I had the apples, I had the butter, I had the sugar, the vanilla extract, and even the cornmeal. Jimmy was coming to dinner (see here) and, with only an hour or two to prep, I knew there had to be dessert. So I yanked down Karen DeMasco’s newest book, The Craft of Baking, and followed her instructions for a caramelized-apple skillet cake.
For a quick, last-minute dessert it was perhaps a bit ambitious to attempt a riff on a tarte tatin (that French pastry of carmelized concentric apples cooked with a puff pastry) but I was in an ambitious kind of mood. Some people run for president when they’re feeling ambitious, or write the great American novel, but I dumped some sugar into a skillet.
You caramelize the sugar, then you add butter and then you add thinly sliced apples in a ring. On top of that you add a cake batter, this one made with corn meal (which gives it a nice corn bready sweetness) and bake. The dangerous/terrifying part comes later when you have to flip it out.
And, like anyone with ambition who doesn’t necessarily succeed (I’m talking to you, John Edwards!), Jimmy and Craig gawked as I tried to flip the finished cake on to the cake stand. This is what happened:
Ya, not so inspiring. It wouldn’t come out of the pan, so I had to cut the pieces with it right side up (or still upside down, depending on your perspective). The result? The piece you see at the top of this post, a pretty piece despite all the trauma, and–most importantly–it tasted fantastic. I loved the cornmeal in the crust, the gooey apple topping and all the crumbs I got to gobble up as I served everyone a piece. And everyone liked this mangled cake so much, they came back for seconds.
So the moral is: even if you’re running for president and you have an affair and a baby with your mistress while your wife is diagnosed with cancer, that baby might grow up to be a great kid someday, right? Same with this cake: it may have gotten off to a rocky start, but at the end of the day there can be little doubt, this cake’s a cake any father, or pastry chef, can love.
Caramelized-Apple Skillet Cake
from Karen DeMasco’s “The Craft of Baking”
1 cup sugar
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, very soft
2 tart baking apples, such as Mutsu or Granny Smith
3/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 large eggs, separated
3/4 cup plus 3 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons coarse yellow cornmeal or fine polenta
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/3 cup whole milk
Preheat the oven to 350 F.
In an 8-inch ovenproof skillet, preferably cast iron, combine 1/4 cup of the sugar with 2 tablespoons water, stirring to make sure all of the sugar is damp.
Cook over high heat, stirring occasionally, until the sugar turns a golden brown caramel, about 2 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and whisk in 2 tablespoons of the butter.
Peel, core, and using a mandoline or a sharp knife, cut the apples crosswise into 1/8-inch thick rings. Tightly shingle all of the apple rings over the caramel, starting around the outside of the skillet and working toward the center, overlapping the slices.
[Note from Adam: that step may’ve been where I messed up, I only had one apple. But would that have made the cake less likely to detach?]
In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine the remaining 3/4 cup sugar, the remaining 6 tablespoons butter, and the vanilla. Beat on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Mix in the egg yolks, one at a time.
In another bowl, whisk together the flour, cornmeal, baking powder, and salt. In three additions, add the flour mixture, alternating with the milk, to the butter mixture. Using a rubber spatula, scrape the batter into a large bowl.
Clean and dry the bowl of the electric mixer well. Add the egg whites and, using the whisk attachment on medium speed, beat to soft peaks, about 4 minutes. In three additions, fold the whites into the batter.
Spread the batter evenly over the apples in the skillet.
Bake, rotating the skillet halfway through, until the cake is golden brown and firm to the touch, 45 to 50 minutes. Place the skillet on a wire rack and let it cool just until the cake is warm, about 30 minutes. Then run a knife around the edge of the cake and invert it onto a plate. Serve warm or at room temperature.
The cake is best eaten the day it is baked but can be kept at room temperature, wrapped in plastic wrap, for up to 2 days.