Monday, October 5, 2015

Apple Cider Doughnut Cake

Last week I packed up my camera and set off to drive the back roads of rural Indiana in search of pumpkins, apples, and seeing an unobstructed by buildings and telephone poles views of the sky. I returned home seven hours later from a less than one hundred mile round trip. Had I not wanted to get caught in rush hour expressway traffic, I could have easily spent another couple of hours driving down the two lane roads lined with soybean and cornfields; stopping at every farm stand selling pumpkins, apples, and freshly harvested vegetables; going into all of the open antique stores; and, stopping to take photos every time I saw a great barn, a pasture of animals, or view that caught my eye and made my heart race.

Although being out in the flat lands of Indiana on a beautiful blue, cloud filled sky day is not exactly the same as being out in the Big Sky country of Montana, taking a hike in Rocky Mountain National Park, driving through Acadia National Park, or walking on the shore of the ocean in Rhode Island, they all make me swoon. There is something incredibly magical and zen about being in an open space, taking in all of the beauty nature has to offer in front of and above you. Not just with your eyes but also with your soul. For brief moments you envy and completely understand why some choose to spend their lives or long periods of time far away from all of the 'noise' of a city.

I returned from this relatively short day trip with a trunk and car filled with some of the most beautiful pumpkins; not enough Honey Crisp apples; all of the makings necessary to make my front door feel both autumnal and welcoming; hundreds of photos; and a vintage bundt pan. Maybe more importantly, I returned feeling re-energized and filled with the kind of happiness only the simplest of things can elicit.

Last week I had also planned to finally make the two layer Apple Cider Doughnut Cake slathered in a cream cheese frosting. A cake recipe I discovered when fresh apples and cider were not in season. However, all of that changed the moment I came upon this vintage cast iron bundt pan. Who knew a pan could have me give up slathering cream cheese frosting on anything? And little did I know I would be making this cake two days in a row. But not for some of the reasons you might be thinking. But more on that later.

The inspiration the Apple Cider Doughnut Cake recipe, sans the cream cheese frosting, came from Serious Eats. In looking over the recipe my first thoughts were: there needed to be cinnamon in the cake batter, not just in the cinnamon sugar coating and the use of both light and dark brown sugars would further deepen the cakes flavor.

The original recipe called for 1 1/2 cups of apple cider and one roughly chopped Granny Smith apple. After making this cake twice in less than twenty-four hours, I decided it needed only 1 cup of (fresh) apple cider and a grated Honey Crisp apple.

The apple cider and grated apple are used to make a thickened applesauce used to give both an apple flavor and moistness to the cake. After cooking the cider and apple, the mixture is cooled slightly and pureed in a food processor. Because only one cup of the 'applesauce' is needed for the cake, one cup of (fresh) apple cider is more than enough. 

In addition to cinnamon, the cake batter is also flavored with mace and nutmeg. Mace is one of those spices we don't hear much about these days. Because mace and nutmeg share the same plant biology, some assume they have the same taste and flavor. Serious Eats describes mace as being lighter, subtler and sweeter than nutmeg. A cross between nutmeg and coriander, tinged with citrus and cinnamon. Nutmeg deepens the flavor of a dish, mace elevates it.

Nowadays you can buy spices in small quantities without having to buy a whole jar. In addition to stores selling only spices, some of the chain grocery stores as well as Whole Foods, allow to buy what you need. The days of letting jars of spices expire have finally come to an end. 

The biggest lesson learned in making this Apple Cider Doughnut Cake, twice, is to make sure the pan is well greased. Unless you want to go through all of the work of making this incredible cake only to have it not unmold in one piece. Screaming when this happens is usually necessary, not optional. 

In a 350 degree (F) preheated oven the Apple Cider Doughnut Cake bakes for up to 50 minutes. While the baking time range was 35-45 minutes in the original recipe, my baking time (both times I made it) was 50 minutes. My best advice is to begin checking for doneness at 35 minutes. An over or under done cake is almost as bad as having a cake not unmold properly. 

