Corrected: baking time now suggests you check your cake after 30 minutes of baking
I thought it was a little weird that Kevin was getting ready to serve lunch, some favorite recipes he picked up in Russia while in the Peace Corps, without starting on the cake we were having for dessert. I didn't so much as give up a peep, but he saw my consternation. "This cake is the easiest thing in the world. It's what my students would bring me," he said, his tone making clear that his students were generally not to be trusted with the cooking of food. "It's what we would have when someone invited me over but with no grandma home to oversee dinner. Every Russian kid knows how to make this cake."
And it's a good one: light, tender, crunchy around the edges with pillowy, straightforward sweetness punctuated by tart, slightly caramelized apples, a sort of super-bare-bones apple upside-down cake. It's not phenomenal, mind you -- complexity and sophisticated technique have their rewards -- but it is imminently satisfying, incredibly quick to make, perfect for your spur-of-the-moment repertoire, can take some dressing-up with ice creams or sauces, and, frankly, is idiot-proof. Which is important to me, because I am a baking idiot.
"It's a simple, manly cake," Kevin says. "It kind of reminds me of that story Hemingway wrote about how to bake a pie while camping." With fondness, he recalled that story for a moment, then said, "Wait, maybe it's not so manly, because it goes something like, 'Make this and a Frenchman will want to kiss you.' Then again, maybe that's what makes it really manly."
Russian apple cake (Sharlotka)
Makes a 10-inch round cake, serves 8
3 large Granny Smith or other sweet-tart baking apples
Juice from ½ lemon
1 cup sugar
1 cup all-purpose flour
Pinch baking soda
Butter for pan
- Preheat oven to 350.
- Peel, core, and cut apples into ½-inch dice, and toss with enough lemon juice so that the tartness hits you first, and then fades to the apples' sweetness, probably about ½ a lemon's worth.
- Whisk eggs to combine them, and whisk in sugar until you can't feel it crunching anymore. Add flour and a full, finger-and-thumb pinch of baking soda, and whisk to combine into a thick batter.
- Heavily butter a 10-inch round pan; a frying pan works beautifully. "I never saw a cake pan in Russia," Kevin says. "And I feel like using a frying pan kind of fits -- quick and improvisational, you know?" Add the apples and spread them out, then pour the batter on top. Shake the pan a little to even it all out.
- Bake it until you get a puffed, light sandy brown with a craggy surface, and a toothpick comes out clean, except for bits of apple. Check the cake after 30 minutes, but depending on your pan, the baking may take up to 45.
- When it's ready, set a large plate upside down over the pan, and with towels or oven mitts, hold the plate and pan together, flip, and give it a good shake so the cake falls onto the plate. If it's stuck in the pan, use a thin spatula or knife to loosen the edges of the cake. The bottom-now-top of the cake should be a deep, caramelized brown.
Let cool slightly and serve with tea."You have to have tea after a Russian meal," Kevin said. "They drink black tea. They don't drink mint tea. They think mint tea makes a man impotent," he continued, as he poured hot water over my bag of mint leaves.