I am a person who takes great pleasure in the rituals and traditions of life. I have mentioned before that one of the things I love about food is its prominent place in our collective and personal traditions. Thanksgiving is about a lot of things, but what would it be without turkey, trimmings and pie? In my house, every time my extended family gathers for a holiday meal, my grandmother's dinner rolls have to make an appearance...their absence would be noticed (and remarked upon!). And birthdays are not just marked by cake...but by a personal, particular, favorite cake.
For me, and I would imagine for just about everyone who loves to cook, food traditions are as much about preparing the food as they are about eating it. The ritual of the process is not only a pleasure, it creates the mood for the occasion—whether that occasion is big or small: Making Christmas cookies (traditional favorites or a "new" recipe).... Preparing that favorite birthday cake.... Pulling out old dog-eared recipes that only see the light of day once (or for a short season) each year.
As I said, the occasion can be small...insignificant to anyone but yourself: like the arrival at the market of the first apples of the year. Apples started coming into my farmers' market a couple of weeks ago, but the weather has been so hot, it hasn't felt much like apple season. Then on Friday, a cold front came through and we awoke to cool, typical September weather on Saturday morning. So when I saw the new crop Galas at the market, I had to buy some. It was time to make Margaret's Apple Cake.
I don't know who Margaret is. "Margaret's Apple Cake" is the name of a recipe I found many years ago in Classic Home Desserts by Richard Sax. I haven't done anything to really change this recipe. I believe the original has nuts in the crumb topping, but for some reason I used oatmeal instead the first time I ever made it. I liked the cake so much I never had any reason to make it any other way.
It is not a fancy cake. I'm not even sure I would serve it for dessert. Even though it is quite sweet and buttery, its homey appearance and classic crumb cake texture make it perfect for breakfast or a snack. And it is perfect for fall...loaded with apples and fragrant with cinnamon. I like to serve it right out of the pan.
If you take it to a pot luck...or to work to share with your co-workers...you will not have one crumb left to bring home. I have never served this cake to anyone who didn't love it or request the recipe.
As for my personal tradition marking the arrival of fall and the Gala apple crop.... Well, local Gala apples were the apples I had on hand the first time I made Margaret's Cake. Their sweet, fruity character was perfect in the cake. And as it turns out, Gala apples are one of the first of the apples to come to the market. Furthermore, their season is fleeting. They don't store well, losing their crisp juicy snap in no time at all. There are only a few short weeks in which to truly enjoy them. So it happened that I began to watch for the arrival of the Galas so I could make this delicious little cake at least once each year. It has now become my own personal harbinger of Autumn and the new, particular foods of the season to come.
Margaret's Apple Cake
4 T. unsalted butter
1/4 c. all purpose flour
1/2 c. sugar
1 1/2 t. cinnamon
3/4 c. oatmeal
In a bowl, rub the butter into the flour, sugar and cinnamon. Add the oatmeal; toss to combine. Set aside.
2 1/2 c. all purpose flour
1 t. baking powder
1 t. baking soda
1 1/2 t. cinnamon
3/4 t. salt
1 c. (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1 c. sugar
1/2 c. packed dark brown sugar
2 large eggs
1 c. buttermilk or plain yogurt that has been thinned with a bit of milk
2 c. peeled, cored and diced (1/3-inch) apples (about 400 grams/14 oz. whole apples)—I prefer Gala, but Golden Delicious would probably work too...and maybe Jonathan...
Whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon and salt. Set aside.
In a large bowl, cream the butter with the sugars. Beat in the eggs one at a time. Add the dry ingredients alternately with the buttermilk, beginning and ending with the dry ingredients. Fold in the apples with the final addition of the dry ingredients.
Turn the batter into a greased 13- by 9-inch baking pan.
Sprinkle the crumb topping evenly over the smoothed batter. Bake in a preheated 350-degree oven until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean—45-50 minutes. Serves 12 to 15.