Friday, October 29, 2010
Bolzano Apple Cake
Somewhere up in the culinary expansiveness of the northeastern Italian countryside where Italy begins to edge toward Austria and Switzerland and cultures and languages co-mingle, there are quiet sighs of pleasure because of an astonishing apple pastry.
The world is full of lots of incredible apple cakes. Some are plugged with spice or rum, some are fortified with toasted nuts or glaze. Others are simple and rustic and so purely delicious they elicit your full attention. This is that kind of cake.
The genesis of this pastry begins in the Province of Bolzano-Bozen in the Trentino-Alto Adige region of Italy. Scott Carsberg, chef at Seattle’s renowned Lampreia, trained in the region and features this creation on his menu. Even if you think you’ve had some really great Italian desserts, this apple configuration is one of those pastries that you will likely forever think about only with a kind of sacred longing.
Actually, the first thing I should say about Bolzano Apple Cake is that it is actually not a cake. It is at once a truly simple and yet mysterious thing, composed mostly of really wonderful vanilla-scented apples that are baked to mind-numbing perfection. There is a batter of sorts that barely binds the whole luscious thing together but it’s made mostly of butter, a couple of eggs, some sugar and just the sparest cascade of flour. The edges become caramelized and crunchy and the center is like an endless dreamy delicate applescape. The texture is not strictly cakey and it’s not like a custard. It almost has the mouthfeel of moist crepes but only softer and still very different.
My version of this dessert has considerably less sugar, a pinch of salt, lemon juice and lemon zest. I’ve also revised the method a bit by infusing the melted butter with vanilla bean and changing up the baking temperature.
If you love apples, this is a mother lode. The aroma emanating from the oven is the stuff of dreams. I promise.
- I used Braeburn apples because I had several on my table that needed to be transformed. Granny Smith is recommended. Choose a favorite that is crisp and not too sweet.
- The original recipe calls for 1 cup of sugar. I found that amount much too sweet for my taste. I’ve reduced the amount to 3/4 C and am even tempted to reduce it a bit further to about 1/2 C + 3 T, although Granny Smiths might mediate that.
- I love the combination of apples, vanilla and lemon so I’ve replicated that delicious triad here.
- The original recipe called for baking this at 375 degrees for 50 minutes. My oven runs hot so I bake this at 350 degrees for 25 minutes and then 375 for 25 minutes. I think that works out well because the higher temperature for the full baking time seems too high to bake this delicate pastry. Don’t be tempted to bake it longer than 50 minutes.
Bolzano Apple Cake
based on a recipe from Scott Carsberg in the New York Times
Serves 8 - 10
4 oz (1 stick) butter
1 vanilla bean
juice of 1 lemon
zest of 1/2 lemon
1 1/4 lbs Granny Smith apples (4 medium-sized)
1/2 C flour
2 t baking powder
1/4 t salt
3/4 C sugar
1/2 C whole milk at room temperature
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Prepare a 9” x 2 1/2” round cake pan with butter and flour and line with parchment. Grease and flour the parchment, tapping the pan to remove any excess.
Melt the butter over low heat. Split the vanilla bean and scrape the seeds into the butter. Add the vanilla pod and keep on low heat for a couple of minutes, swirling gently. (The idea is to infuse the butter with the vanilla, not to brown the butter.) Take off the heat and set aside to cool.
Place the lemon juice and lemon zest into a bowl big enough to hold the apple slices. Peel, quarter and core apples. Slice thinly and add to the bowl, tossing gently with the lemon juice and zest as you go. Set aside.
Sift the flour, baking powder and salt together.
Whip the eggs and the sugar until the mixture is light in color, thickened, tripled in volume and forms a ribbon when drizzled from the beater. This takes about 5 minutes on a stand mixer on medium high speed.
Remove vanilla pod from the butter and gently fold the butter into sugar-egg mixture. Fold a third of the flour into the batter alternately with half of the milk, beginning and ending with the flour. Fold in the apples until every piece is coated with batter. Pour into the prepared pan and smooth out the batter and apples evenly.
Bake for 25 minutes, then rotate the pan and raise the temperature to 375 degrees. Bake for another 25 minutes until the cake is golden brown. Cool on a rack for 30 minutes. Remove from the pan, gently remove the parchment and invert onto a serving platter. Savor with unbridled glee.