There are two options for adding the Cinnamon Sugar Coating to the cake. The first is to rub the coating into the warm cake with your fingers. The second is to brush the warm cake with melted butter then rub the cinnamon sugar with the back of a spoon. Both options work. Having given up the slathered in cream cheese frosting plan, I went with the melted butter plan the second time around as it created a slightly crispier finish to the cake. 

This is the kind of cake you want to wake up to on a chilly fall day; to serve to friends visiting for the weekend; to make as a hostess, feel better or welcome to the neighborhood gift; to bring to the office just because; to send off with a significant other going on a weekend fishing or golfing trip with friends, or to make just because it's fall and you can't get enough of the flavors of apple and cinnamon (and sometimes you need a short break from all things pumpkin spiced). Even better yet, it's the kind of cake to make when you can't decide whether you want to eat some cake or a doughnut. You don't have to choose. You can have both. In other words, you really need to make this Apple Cider Doughnut Cake.

For those of you without a bundt pan, you can make this cake in a 9"x12" baking pan or in two 8" cake pans. Both of those options will give you the options of slathering it first with the cinnamon sugar coating and then with a cream cheese frosting or just rubbing in the cinnamon sugar coating only. Baking times will vary if using alternate baking pans.

Life is short, fall is short, apple season is short. And if you like your apple a day in as many forms as possible, also consider making an Apple Galette, Baked Apples ala Mode, Baked Apples with Oat Crumble, Caramel Apple Dutch Baby ala Mode, Fresh Apple Cake, Shirley's Apple Crisp, or an Applesauce Spice Cake with Cinnamon Cream Cheese Frosting. And take the time to go on long drives to places with landscapes different than the one you see everyday. You never know what you will come back with.

Apple Cider Doughnut Cake (slight adaptation to Serious Eats Apple Cider Doughnut Cake)

8 Tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature
1 large Honey Crisp apple (8-9 ounces), peeled, cored and grated
1 cup fresh apple cider
1/2 cup whole milk, room temperature
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon mace
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar, firmly packed (Note: Can use all light brown sugar or a combination of light and dark brown sugars)
3 large eggs, room temperature
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 teaspoon vanilla
Butter or vegetable spray for greasing the bundt pan

Cinnamon Sugar Coating
6 Tablespoons granulated sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon kosher salt
Optional: 3 Tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees (F). Spray or grease an 8-9 cup bundt pan. Set aside.
2. For the cinnamon sugar coating, combine sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg and salt. Stir until combined. Set aside.
3. In a medium saucepan, bring cider and grated apple to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to medium and simmer until apples have softened (approximately 8-10 minutes). Remove from heat and allow to cool for 5 minutes. Transfer mixture to a food processor and process until pureed. Measure out one cup of apple mixture and combine with 1/2 cup milk. Set aside. (Note: Use any of the remaining apple mixture as a topping for ice cream.)
4. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, nutmeg, mace and cinnamon. Set aside.
5. In a standing mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, cream butter, granulated sugar and brown sugar on medium speed until light and fluffy (approximately 3 minutes).
6. Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition.
7. Add oil and beat until incorporated (approximately 1 minute).
8. Decrease mixer speed to low and alternately add flour and cider mixture, for a total of five additions, beginning and ending with the flour mixture. Scrape down sides and bottom of the bowl as needed.
9. Increase speed to medium and beat until just combined, approximately 20 seconds. 
10. Add vanilla and beat just to combine.
11. Scrape batter into the prepared pan. Bake for 35-50 minutes, rotating the cake halfway through, until golden and tester comes out clean. Note: My baking time was 50 minutes, but suggest checking on doneness at 35 minutes. Note: Scrape half of the batter into the pan, sprinkle one Tablespoon of cinnamon sugar over batter. Then cover with remaining batter. Bake as directed.
12. Transfer bundt pan to cooling rack. Allow to cool 10-15 minutes. Then invert cake onto platter.
13. Sprinkle cinnamon sugar mixture onto cake, using your fingers to rub it into top and sides. Note: Alternately brush warm cake with melted butter and then sprinkle with cinnamon sugar onto cake, using the back of a spoon to rub it into top and sides.
14. Cool cake for at least 1 hour before serving. Store cake covered.

A bin of Honey Crisp apples, cornfields and grazing Longhorns in rural Indiana.

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