Baking for Bookworms: Apple Cake from Sylvia Plath’s The Collected Poems

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I was a little surprised to find anything I could cook from in Plath’s poems. She’s not exactly a poet you associate with down home cooking. But luckily there was one food that immediately jumped out, and that was apple cake.

The mention of apple cake is from her 1959 poem “Point Shirley”, which is actually one of my many favorites in the collection. It’s about a woman who lives a very hard life, and there’s a lot of sea and water imagery along with descriptions of thriftiness and stubbornness.

It’s in one of the middle stanzas that the  apple cake appears:

“Nobody wintering now behind/ The planked-up windows where she set/ Her wheat loaves/ And apple cakes to cool. What is it/ Survives, grieves/ So, over this battered, obstinate spit/ Of gravel? The waves’/ Spewed relics clicker masses in the wind,”

Point Shirley is the place where Plath’s grandparents lived and the poem appears to be about her own childhood memories of her grandmother. There’s also some thought that it might be more generally about her feelings on motherhood. The apple cake is just one detail plucked from many possible ones I’m sure, but it’s an interesting choice because apple desserts have particular connotations in America of home and comfort and nostalgia. It probably reminded her of her grandmother, just like challah and kugel remind me of mine.

Besides any symbolic significance of apples, they also just make fantastic desserts–they have great flavor and lend themselves well to most pairings.

This apple cake recipe is adapted from Karen DeMasco’s book The Craft of Baking.

caramelized-apple cake

  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 stick butter, very soft
  • 2 tart apples (like granny smith)
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2 large eggs, separated
  • 1 cup flour
  • 3 tablespoons cornmeal
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/3 cup milk

Preheat the oven to 350F.

For this recipe you can use either a cast-iron skillet, or you can use an 8 or 9 inch cake pan, or a pie pan. I used a cake pan, so the instructions will reflect that, but it’s very easy to make in an oven safe skillet. Simply make your caramel in the skillet and lay everything on top before baking–couldn’t be simpler.

In a pot, combine 1/4 cup of the sugar with three tablespoons of water. Mix together so that all the sugar is wet and then cook over high heat until the sugar is a deep golden caramel color. This takes about 2 minutes. It’s very important to stand and watch the pot the whole time. Sugar will burn very quickly.

Remove the pan from the heat and immediately add 2 tablespoons of the butter, whisking to incorporate (the butter being very soft helps a lot with getting it all mixed in before the caramel cools too much). Spread the caramel on the bottom of your desired pan.

Peel the two apples and then cut into very thin slices. Arrange on top of the caramel, starting from the outside and working your way in and being sure to overlap the fruit.

In a large bowl, beat the remaining 3/4 cups sugar, 6 tablespoons of butter, and the vanilla together until fluffy. This takes about 3-4 minutes with an electric mixer on medium speed. Add egg yolks, one at a time, on low speed until combined.

Combine the dry ingredients (flour, baking powder, salt, and cornmeal) and whisk together. Add the dry ingredients in alternating stages with the milk (flour, milk, flour, milk, flour), until everything is mixed.

In a very clean bowl (if you suspect there might be any greasiness whatsoever, you can take a little white vinegar on a paper towel and wipe your bowl and beaters) beat your egg whites until soft peaks form (about 4 minutes on medium speed). Gently fold the whites into the rest of the batter in three stages.

Spread the batter over the apples and bake for about 40-50 minutes until the cake is golden brown and springs back when touched. Cool in the pan on a wire rack for 30 minutes before running a knife around the edge and flipping onto a plate.

It’s best the day it’s served, but you can wrap it with plastic and it keeps at room temperature for about three days.

Are there any desserts that remind you of your grandparents? Let me know in the comments. And if there’s ever a book you’d like me to cook from, leave that in the comments as well!

 

 

 

 

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