy.
All you need to make this cake is a bowl, a wooden spoon and a tin (20 cm square or 22 cm round). While you rub the butter into the flour in the same way you do for pastry and scones, the rest is just spoon action.
This cake is great on its own with coffee or tea, or lovely with cream, ice cream or custard as a pudding.
Okay, to the recipe.
What you need
- 200g plain flour (or plain wholemeal flour)
- 1 tsp baking powder
- ½ tsp ground cinnamon
- ¼ tsp grated nutmeg (optional)
- 100g unsalted butter, diced
- 100g caster sugar
- 3 apples, cored and thinly sliced (you can peel them if you like)
- 2 large eggs
- 60ml milk
- 1 tbsp demerara sugar for sprinkling on top
What you do with it
Preheat the oven to 180C (160C fan-forced). Grease and line your cake tin.
In a large bowl mix together the flour, baking powder, cinnamon and nutmeg (if using). Rub in the butter using the tips of your fingers until resembles sandy breadcrumbs.
Stir in the sugar and the apples.
In a small jug whisk together the eggs and milk and pour into the bowl with your appley-flour. Stir until it’s well combined. Take care with this as the apples have a way of holding onto little pockets of flour.
Spoon into your prepared tin, level the surface gently and as well as you can, sprinkle across the demerara sugar, and bake for 45-50 minutes. The cake should have a golden crust and a skewer should come out clean.
Leave to cool in the tin, cut into squares and serve.