Friday, October 24, 2014

Country Cook

When I met my mother-in-law, Paul had kindly touted me as a super-cook. (Obsessive - yes, nowhere near "super" worthy.)

"I'm a country cook," she had said. "Nothing fancy." Nothing fancy meant getting 3 meals a day on the table for a family of 11. The meat, the starch, the vegetable.... the bread. My head spins and swims thinking about it.

Doris grew up on a farm in Cambria, Wisconsin. Homework was done by the light of kerosene lamps.  When electricity finally did come, it went to the barn first to help with the milking of the cows.

(Grandma and Grandpa Haas at their grandson's wedding in 2010). 

During the winter, the family went to church via horse and sleigh. It sounds romantic but it was chilly and horsehair blankets were piled over the kids to keep them warm.  Doris (mother-in-law) would tell me about the woman who lived next door to the church. She was the godmother of many, many children born in the winter because it was guaranteed that she could make it to the baptism. (Always thought there was a play in that.)

There were no screens on their farmhouse. And windows were bolted shut in the summer to keep out the mosquitoes. So think - hot. And then very cold during the winter. They would heat up bricks on the stove and wrap them in blankets and place them at the foot of their beds for warmth. (Very different than the way her husband Roger grew up in St. Paul - when St. Paul was the land of gangsters - a whole other blog story! And very different from my parents upbringing in New York City. All around the same time frame. We are a vast country!)

Doris went to school in a one-room schoolhouse. And one thing she knew - she wanted out of Cambria. She wanted the city - where nobody cared about your business. And so she found herself in nursing school in Chicago - working the emergency room. That was an eye-opener!

There are smiles when she recalled her courtship with Roger. They hadn't been dating that long when she asked him, "Is this going anywhere because I don't like to waste my time." She soon had a ring on her finger and it worked - over 60 years of marriage. Yes, we recently lost her. But her legacy of stories, cooking and good humor continues with her children, her 18 grandchildren and her 8 great-grandchildren (with one on the way!). We miss her and we find her unexpectedly - through memory, through cooking, through family.

She'd like this recipe. You will, too.

It is "country cooking" at its best. An apple cake - loaded with apples, just sweet enough for smiles and just fluffy enough to deceive you into think there are no calories associated with it. The caramel sauce is thin and drizzly and dresses this French-country-cooking-apple-cake into something more elegant. I first saw this on Bon Appetit and noted it. I later saw it on Ciao Chow Linda's blog and bookmarked it! Linda's salted caramel sauce is a bit thicker than mine so do check it out. And do make this before apple season is over!

I have evolved into a fair country cook. I think it is inherent in all Italians - used to peasant, somewhat poor cooking and looking to use what's available. And what's available in October in Minnesota - are apples. Glorious apples. If you like Honeycrisp and Sweet Tango - you can thank Minnesota for them. They were developed at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities and all Minnesotans sing its praises and head to the orchards.

The apples are first sautéed in butter (did I mention it was French and they do that a lot) and the richness of that step keeps the cake moist and the apples just a wee bit caramelized - and who minds that?

12 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted, divided (plus a little more for the pan)
1-1/4 cups flour (plus a little more for the pan)
4 firm tart apples (they recommend Pink Lady - I used Sweet Tango and Honeycrisp), cored, peeled, cut into 1/2 inch slices
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar, divided
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon lemon zest

3 large eggs
(they also recommend creme fraiche for serving - I was good with the salted caramel sauce)

1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup heavy cream
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt


  • Bring sugar and ¼ cup water to a boil in a small saucepan over medium-high heat, stirring to dissolve sugar. Boil, swirling pan occasionally and brushing down sides with a wet pastry brush, until mixture turns a deep amber color, 8–10 minutes. Remove from heat and slowly add cream (mixture will bubble vigorously). Return to medium heat and cook, stirring occasionally, until smooth, about 2 minutes. Remove from heat and mix in butter and salt. Pour caramel sauce into a small heatproof jar or bowl; let cool. (Can be made ahead. Cover and chill.)

    • Place rack in middle of oven and preheat to 350°. Butter and flour an 8 inch cake pan.
    • Heat 2 Tbsp. melted butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add apples, sprinkle with 2 Tbsp. sugar, and cook until apples are golden brown, 10–12 minutes. Arrange half of the apples in the bottom of prepared cake pan so most of it is covered.
    • Whisk baking powder, salt, lemon zest, 1¼ cups flour, and remaining 1 cup sugar in a large bowl. Whisk in eggs and remaining 10 Tbsp. melted butter until smooth.
    • Pour half of batter over apples in cake pan, top with remaining apples, then pour remaining batter over. Bake cake until top is golden and a tester inserted into the center comes out clean, 40–50 minutes. Transfer pan to a wire rack and let cake cool slightly; turn out onto rack and let cool.

