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Irish Apple Cake with Salted Caramel Glaze

  I have a history with apple orchards, they started out as an annual trip for my family.  Heading over to western Wisconsin to visit my grandparents we'd snag some honeycrisps, drink cider samples from little paper cones, indulge in honey mustard and pretzels, pick our own caramel apple, and stop at a particular vantage point from which you could overlook an entire town nestled into a valley.  These trips were always beautiful, but after a certain age they begin to be milestones for me.  Events revolved around these trips, but even while they happened it was like being stuck in some kind of time capsule.  Despite the past and foreboding future, you didn't believe any of it really mattered, not as long as you had rocks to climb, apples to eat, and scenery to daydream with.

PC: Nellie Holmes

  As each of us sisters grew and one by one dwindled away to places and things outside of our little farmhouse dwelling, we introduced the orchard day to new faces.  We shared the beauty of zero phone service, hidden playgrounds, and honey sticks with people we considered to play a special part in our lives.  And as each year passed, faces coming and going, I found myself looking back on the years before and remarking on how much I had changed.

PC: Carol Brandt

  I grew from holding onto my grandma's hand to a young lady removing duplicate items from a forgetful old woman's cart.  In a matter of months I learned to cope with grief as the same sweet woman passed from this earth, leaving my poor gramps behind for us to half-heartedly share doughnuts and scattered conversation with.  I became closer with my oldest sister once she moved four hours away for college and we had an extra seat in our van on orchard trips.  I spent a day in relative melancholy when I made a rather poor decision to bring a boy with whom there was many mixed up feelings.  I had a sorry couple of years in which my apples had to be cut to accommodate my brace-face.  I shared laughter and dreams with my sisters that were left in the crevices of rocks and the cracks of playground wood. 

PC: Nellie Holmes

  I grew much when I graduated from high school, and came back for a weekend during my first year of college to share the special day with my first official something.  I didn't realize that this would be one of our last excuses to make the trip.  As I smiled at the fellow behind the camera, our caramel apples raised triumphantly in the air, I didn't know I was leaving an innocent family venture tarnished with bittersweet memories.  I didn't know I'd be losing my childhood home, beginning of a college education, relationship, and a set of grandparents all in one fell swoop.  When you're stuck in the time capsule of a beautiful September apple orchard day, you consider little else, and that's just how it should be.  You can't control your future, but you can enjoy your present.  Perhaps that's what makes photographs so very eery, you know exactly what you were thinking and the events surrounding them, and it's unsettling to think how everything has changed.

PC: Carol Brandt
PC: Carol Brandt

  So this year we didn't see the valley colored with spectacular leaves.  I didn't hold anybody's hand or visit eccentric petting farms.  This year I considered a lot of things, and worked every weekend of memories away.  With each caramel apple I've dipped and every pan of fudge swirled, I am accepting the end of an era and holding out hope that someday I'll return to that orchard with wiser eyes and a steadier heart.

  In the meantime, I decided to grab my sister Carol on a rare day off and do something new, something with a tiny orchard of our own discovery.

  And that's exactly what I did.  I took in the cloudy skies of Milwaukee, fawned over the lighting of my sister's sweet little dwelling, and left with a bushel or two of Pippins waiting to be made into something sweet.  A new apple, a new recipe, a new orchard, and everything inbetween.  After years of being the subject of the picture, I took a moment to appreciate the freedom that came from capturing moments with the press of a button on an independently purchased camera.

  As I packed up my things for another week of work, I stole a few slices of cake to share with my new pseudo family.  It was mightily appreciated by all taste-testers, myself included.  This is a cake that's so dense and lovely it's almost on the verge of bread-y, but there's just enough tenderness to its crumb and chunks of spiced apples that it stays and rallies within the cake category.

  It is with sore apple-spinning fingers and a stiff back that I bid farewell to these final days of October, and ready myself for a lingering November and what is sure to be a hardy winter.  In the meantime, expect more recipes, I have a few apples yet calling my name.

Irish Apple Cake with Salted Caramel Glaze
Yield: one 8- to 9-inch cake

Ingredients for the cake:
  • 3 cups flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly-ground nutmeg
  • 1 1/2 sticks (12 tablespoons, 6 oz.) unsalted butter, cold and cut into pieces
  • 3/4 cup + 2 tablespoons sugar, divided
  • 4 large baking apples (I used Pippins)
  • 2 eggs
  • 3/4 cup milk (I used buttermilk)

Ingredients for the glaze:
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1/4 cup packed light brown sugar
  • 1 tablespoon milk or half-and-half
  • pinch of sea salt
  • 1/8 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/4 to 1/2 cup powdered sugar 

To make the cake, grease and flour an 8 or 9-inch springform pan, the 8-inch will give you a taller cake.  Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.  Peel and core the apples.  Cut apples into 1/4-inch slices and then cut slices into 3 pieces for some goodly-sized chunks.

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, salt, cloves, and nutmeg.  Add the butter and with quick fingers or a pastry cutter, cut the butter into the flour until the mixture resembles fine crumbs.  Whisk in the 3/4 cup of sugar.  Toss the apples into the mixture.  In a separate bowl, whisk together the eggs and milk.  Add to the flour mixture and stir until just combined, batter will be thick and dough-y.

Transfer to the prepared pan and smooth the top with a spatula.  Sprinkle the 2 tablespoons of sugar over the top.  

Bake for 45-50 minutes, or until golden brown and a small knife inserted in the middle comes out with just a few moist crumbs.  Allow to cool for about 10-15 minutes in the pan, then run a butterknife around the edge.  Release from the springform pan and allow to cool to warm.

To make the glaze, in small saucepan, melt the butter.  Stir in the brown sugar and milk. Cook over medium-low heat for 1 minute. Transfer to a mixing bowl and mix on medium speed to cool the mixture slightly. Add in the salt, vanilla, and 1/2 cup powdered sugar on low speed. Beat with an electric mixer until well blended.  If necessary, add more milk or powdered sugar to get the right consistency.  Drizzle icing over the warm cake.  Best eaten immediately to prevent sogginess from the apples, but can be wrapped up and stored for a couple of days.

Sources: adapted from The Kitchen McCabe, glaze from these scones