Growing up, I never liked the honey cakes that invariably turned up on Rosh Hashanah tables. Whether store bought or homemade, they always struck me as dry and a bit musty — like the cake equivalent of grandma’s floral curtains.
Luckily, my family’s dessert of choice for the Jewish New Year was almost always apple cake. The recipe my mother made favors a high ratio of fruit to batter, which results in an incredibly moist, crumby cake that is evenly studded with sweet bites of apple. And like many Jewish apple cakes, it relies on canola oil instead of butter, making it a suitable pareve (neither meat nor dairy) dessert for both meat and dairy meals. As an adult, I’ve thought more about the significance of eating apple cake on Rosh Hashanah. Both apples and honey represent sweetness for the New Year. But only apples, which reach their perfect ripeness in the early fall, capture that moment of seasonal flux — the tension between fertility and fragility that gives the holiday its emotional resonance.
How Do You Like Them Apples?
On Rosh Hashanah, every apple is special. Still, when it comes to baking, some work better than others. The two golden rules for baking with apples are: stick to in-season varieties and use an apple that is hearty enough to hold up against oven heat. “There’s nothing so disappointing as serving up a good-looking apple cake or tart, only to find that the apples are not juicy inside, or rock hard [or complete mush] after prolonged baking,” warns Marcy Goldman, author of A Treasury of Jewish Holiday Baking. Goldman wisely suggests consulting an apple chart (like this one), or visiting a nearby farmers’ market and experimenting until you find your perfect match.
Mom’s Apple Walnut Cake
This moist, hearty cake also works really well poured into muffin cups. If you prefer to serve it as a healthy breakfast or brunch cake instead of dessert, replace one cup of flour with whole wheat flour and fold 1/4 cup finely ground flax seeds into the batter along with the apples and walnuts.
3 cups Golden Delicious or Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored, and chop
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 cup canola oil
2 cups sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon salt
3 cups flour
1 cup chopped walnuts
Turbinado sugar (for sprinkling on top)
Combine flour, salt, cinnamon, and baking soda in a medium bowl and set aside.
In a second bowl, mix together sugar, oil, and vanilla. Add eggs one at a time and stir to combine. Pour wet mixture into the dry ingredients and stir until thoroughly combined. Fold in apples and walnuts (the batter will be thick).
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease two loaf pans and spread half of the batter into each pan. Sprinkle the tops of each loaf with a little sugar and bake for approximately one hour, or until a toothpick stuck in the middle of the cake comes out clean.
Pronounced: roshe hah-SHAH-nah, also roshe ha-shah-NAH, Origin: Hebrew, the Jewish new year.
Pronounced: PAHRV or pah-REV, Origin: Hebrew, an adjective to describe a food or dish that is neither meat nor dairy. (Kosher laws prohibit serving meat and dairy together.)