Apples and honey are common symbols of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year. Apples are dipped in honey to symbolize wishes for a sweet new year, and both feature prominently in traditional dessert recipes (see honey cake truffles and apple honey cake).
Growing up, my mother made this amazing apple cake every year for Rosh Hashanah. When I moved to Texas, I usually don’t cook meals for Rosh Hashanah, so I started making it for Yom Kippur’s break fast. Apple cakes like this are incredibly common, and so associated with Jews that many recipes are called “Jewish Apple Cake”.
As best I can tell, this recipe likely originated in the 1970s in The New York Times; I found a recipe with similar ingredients although with different instructions for assembly. I am not sure where the assembly instructions came from. My grandmother Miriam made this recipe, passed it to my mother Judy, and now I also make it.
This recipe is actually very simple. The batter just whisks or stirs together and the apples are tossed with cinnamon and sugar. The only “difficulty” is in the layering. I have found that a silicone spatula works best, allowing thin “sheets” of the batter to fall into the tin. Several times I’ve actually been able to make a third layer of apples, but really there’s no need to try.
The cake is super moist, and keeps well. It can also be frozen with no loss of quality, perfect for enjoying pieces throughout the fall.
Recipe from Judy Steinberger, from her mother Miriam, probably via The New York Times
Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Oil an angel food cake pan (also known as a tube pan) or spray with non-stick spray.
Wash the apples and leave the skin on. Mix the 3 tablespoons sugar and 5 teaspoons cinnamon in a small bowl. Slice apples thinly, and place in a bowl, sprinkling each layer with some of the cinnamon-sugar mixture. If there is any cinnamon-sugar mixture left after all apples are sliced, pour over the top.
Put all dry ingredients in bowl, make a well, and put all liquids in center and mix well with wooden spoon or silicone spatula.
Put about 1/3 batter in bottom of pan, making a thin layer all over the bottom and ensuring it's spread into the edges. Place apple slices on top of the batter, trying to make sure that they don't touch the edges of the pan. Make 2-3 concentric rings, overlapping slightly - I usually make the outer ring with peel out, a middle ring also with peel out, and an inner ring with peel in, so that the thinner part of the apple is overlapped. Don't actually double the apple slices, and don't intentionally dump any apple juices into the pan.
Put another 1/3 batter batter to just cover apples. Using a silicone spatula, take small bits of the batter and try to sheet it over the apples. Concentrate on covering the apples, and if necessary at the end smooth the dough over any uncovered spots. Try to make sure there is a complete layer without using more than 1/3 of the batter.
Make another layer of apples, same as before. Again, don't try to put any of the juices from the apple bowl in the pan. You will likely have extra apple slices, and that's fine - see my note below.
Top the apples with the remaining batter, using the same techniques as the middle layer - it may seem like you don't have enough to cover it, but it will work out. There is enough baking powder that the cake does rise and make nice layers even though the batter seems so thin.
Bake for 1 hour to 1 hour and 15 minutes – start paying attention after an hour, use tester for doneness. It should come out clean. The top will get a medium to deep medium brown, and the surface will crack.
Let cool on a cooling rack. When it feels cool on the sides, run a knife along the sides to loosen the cake, then lift the cake out using the center column. When the cake is cool, run the knife between the cake and the base, and see if it is loosened enough. If not, try to run a knife along the center column. Carefully remove the cake from the base of the pan, and serve.
Cake can be stored at room temperature for several days, or in the refrigerator for a week or so. Due to the apples and the moistness of the cake, it can go moldy if left at room temperature for days, but it keeps for quite a while in the fridge, and also freezes very well.
NOTE: I like to use a good, crisp eating apple, like Fuji, Pink Lady, or Honeycrisp. I prefer to cut 3 apples, although usually it needs about 2.5 apples' worth of slices. If I have extra slices left over, I sautee them until soft and eat as a snack. Sometimes I'll add another apple of slices to help dilute the strong concentration of cinnamon. The recipe states you can use lemonade-strength lemon juice instead of the orange juice, but I've never tried it.
3 large apples (see note)
2 cups plus 3 tablespoons sugar, divided
5 teaspoons cinnamon
3 cups flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup oil
1/4 cup orange juice
1 tablespoon vanilla