I'm baking an apple cake.
There's something calming about the simplicity of baking. Flour, sugar, milk, eggs, lots and lots of cinnamon. I bake when I'm happy, but often I bake when I'm upset. It settles me. I'm grounded in the present, ticking off steps in the recipe, engaged in a calming ritual. Measure, add, mix. Place in 350 degree oven for an hour. Reap the rewards.
When my mom passed away, I baked. And baked. I stayed up until 3 a.m., baking. Usually, the bereaved don't bake the post-service food—they receive it from friends and neighbors.
But I baked to quiet my mind and mask my grief. I baked until I finally, finally felt the ability to sleep. And then, I baked some more.
Of course, we had too much food.
Tonight, the apple cake began as a joyful dessert for tomorrow night's book club. Our book club night is a monthly cause for celebration—brilliant, lovely friends gathered together to share our love of literature, escape our responsibilities for a few hours, and, of course, indulge. Much food and wine is consumed. Some of us have been known to skip all meals on book club days to feast in the evening with our friends.
The food is that good.
But instead of its original purpose, the apple cake became cathartic.
Soften butter, pack brown sugar, peel and chop three cups of apples.
I lined up the ingredients before we tucked the kids into bed, then turned on the Presidential debate.
I know who will receive my vote. It's my vote, and I like my guy. But as a voter, I'm watching all of the debates. I need to be informed. It's my responsibility to listen carefully to everyone, even if I don't agree with what he says. The other candidate might become my president, and I want to know what he thinks about issues that will affect us all.
And honestly? I want to know why some of my friends like this guy. I want to understand why he appeals to them. I don't want to name call, finger-point, and post bizarre, unflattering caricatures of their candidate on Facebook. I respect them. After all, we're friends, right? It says so, right there on Facebook.
Add eggs, milk, and vanilla. Mix well.
But sometimes, I wonder. Who are these people? Why do they feel it's OK to be so derogatory toward my candidate? They'll say it's not a personal attack—it's political. Yet, when so much negativity and hatefulness appears on my page, it feels personal.
Fill pan, place in 350 degree oven for one hour. Don't burn.
So, what began as an apple cake for book club, and what should have been a post about the best baking apples became...a bit of baking psychoanalysis, I suppose.
Politics aside...the house does smell delicious. I used apples from our Sunday orchard outing. The apple cake includes a blend of Cameo, Granny Smith, and Fuji. I like to blend different varieties when baking, because their unique characteristics provide a more rich, complex taste.
Kind of like how differing opinions should create a more energized, creative country.
Remove from oven, cool 15 minutes, then remove from pan.
I hold my breath, flip the Bundt pan, and the cake easily falls out...which is not always the case. Sometimes, it sticks. Sometimes, the lovely cake breaks into several large chunks.
Tonight, I'm lucky.
My crankiness abates, and I realize that I've been holding my breath for a long time.
The praline icing looks odd...and I wonder if I skipped an ingredient. But no, I don't think so. It's grainy, oddly textured, not its usual smooth consistency.
I doubled the icing recipe. Perhaps I was too greedy?
And then, as I typed the recipe below, I realized—the instructions for making the icing were missing. I combined everything at once. I boiled nothing.
Don't do what I did.
Without a doubt, though, the scent of apples and spices, the physical act of baking, relaxed my mind and provided perspective.
Apple Cream Cheese Bundt Cake
Adapted from Southern Living. The original recipe calls for pecans, which I've omitted.
CREAM CHEESE FILLING:
1 (8-oz.) package cream cheese, softened
1/4 cup butter, softened
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 large egg
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
APPLE CAKE BATTER:
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
3 large eggs, lightly beaten
3/4 cup canola oil
3/4 cup applesauce
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 cups peeled and finely chopped Gala apples
1/2 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
1/4 cup butter
3 tablespoons milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup powdered sugar
Filling: Beat cream cheese, butter, and sugar at medium speed with an electric mixer until blended and smooth. Add egg, flour, and vanilla; beat just until blended.
Batter: Preheat oven to 350º. Stir together 3 cups flour and next seven ingredients in a large bowl; stir in eggs, oil, applesauce, and vanilla until dry ingredients are moistened. Stir in apples.
Spoon two-thirds of apple mixture into a greased and floured 14-cup Bundt pan. Spoon cream cheese filling over apple mixture, leaving a 1-inch border around edges of pan. Using a knife, swirl filling through apple mixture. Spoon remaining apple mixture over cream cheese filling.
Bake at 350º for 1 hour or until a long wooden skewer inserted in center comes out clean. Cool cake in pan on a wire rack 15 minutes; remove from pan to wire rack, and cool completely (about 2 hours).
Frosting: Bring 1/2 cup brown sugar, 1/4 cup butter, and 3 Tbsp. milk to a boil in a 2-qt. saucepan over medium heat, whisking constantly; boil 1 minute, whisking constantly. Remove from heat. Stir in vanilla. Gradually whisk in powdered sugar until smooth. Stir gently 3 to 5 minutes or until mixture begins to cool and thickens slightly. Pour immediately over cooled cake.
Good apple varieties for baking:
Gala ~ The original recipe called for Gala, but we all know I'm not a rule follower. Actually, we just didn't come home from the orchard with any Gala. The sweetness of Gala means less sugar used in recipes. It also retains its shape well.
Granny Smith ~ For a long time, I thought Granny Smith was the only baking apple. It is a classic—tart and tangy. Granny is Kristen's favorite apple.
Cortland ~ Tart, crisp, and holds shape well.
Jonathan ~ Classic, deep red, tart fruit.
Jonagold ~ a cross of Jonathan and Golden Delicious—a sweet-tart blend with firm flesh.
Braeburn ~ Spicy, sweet, firm apple that stores well and keeps its shape.
Honeycrisp ~ Crisp, sweet, firm fruit that doesn't cook down too much in baking.
Winesap ~ Tart and spicy, the fruit stores well and doesn't cook down.
Happy baking...and voting. And let's agree to disagree, respectfully. Please?
Julie is the owner of Garden Delights, an organic heirloom plant nursery specializing in edibles. She writes about growing gardens, growing green, growing locavores, growing kids, and growing one day at a time at Growing Days.