When I was four or five years old, my youngest uncle got engaged to a girl whose parents were distant cousins of my grandparents’. Nothing unusual about it, expect from the fact that my thirtiysh uncle had been living in Sweden for the past decade (or more) and the girl had never stepped out of her hometown, in Iran! It was an arranged engagement. They had never seen each other. And with no internet in the very early nineties, all they had was some low quality, expensive, occasional phone calls and some late-delivered mailed photos and letters. Only a couple of years later I feverishly stated “what the hell were they thinking?” whenever I got the chance, but at that time it was very exciting for me to be around the bride-to-be.
She was very young, barely twenty years old. And like many other girls she dreamed of being the perfect little wife, with her lovely husband, living happily ever after, in Sweden, of course. She wanted to be prepared, that’s why she took baking and pastry courses. Pity that it all ended when my uncle, whose resistance to this whole story had never been taken seriously by my grandparents, phoned her one day and called off the wedding. Naturally, it was a huge family scandal. Her family stopped talking to my grandparents and everyone else in our family. But eventually everybody moved on, had other relationships, marriages, divorces and kids. And about a decade later, her parents started socializing with my family again.
In the meanwhile, my mom had developed a certain interest in baking. She experimented mostly with cakes. Then she took a little step further and started making her own cookies and pastries for major holidays such as Norouz (our new year celebration, in which you’ve got to be buried under sweets or it’s not a holiday). Everybody told her she should’ve started something with her baking because she was too good, but she never did, alas. She did however organize the recipes she had gathered around from TV shows or friends in neat notebooks that now are a little worn off, with occasional spots of butter or melted saffron.
One of her particular hits was this apple meringue cake. It was a crowd pleaser at each of her parties and women kept asking her for the recipe. You see, It’s a simple home-made cake, with a rather firm base. But that velvety sensation you get in your mouth as soon as you savor some of that spicy apple puree, immediately reminds you of some sweet, fancy cream. And by the time you get to the foamy, feather-light meringue topped with crunchy almond flakes, you’ll be convinced you’re eating a gourmet cake. Even though her meringue was never perfect.
This is the secret of the popularity of this cake. It’s simple enough to be prepared in a long winter afternoon, yet it’s elegant enough to be served in a brunch or a tea party. My mom would freeze the leftovers, to be served later. Something that never happened, because she always found the frozen cakes with big chunks of apple cream missing from the top, because someone had eaten it off, frozen. I guess it was my unconscious revenge to the fact that she hurried to place the empty cake batter bowl under the running tap water so that I wouldn’t lick it off. (“It’s raw and it’ll make you fat!“)
Only years later, a couple of months ago to be precise, it occurred to me to ask her where she got the recipe of her famous apple cake. I had completely forgotten about my uncle’s absurd, arranged engagement, so I was quite surprised when my mom told me it was one of the recipes his long-distant ex-finance had learned in her baking course. And it got me thinking, of the bitterness she must’ve been left with after the end of that affair. I imagine she never baked that cake again. Maybe she let go of baking. Or maybe not. Hopefully some years later she did realize it was for the best she didn’t marry a man she had never met.
And I also thought about the turn of the events. The sweetness of an elegant homemade cake which everyone has loved for many years, is actually the faded memory of a bitterness. Life’s unpredictable (thanks goodness). We wish for some things and we get some other things instead. That other thing can be an apple cake. Maybe you wished for a lavish and rich chocolate mousse, with liquor and strawberries (which are so out of season in February), but that doesn’t make an apple cake any less.
We don’t really observe Valentine’s Day. This year we won’t even see each other during the day. But ever since our early days when this blog didn’t even exist, I made something special, something delicious for the occasion. They often involved little hearts and chocolate (never strawberries though! I find fake, winter strawberries tasteless in every way). But not this year. This year I am caught up in the unpredictability of life. So I’d like go with its flow. I opted for what I’ve got, not what I wish I had. It might sound humble, but it’s rich, it has a history and it’s perfectly in season; It’s my mom’s imperfect apple meringue cake for Valentine’s Day. Partially because I miss her, but also because her love is one the least unpredictable facts of my life. And then because, why not share an apple cake with a loved one that has a firm base and a smooth and sweet topping? A dash of aphrodisiac spices, and that’s Valentine’s Day dessert/breakfast sorted.
Note: This is cake for indulgence, so it’s not perfect for a diet. It does have a considerable amount of butter and sugar. I have however substituted both the flour and sugar from white to wholegrain and raw.
Something important to note is that this cake has a lot of wet batter on top (the apple puree and the meringue), so you’re gonna need an oven with a good heating from the top. I’d suggest baking this cake at the middle or even top level of the oven, So that when the 40-50 minutes of baking at 180° are over you can continue baking the cake at 120° for some more time until the meringue is golden. But don’t expect it get as hard as a real meringue. Be careful not to burn the top.
Another important thing is choosing a pan. For this amount you’re going to need a large pan (9″/23cm). The first layer of batter should be thin or it would remain raw in the middle. This was my mom’s advice which I didn’t listen to, my cake is little too high and it took forever to bake. You listen to her advice!
- 1 cup (240ml) milk
- 3 egg yolks
- 3 egg whites
- 1 whole egg
- 3 cups (380gr) wholegrain flour + more dusting the pan
- 1 cup (200gr) raw cane sugar
- 1 cup (110gr) butter at room temperature + more for greasing the pan
- A pinch of salt
- 6 medium apples, peeled and chopped
- 3 tsp baking powder
- 6 tbsp dusting sugar
- 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
- 1 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1 tsp ground ginger
- A handfull of almond flakes
- Pre-heat the oven at 180°.
- Cook the peeled and finely chopped apple with 5 tbsp of the raw cane sugar (with a lid) until completely tender. Puree the apples using a masher or a hand blender. Add the cinnamon and let cool completely.
- Whip the butter with the vanilla extract until white and fluffy, add sugar and keep beating. Add the egg yolks one at a time and then the whole egg. Gradually add the milk. Don't worry if the liquid looks separated from the cream.
- Mix the flour, baking powder and the salt and gradually add it to the wet mixture until all is combined very well. Pour the batter into the greased and dusted pan.
- Spread the apple puree homogeneously on top of the cake batter.
- Whip the egg whites using an electric whisk until foamy and white, the add the ginger and dusting sugar gradually until you wouldn't feel any grains if you rubbed the foam between your finger tips.
- Spread the cream on top of the apple puree and scatter with the almond flakes.
- Bake for at least 40 minutes. Be very careful about the top of the cakes, as it it's very easy to undercook or burn it.
- If you want the meringue to be harder just turn on the top flame at 120° and cook for another 20-30 minutes.
- Cut when completely cooled down.
Coming from Iran, she mostly develops her recipes by combining the aromas of the middle east with the flavors of the Mediterranean, specially Italy, where she has found her second home.