August 21, 2012

Cook's Illustrated French Apple Cake

I've been dying to try this since I bought the magazine last week, so today, with it's Autumn-like weather, was the prefect day to bake it. 

French Apple Cake
Published September 1, 2012.   From Cook's Illustrated.
Serves 8 to 10. 
Why this recipe works:
For our own version of this classic French dessert, we wanted the best of both worlds: a dessert with a custardy, apple-rich base beneath a light, cakelike topping. To ensure that the apple slices softened fully, we microwaved them briefly to break the enzyme responsible for firming up pectin. And to create two differently textured layers from one batter, we divided the batter and added egg yolks to one part to make the custardy base and flour to the rest to form the cake layer above it.
The microwaved apples should be pliable but not completely soft when cooked. To test for doneness, take one apple slice and try to bend it. If it snaps in half, it’s too firm; microwave it for an additional 30 seconds and test again. If Calvados is unavailable, 1 tablespoon of apple brandy or white rum can be substituted.

  • 1 1/2 pounds Granny Smith apples , peeled, cored, cut into 8 wedges, and sliced 1/8 inch thick crosswise
  • 1 tablespoon Calvados (I used brandy)
  • 1 teaspoon lemon juice
  • 1 cup (5 ounces) plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup (7 ounces) plus 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 large egg plus 2 large yolks
  • 1 cup vegetable oil
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • Confectioners' sugar
1. Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position and heat oven to 325 degrees. Spray 9-inch springform pan with vegetable oil spray. Place prepared pan on rimmed baking sheet lined with aluminum foil. Place apple slices into microwave-safe pie plate, cover, and microwave until apples are pliable and slightly translucent, about 3 minutes. Toss apple slices with Calvados and lemon juice and let cool for 15 minutes.

2. Whisk 1 cup flour, 1 cup granulated sugar, baking powder, and salt together in bowl. Whisk egg, oil, milk, and vanilla together in second bowl until smooth. Add dry ingredients to wet ingredients and whisk until just combined. Transfer 1 cup batter to separate bowl and set aside.

3. Add egg yolks to remaining batter and whisk to combine. Using spatula, gently fold in cooled apples. Transfer batter to prepared pan; using offset spatula, spread batter evenly to pan edges, gently pressing on apples to create even, compact layer, and smooth surface.

4. Whisk remaining 2 tablespoons flour into reserved batter. Pour over batter in pan and spread batter evenly to pan edges and smooth surface. Sprinkle remaining 1 tablespoon granulated sugar evenly over cake.

5. Bake until center of cake is set, toothpick inserted in center comes out clean, and top is golden brown, about 1¼ hours. Transfer pan to wire rack; let cool for 5 minutes. Run paring knife around sides of pan and let cool completely, 2 to 3 hours. Dust lightly with confectioners’ sugar, cut into wedges, and serve.

Cooking Class
Batter Up: It's a Two-for-One
To produce this cake’s distinct layers, we started with a simple base batter and, with key additions, made it work in two ways.

CAKE: Adding extra flour to 1 cup of the base batter created a tender, airy top.

CUSTARD: Adding two extra yolks to the rest of the base batter created a creamy, dense bottom.

Cooking Class
Ensuring Tender Apples
Why do apples that go straight into the cake batter bake up too firm, while those same raw apples come out soft and tender if microwaved a bit before heading into the oven? Common sense might suggest that precooking simply hastens the fruit’s breakdown. But there’s more to the answer than that. As so often happens in cooking, an enzyme is involved, in this case a temperature-­sensitive enzyme called pectin methylesterase (PME). As the batter’s temperature climbs and lingers between 120 and 160 degrees, the PME sets the pectin in the fruit, so the slices will remain ­relatively firm no matter how long they are cooked. The catch, though, is that the PME is deactivated at temperatures above 160 degrees. Enter the microwave. A three-minute zap quickly brings the apples to 180 degrees—high enough to permanently kill any activity of the PME—so the precooked fruit emerges fully soft in the finished cake.
We even double-checked the science with a side test: heating vacuum-sealed batches of both raw and microwaved apples in a sous vide machine to the final temperature of the cake (208 degrees) for the same amount of time it bakes (1¼ hours). The microwaved apples were predictably tender, while the slices that we didn’t microwave remained firm. Furthermore, these slices never fully softened, even after we continued to cook them for another 40 minutes.


  1. Coincidentally, I also made this cake for the first time today. Recipe was easy to follow, cake turned out beautifully. Husband and I each had a slice, and we commented it was TOO rich. With a funny aftertaste. Now I am feeling ill from what I think is too much oil in this recipe. The bottom of the cake pan is coated in oil, and oil is oozing out of the cake. Did you have this problem? Do you think it is because I used canola oil instead of vegetable oil? I was looking forward to this cake more than you can imagine.

    1. You know, I found exactly the same problem! One of my daughters and my husband disliked the string eggy taste the custard had - myself and my other daughter didn't mind it - and we all said it was quite rich. I also had a leaking pan bottom, but as it said to put it on a foil covered cookie sheet I expect they had a similar issue. I used canola oil as well, but I don't think that's the problem. I think that it's the way the recipe works, there may be too much oil called for. I also found it kind of bland, the apples didn't add any flavour at all. I used Granny Smiths, and while it smelled wonderful while it baked, the taste was missing when eaten. I think I would prefer it with peaches and less oil. I too was looking forward to this cake, but I have to say I've had better versions of it.

  2. Love the cake when made with flavorful tart apples - I used Jonathon. Way too oily however. I used olive oil since that was all I had on hand. The next time I tried half melted butter and half olive oil, which added some nice buttery flavor but still resulted in excessive oiliness.

    Has anyone experimented with less oil?

  3. I made the cake three times and after the first time, found it too oily. The second and third times, I used one small container of no added sugar applesauce and brought the volume up to one cup. The cake turned out less oily and tasted just as good. Good luck!

  4. Cut the butter to one half cup and browned it. Baked for one hour. Perfect!