On a spur of the nostalgia, I baked an apple cake using variation of my mother’s recipe. After just few minutes of baking, my apartment was filled with smell of cinnamon, caramelized sugar, and apples, transporting me back to my family and various occasions where such cake made an appearance (and there were many!). My mother bakes this cake when guests show up unexpectedly, when a cake is needed for a school/college/work party or event, when a small token is needed to express gratitude, and when there are too many apples lying around the house. You can imagine we had a lot of these cakes coming out of our kitchen, year after year. It is also one of the very few culinary traditions that I picked up when I left home, seeing as the rest of Ukrainian traditional dishes are dominated by meat and mayonnaise. The cake and I had visited many households- friends, colleagues, boyfriends, and their families- each time leaving me with an empty baking dish to bring home and a homework to email recipe.
Over the years, I have experimented with different variations of the cake, adding dried fruits, nuts, coconut, chocolate, reducing eggs, sugar, and substituting different flours. In the end, I have returned to using a slightly modified original recipe although all variations were delicious. Strangely, in my head, I always think of this recipe as ‘apple pie’ (literal translation from russian яблочный пирог–yablochniy pirog), since I struggle with finding an appropriate English name for it. While living in US, I realized that there is a different perception of a word ‘pie’ because it is typically associated with desserts such as key lime pie, pumpkin pie, and apple pie, all of which have a crust shell filled with fruits, sugar, and sometimes topped with cream or meringue. Seeing that my lovely apple pirog has nothing in common with american pies, I thought it might be more appropriate to call it ‘apple cake’ instead. It still sounds wrong though because it is not excessively sweet, icing-covered, indulgent mound of fluffy dough that comes to mind when we think of a cake.
To the contrary, this cake is a healthy mound of apples coated in thin layer of spelt, almonds, and cinnamon, held together by organic eggs and a shy sprinkling of coconut sugar. No butter, oil, or cream! I have swapped the original cup of all-purpose white flour for a half and half combination of whole spelt and almond meal (ground almonds), and reduced the original cup of white sugar to 3 teaspoons of coconut sugar (seriously, that’s enough sugar for me!). Finally, I was too lazy to peel the apples so now I just chop them and drop them into the batter unpeeled. Peeling the apples would probably result in more moist cake with less chewy texture but personally I don’t mind. It’s best to use crisp apples with tangy flavor but I have used pretty much all types in the past and they all seem to work to a certain extent.
Apple Cake (Yablochniy Pirog)
– 1/2 cup whole spelt flour (or whole wheat)
– 1/2 cup almond meal* + 1 tbsp
– 1 tbsp baking powder
– 1 tsp apple vinegar
– 1 tbsp ground cinnamon
– 1/2 tsp salt
– 3 eggs
– 4 tsp coconut sugar
– 1 tsp vanilla extract (optional)
– 4 medium-large apples or 5-6 small
– zest of 1 organic lemon
– 1/2 tsp ghee or butter
Preheat the oven to 180C/350F. Sift dry ingredients together (except baking powder and vinegar) using colander – it adds more air into the flour. Pour vinegar over baking powder, add to the flour and mix. In a separate bowl, beat the eggs with 3 tsp of sugar and vanilla for one minute until well combined. Pour wet ingredients over dry ingredients and carefully fold in until no dry patches remain. Chop apples in small cubes, add to the batter along with lemon zest. Stir everything few times until combined. If you are in the mood for extra fruits or nuts, this is the step where you’d add them.
Coat 9-inch round pie dish with ghee (or butter) and put in the oven for few seconds until ghee melts. Remove and sprinkle 1 tbsp almond meal at the bottom to prevent cake from sticking to the pan. Pour the batter in the pan, smooth out the top, sprinkle with remaining 1 tsp of sugar, and bake for 45 minutes. Check often in the last 5 minutes of baking in case the cake gets too brown. Let the cake cool down in the pan completely before removing with a spatula. The cake tastes best at room temperature and it should keep in your fridge for few days.
*Make your own almond meal by grinding a handful of raw almonds in food processor for one minute until you get fine crumbs.