Monday, September 24, 2012

Apple Cake

It's officially fall now, and you know what that means?  Apples!  You know what else I love about fall?  Cakes!  Fall and winter are prime cake baking time because it's finally cool enough to actually enjoy having the oven on, and the cozy feeling that comes with it.  As opposed to summer when, unlike my parents, I will indeed turn my oven on, but when I do, I'm often chased into the basement to get some respite from the heat.  To recap, 2 great things about fall: apples and cake.  There is an obvious next step staring us in the face here, and it's called apple cake.

There must be some kind of apple cake high council that met long ago and ratified the master version of this recipe, because the many variations I encountered were all basically the same at their core.  The amount of oil, sugar, eggs and flour was very similar from one to another.  I saw one that called for half butter and half oil.  I saw a few that called for a bit more flour or a bit less apples than I used.  A few contained nutmeg in addition to or in place of cinnamon.  One more contemporary version called for serving a butterscotch sauce on top, which seemed cloyingly sweet and unnecessary to me.  I love butterscotch as much as the next girl, but do you want to taste the apples or not?  And there was one that called for canned apple pie filling, which is an absolute travesty any time of year, but especially now.  In the end, I went with a version that my mom has always made and has been in her recipe file for decades.  Since it is very similar to most of the recipes I found, and because it was always so good, I changed absolutely nothing.  Who am I to argue with the National Association for Apple Cake Integrity?

Apple Cake

As you can see, I used a 9 x 13 pan, but my sister-in-law makes a similar recipe and uses a Bundt pan.  I like to make a foil liner for the pan when I make a snack cake like this so I can lift the entire cake out of the pan to cut it.  That way I don't scratch up my bakeware with a knife.  I used Granny Smiths because their tartness complements the sweetness of the cake nicely, but the choice of apple is obviously up to you.  The batter will be very thick; it's almost more like a cookie dough than a cake batter.  You will need to smooth it out into an even layer before baking.  I served mine for dessert along with coffee or milk, as the diner preferred, but it was great the next morning for breakfast, too.  Also works well as just an anytime snack. 

2 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1 tsp. baking soda
2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. cinnamon
2 cups sugar
1 cup oil
2 eggs
2 tsp. vanilla
3 cups apples, peeled and chopped (if using Granny Smiths, this is about 2 or 3 of the jumbo ones, or 4 to 5 smaller ones)
1 cup pecans, toasted and chopped (optional)

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees.  Prepare a 9 x 13 baking pan by lining with foil and spraying the foil with vegetable oil cooking spray, or leave out the foil and grease and flour the pan.

In a medium bowl, combine the flour, soda, baking powder, salt and cinnamon and whisk until well mixed.  Set aside.

In a large bowl, whisk together the sugar, oil, eggs and vanilla.  Add the flour mixture and stir until just combined.  Add the chopped apples and nuts, if using, and fold into the batter.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan, making sure to spread it out into an even layer and into the corners of the pan.  Bake for 1 hour at 300 degrees.  Allow to cool before slicing.


Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Tomato Sauce

I have a fleeting memory from my childhood that taunts me with its vagueness.  Like many beloved memories of those days, it centers around 2 of my favorite things: my grandparents, and food.  This memory is about tomato sauce.  Sweet, perfectly seasoned sauce from ripe, juicy, homegrown tomatoes from my grandparents' garden.  They had a huge yard (at least by St. Louis standards), and across the entire back of the yard was a massive garden with rows and rows of tomato plants.  I know they grew other things as well, but I can't remember what they were.  I only remember the tomatoes because they were transformed into the fabulous sauce coveted by my parents and my aunt and uncle.

But the details are sketchy.  I remember being at their house several times on sauce day--you do NOT forget a smell that wonderful--but I don't remember any of the particulars and it seems no one in the family really does.  The entire operation took place in their basement, from what I remember.  I think they even had a separate stove down there were they cooked it all up.  Then there was some kind of process where the cooked mixture was taken from spent chunks of tomato and onion to a smooth sauce, and it was processed and canned.  It was an Italian-ish sauce that I suspect had, at the very least, basil and oregano, from what I remember about the way it tasted.  But I don't know what else, if anything, was in there.  I so wish I had asked my grandma what was in it.  By the time I was old enough to appreciate it and ask, she was already suffering from dementia and there's no way she would have remembered.  During the later years in her life, my dad would often make her recipes when he would bring my grandparents to our house for dinner.  Then he'd say, "Remember when you used to make this, mom?"  And she would say, "I made that???" in total bewilderment.  As if to say, wow, I was a great cook!  Yes.  Yes you were, grandma. 

When my grandparents stopped making the sauce, my mom and dad basically had to learn how to cook all over again without it.  Suddenly tomato sauce wasn't magically pre-seasoned anymore, and some things really never tasted the same again.  Over the years I've wanted to try and give it back to them.  (And myself!)

So last year Marc and I tried our hand at re-creating it for the first time, and it didn't take us too long to get a good ratio of herbs, sugar, salt, etc. to tomatoes, but the step where it actually became sauce was a little more difficult.  We tried a food mill, which was slow and not very effective.  Next we decided to just take the entire mixture and blend it all up, skins and all.  It tasted great, but Otto and Marguerite's sauce did not have seeds in it, and I wanted to make their sauce.  Talking with my brother about it recently, he said he remembered an attachment that Grandma put on her standing mixer that strained the sauce, expelling all the solids.  Eureka!  I ordered this for my standing mixer and now I think I'm finally on my way to replicating it.  I will admit that even my memories of the taste are vague, though.  So I don't know if I have it just right, but I think my grandparents' version would have been very simple, just like mine is.  Dried basil and oregano, salt, sugar, garlic cloves and onion pretty much covers it.  I would imagine theirs was not any fancier than that. And it still brings back a great food memory, even if that memory is a little fuzzy.

Seasoned Tomato Sauce

If you don't have a standing mixer to buy the attachments for, or you don't want to spend the money on the attachments, feel free to just blend everything up after cooking.  I actually think I like it better with the seeds and skins in it because, while still saucy, it gives it a nice body.  If you go for the straining method as I did, it will be very nice and smooth, but a little thin.  In the end it's yummy either way, so it's really all about your texture preferences. The lemon juice is an added safety measure to keep the sauce acidic enough to ward off bacteria growth.  You don't want to be handing out jars of botulinum toxin.  So don't skip that step.  The sugar in the sauce should take care of whatever sourness the juice adds.

12 lbs tomatoes, cored and quartered
1 head garlic, peel the cloves and just leave them whole
2 Tablespoons salt
1 large onion, cut into chunks 
3 Tablespoons dried basil
1 1/2 Tablespoons dried oregano
about 1/4 to 1/3 cup sugar
bottled lemon juice

Put all ingredients except the lemon juice in a large stock pot and bring to a simmer.  Simmer uncovered over a low heat until sauce is reduced by at least a third to as much as a half.  This will take quite a few hours.  Chill the sauce overnight and either blend in a food processor or blender, or use the above mentioned standing mixer attachments to strain out the solids.  If you just want to blend it you could also use a stick (immersion) blender and that way you will not need to chill the sauce first.  Bring the sauce back to a simmer and then fill clean, hot mason jars with hot tomato sauce and 1 Tbs. lemon juice per pint, leaving 1/2" of headspace.  Secure the lids and rings on the jars and process in a boiling water bath for at least 35 minutes.  Make sure all jars have sealed once they are cool.  Makes about 8 to 10 pints, depending on how much you cook it down.