My father’s family is squarely Ashkenazi: Lithuanians and Poles who came through Ellis Island, raised families in New York, some retired to Florida, others made their way west to California — the full modern Exodus. But it’s my mother’s side that passed down this recipe for Jewish Apple Cake. So when I got into reviving family recipes, I had to ask: Why did my Italian-Armenian grandmother have a so-called “Jewish” recipe on a yellowed notecard?
It’s the recipe I remember most vividly from childhood. Every autumn we would go to Oak Glen, California to pick pumpkins and apples, make candles and drink cider. We would come home with bushels of apples and my mom would take out that yellowed notecard and a hand mixer and we would all get to work peeling and slicing. We would dip fresh apple slices into that drippy, sweet batter, brightened with what I thought was our secret family ingredient: orange juice.
When my mother handed down the recipe and the cake pan to me, I inquired about its origins. The answer did not reveal Jewish roots as I had hoped. My grandmother got the recipe from a non-Jewish friend from Pennsylvania. Knowing little about Pennsylvania myself, I thought maybe this friend had confused the Jews and the Amish, and this was really an Amish Apple Cake. I concluded at the time that it didn’t matter. After all, if I’m the one making it, it’s a Jewish cake.
I have since learned there are several versions of Jewish Apple Cake to be found, most use orange juice, and Google says it originated in Poland and remains most popular in Pennsylvania.
In an attempt to elevate it and make it my own, I experimented with many iterations and augmentations: I marinated the apples overnight in marsala wine, I coated the cake in apricot glaze, I added a couple drops of almond extract to the batter, I used a bundt cake pan instead of the angel food cake pan, I tried pears instead of apples. None made for a better cake. This recipe is unfussy and inexpensive. It calls for fresh fruits and basic kitchen staples. It is humble, delicious, and undeniably Jewish.
It’s even round for Rosh Hashanah — L’Shanah Tovah and B’tai-a-vohn!
Jewish Apple Cake
Angel food/tube cake pan (10” diameter)
Mixer, stand or hand
6-10 apples, granny smith are best for majority, nice to use more than one variety
2 tsp cinnamon
3 tbsp sugar
Juice from one lemon
3 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups sugar
3 tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
1 cup neutral oil (olive oil is best)
¼ cup orange juice
2 ½ tsp vanilla extract
Zest of 1-2 oranges or lemons
Prepare the Apples
Peel and slice apples, toss with lemon juice and half the cinnamon and sugar mixture. A whole apple should be cut into about 8 slices — they don’t need to be perfectly uniform, rough and chunky is just fine.
Preheat the oven to 375 F.
Prepare the Batter
- Combine the dry ingredients in a medium bowl.
- In another bowl, use a hand or stand mixer to combine the wet ingredients.
- Slowly add the dry ingredients, and mix until just combined.
Prepare the Cake
- Grease and flour the angel food cake pan.
- Layer about ⅓ of the batter to cover the bottom of the pan.
- Layer half the apples and half the remaining cinnamon and sugar mixture.*
- Layer another ⅓ of the batter.**
- Layer the remaining apples and cinnamon and sugar mixture.*
- Layer the remaining batter on top.**
- *Apples do not need to be neatly layered, a little chaos is preferred
- **The batter will not fully cover the apples, that’s okay
Bake at 375 F for 30 minutes
Lower heat to 350 F, bake for another 50-60 minutes
Toothpick test to confirm it’s cooked. Remember: cooked fruit can look like wet batter, so test a couple of spots.
Allow to cool before removing the base from the pan.
Delicious to serve on its own, but in late summer heat it’s delightful with vanilla ice cream. For Rosh Hashanah, serve with a dollop of sour cream and a drizzle of honey.