      Can be made ahead - cover tightly in clear wrap. But I think it's really grand the same day. Rewarm the caramel sauce if made ahead and serve. And by all means - if the spirit moves you - dollop on the creme fraiche.

The crust did not fall off. My husband cut into it and then I made him put his fork down so I could snap one last photo (this went fast). That happens a lot around here!

I have been thinking of the evolution of my blog. Seven years ago I started it to connect with the foods of my childhood and the foods of my family that came before me. Today, I am looking at simpler fare. A little razz-a-ma-tazz thrown in once in a while because - it's theatre! I'm not sure where it's going or if I'm on the right track - but blogs need to change don't they? They're personal. And as the seasons and day-to-day-living changes, I am realizing that our blogs reflect that. Do you ever look back at your early postings and think - how different everything was?


Beth said...

A lovely post, Claudia, and a wonderful tribute to an impressive woman!

Yes, I look back and see how far my blogging has taken me. Like anything else, I think it takes us all a while to find our path. Four plus years in, I'm still enjoying mine.

Your cake looks delicious.

~~louise~~ said...

Looks delicious, Claudia...I absolutely adore the embellishing story too...

Thank you so much for sharing...

P.S. I noticed you have links for Italian cooking blogs in your sidebar. Have you ever visited Alida's blog. She has a lovely blog in Italy it's called My Little Italian Kitchen. It's in English and so delicious! Here's the link...

Sam Hoffer / My Carolina Kitchen said...

What a lovely tribute to a wonderful woman. I really admire women that have strong backbones and good character. They are the best and their food comes from the heart. I know she would be very impressed with your words and your apple cake.

Ciao Chow Linda said...

Claudia - my sympathies on the death of your mother-in-law. She lived through some harsh times, but sounds like she could certainly teach us all something. I loved the way you wrote the story. You have a gift for story-telling. Thanks for the shout out too. You're reminding me that I want to remake this delicious cake.

Angie's Recipes said...

A sweet and beautiful tribute to your beloved country cook, Claudia. Your apple cake looks scrumptious!

Kitchen Riffs said...

I aspire to be a good country cook! Great post -- thoroughly enjoyable read. And such a nice recipe! Blogs do evolve over time, don't they? I have no clue where mine is going, but I'm enjoying the ride! And enjoying the ride you're giving us, too. :-)

Pat @ Mille Fiori Favoriti said...

I loved reading the story about your mother-in-law, Claudia. Your mother-in-law's upbringing sounds very similar to my Dad's and Mom's in mining towns in PA, Claudia. The only heat in the house was the wood stove, and they would heat a brick to bring it to bed at night to keep warm.

Your apple cake looks so delicious, with its salted caramel topping! I did not know that my favorite Honey Crisp Apples were developed in MN!

Frank said...

Give me country cooking any day. It's so much more satisfying than the fancy stuff. Btw, the Italians have a similar homey torta di mele made almost the same way. I've got a surfeit of apples right at the moment. Hmmm...

Penny said...

What a lovely tribute Claudia. I'm sure your Mother-in-law would be proud of your heartfelt words. Your apple cake sounds perfect. Browning the apples in butter is such a great idea. Thank you for stopping by my blog. I am enjoying reading yours.

chow and chatter said...

wonderful recipe and blog post about a special lady

Juliana said...

This is such a sweet tribute to your mother-in-law...
The apple cake looks delicious especially with the salty caramel sauce...
Hope you have a great week Claudia :D

Wonni said...

Hello Claudia,
I can only agree with the previous comments about the recipe and the story of your mother-in-law and I am looking forward to the “evolution” of your blog. But what do you mean with "simpler fare" ? Faster dishes or dishes with fewer ingredients or steps?

Chiara said...

What a sweet tribute to your mother-in-law Claudia. Can't wait to try this special cake,thanks for sharing..

Roz | La Bella Vita Cucina said...

Such beautiful words to your mother-in-law. I loved reading them, especially imagining going to church in the snow in a horse-driven sleigh! And apple cakes are a big fave of ours; thanks for the recipe Claudia! Happy Thanksgiving!

Whats Cookin Italian Style Cuisine said...

outstanding my friend shared on G+ xo