Long ago during my college years, I joined my aunt and uncle for the holidays at their forest green house on Long Island. My grandmother and two older cousins were there as well. The day after grandma joined us, she let us know that she planned on baking – not usually her strong point. I, for one, was just a little surprised but waited expectantly to see what she had up her sleeve. You see, my grandmother was one of those women whose cooking repertoire came straight from the Old Country, arriving on that steamer with her own mother from Russia. Cabbage soup, liver and onions, stews, heavy, earthy foods meant to stave off hunger and warm both body and soul. And sweets were definitely not a part of her culinary heritage.
My grandmother, like her daughter, my mother, cooked with a heavy hand, their meals as delicate as a brick over the head. Liver arrived to the table looking and tasting for all the world like shoe leather, their cabbage soup heady with the scent of, well the unsubtle stench of boiled cabbage. Borscht and gefilte fish came from a jar, knishes and bagels from the local bakery. There was little or no baking. My grandmother relied on purchased baked goods, Rugelach for New Year, Hamentaschen for Purim, Challahs for Shabbat… ice cream being her passion and the old standby for all other desserts and snacks. So I was a little more than astonished when she proclaimed that she had asked her neighbor for a recipe and she planned on baking with her granddaughters.
Grandma proceeded to pull out a folded piece of lined paper from her handbag, the kind of paper ripped out of a notebook schoolchildren use to write poems and draw pictures on, a smile lighting up her face. She told us of a wonderful apple strudel she had tasted recently, served to her by friend who lived in the same apartment complex as she. After enjoying a slice – or two (if I know anything about my grandma) – she asked this friend to write the instructions down for her. And voilà! There she was with her friend’s “secret” recipe for the best apple strudel in the world! My grandmother brandished the piece of paper proudly, gathering her three granddaughters around her excitedly. We watched, anticipating the pleasure. She unfolded the piece of paper and a look of confusion spread over her lined face. She placed the paper on the kitchen counter and said “don’t worry, we’ll figure it out.” And on that piece of notebook paper was written in a big, looped scrawl:
We never tasted that perfect Apple Strudel but I learned an important lesson about family recipes, our grandmothers’ recipes: they are passed down from mother to child or grandchild or over from friend to friend by show, by baking together. Not by handing over a heavy tome filled with precisely detailed instructions. Family specialities are orally transmitted, recipes born of the tradition of cooking and baking together, tiny hands next to larger, experienced hands kneading dough, weighing flour, choosing apples. Cakes and breads and favorite dishes are learned at the elbow of the one in whose memory the ingredients, measurements and techniques are etched. Who would ever even have thought of capturing these recipes, these traditions in meticulous exactitude, in black and white? And so I never learned how to make what I consider a quintessentially Old World Jewish baked good: Apple Kuchen. Oh, I have looked through many a cookbook, but could never settle on one. The pages of my time-worn copy of The Settlement Cookbook that I found pushed towards the back of the top lefthand cupboard in my mother’s kitchen are marked with strips of paper, on one of those pages a plethora of Kuchen recipes, tempting me. But when I crave a particular food, a baked good, forever, when I have built up my own expectations to a dizzying height, I fear the disappointment of an untried recipe, a failed mess left uneaten, my hopes dashed, my craving left in ashes and dust. And so time passed and my craving continued as strong as ever, a desire left unfulfilled.
Until now. The Bread Baking Babes December baking adventure, hosted by Gretchen of Provecho Peru, was Apple Kuchen! I haven’t had much time for blogging or baking events lately but this one had my name written all over it! And I jumped right in! This would, I assumed, be the ultimate of all Kuchen recipes and, as I scrolled through the images of the Babes’ finished Kuchen, I knew it had to be extra special and perfect. And since anything apple is my husband’s favorite for both breakfast and snack, I was also assured that this Apple Kuchen would go down a treat. And who knows? Maybe this will be a recipe that becomes a tradition in my own household.
I am sharing this Apple Kuchen with Susan of Wild Yeast (and one of the Bread Baking Babes) for Yeastspotting.
You can find the original recipe on Gretchen’s BBB blog post here.
Here is mine with a few changes:
½ cup (65 g) flour
½ cup packed (100 g) light brown sugar
3 Tbs (45 g) unsalted butter
In a medium bowl, combine flour and brown sugar. Using a pastry blender or your fingers, cut/rub in butter until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Set aside.
4 cups apple slices (about 4 baking apples)
1/3 cup (60/65 g) granulated brown sugar
1 heaping Tbs (20 g) flour
1 tsp mixed spice *
1 Tbs lemon juice
* You can use Apple Pie Spice or even Pumpkin Pie Spice. Or make your own – see Susan’s recipe. I used Pflaumenmus Gewürz from Germany which contains cinnamon, anise, lemon peel, cloves, ginger and star aniseed.
Peel, core and slice the apples and place in a bowl large enough to toss with the other ingredients. Add the flour, the sugar and the ground spices and toss to evenly coat the apples with the dry ingredients, making sure there are no clumps or pockets of dry ingredients. Toss in the lemon juice. Set aside.
2 ¼ - 2 ¾ cups (300 – 365 g) flour, divided
1 package (7 g) dry or active dry yeast
½ cup (125 ml) milk (I used 2% low fat)
½ cup (100 g) granulated white sugar
¼ cup (60 g) salted butter
½ tsp salt
2 eggs at room temperature
2 – 3 Tbs slivered blanched almonds, optional.
Butter the bottom and sides of a 13x9x2 (33x23x5-cm) baking pan or baking dish **.
Place 1 cup (65 g) of the flour with the dry yeast in a large mixing bowl.
Heat the milk, the sugar, the butter and the salt in a medium saucepan over low heat until warm; the butter will be almost but not completely melted. Remove from the heat and stir until the butter is completely melted then pour over the flour and yeast in the mixing bowl. Add the eggs and beat the batter with an electric mixer on low speed for 30 seconds. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and continue beating the batter on high speed for 2 minutes, scraping down the sides of the bowl as necessary. Beat in as much of the remaining flour, adding and beating in about 2 tablespoons at a time, needed until you have a stiff batter (I added all of the remaining flour except for about a tablespoon and a half) – the last few tablespoons can be stirred in if it gets too difficult with the electric mixer.
Spread the batter evenly in the prepared baking pan or dish. Layer or spread the prepared apples in a thick layer on top of the batter. Sprinkle evenly with the Crumb Topping finishing off with the slivered almonds if desired. Cover the baking pan with a piece of plastic and then a clean kitchen towel and allow the batter to rise for 1 hour.
Preheat the oven to 375°F (190°C).
** As I used a glass baking dish, I preheated and baked the Kuchen in a 350°F (180°C) oven. I am not sure that lowering the oven, even if glass heats and retains heat differently than metal, made a difference except in cooking time.
Remove the towel and plastic and bake the Apple Kuchen in the preheated oven for about 30 minutes or so (Mine baked for 1 hour in the slightly smaller baking dish at the lower heat) or until the apples are tender and the topping is crisped and browned.
Remove from the oven and allow to cool at least slightly before slicing, serving and eating. Gretchen serves hers with a whipped cream cheese topping. This would also be marvelous with a scoop of ice cream or a dollop of whipped cream. We eat this as is for breakfast with our coffee.
A yeasted coffee cake such as a Fruit Kuchen is best eaten rather quickly, the same day or within a day or two as it tends to dry out. This is a fabulous treat for a holiday or post-holiday brunch!