While my own parents were making pies with frozen shells and canned filling or cakes from boxed mixes, my future mother-in-law was feeding her family on homemade treats. Apricot or plum halves pressed into sugary, crumbly pâte sablée or rich quatre-quart made with butter, milk, sugar and flour. Simple apple tarts in season, the apples straight from their boutique downstairs, much later coming from the orchard down the street. While my father was whipping up pudding from a mix, my future mother-in-law was preparing creamy, sweet rice pudding for her tots, milk, sugar and rice in a pot on the stove bubbling away. Simple, rustic treats, indeed, perfect eaten for breakfast or that ever-so punctual snack mid morning or mid afternoon. Perfect for plumping up children on the cheap while assuring goodness in the natural ingredients.
The French have always had home-baked goods down to a fine art, quick, easy and frugal. Oh, don’t mix up everyday fare with what you see in the French pastry shops. Those creamy, decadent, fancy concoctions are for special occasions. Holidays, birthdays and company. But everyday or Sunday lunches en famille mean homey, comforting and filling food, dessert simply to round off the meal.
For many years, we lived within visiting distance of my in-laws; our first home was a short drive from their corner mom-and-pop shop and apartment and even possible on foot. When they retired, we had long moved from the northern suburbs of Paris to the southeastern burbs while they bought a house in a tiny village (just 300 souls) one hour further east. With two little grandsons, weekends meant packing up the car and driving out to see them, usually for the entire weekend. Our sons would play in the yard, dig in grandpa’s vegetable garden, splash in the wading pool in the summer and snuggle on the sofa with a stuffed animal and a book in front of the fireplace in the winter or play card games with their grandparents long into the afternoon.
While the boys were outside doing their guy stuff and bonding with grandpa, I would spend the mornings, Saturday and Sunday, in the kitchen with my mother-in-law Madeleine and watch her cook. We would chat convivially about this and that, the children, my husband, not much else. My mother-in-law was far from the stereotypical French woman perfectly coiffed and made up, slipped into a twin set, skirt and pretty little pumps, pearls slung elegantly around her neck. My mother-in-law was from simple country stock, a homey woman wrapped in a colorful cotton housedress-style apron buttoned up from knee to neck over her clothing, sensible crepe-soled shoes on her feet, heavy cotton stockings peeping out from between ankle and knee. Her wispy white hair was a short, plain boyish cut and she lived her retirement for her grandchildren. She expected us to visit every weekend and every holiday. And she would prepare her delicious, heavy, perfectly orchestrated meals for us as she had done for all those decades of her life, for her parents, her husband and children and now us.
I would watch her, mesmerized, as she prepared a chicken to roast, her fingers smearing scoops of yellow margarine over the skin. I would watch her peel carrots or potatoes, the bits of peel flicking all over the cheap vinyl tablecloth, the pattern long scratched and faded from constant scrubbing. She would pick away the shell from hardboiled eggs to plop onto thick slices of ripe summer tomatoes or grated carrots in vinaigrette then whisk up a homemade mayonnaise to spoon onto each egg half. Her movements were quick and nimble from years of practice, homemade meals prepared and placed on her table every single day since she married and before without exception; her cooking and baking using only the most rudimentary of measuring techniques, her recipes memorized, her reflexes automatic. The food was far from refined, yet how good was her roast chicken and French fries, both tender on the inside, crispy on the outside. Or her blanquette made with veal, thick chunks of carrots and canned mushrooms or her braised endives wrapped in slices of ham and smothered under cheesy béchamel or the pigeon wrapped in green cabbage, dotted with lardons.
Sometimes JP would join her, turning her rather simple, sometimes bland dishes into something a bit more spectacular. He grew up helping her prepare lunches while she worked in the family shop one floor below their apartment; as he grew older and into his teens, he often took over completely, making the meal choices and cooking from beginning to end, experimenting and making dishes that were not in his mother’s repertoire, so he was no stranger to the kitchen and loved taking over as often as possible. Occasionally, he and I would hop in the car and drive to one of the surrounding villages or towns and pick up something complementary, a slice of terrine, a saucisson sec or some artisan cheeses.
But never dessert. Madeleine always prepared dessert. We would return home and she would be pushing damp, squishy pâte sablée, an egg-and-butter-rich cookie-type short pastry, into the corners of her fluted pie dish, expertly peeling apples with an old paring knife that had seen better days, the tip bent or chipped off, the wood of the handle faded and dulled with time. I would grab one of the long coils of peel that dropped onto the cracked cutting board and nibble on it as she cut the cored and trimmed apples into chunks (in her hands, not on the cutting board) – not elegant, papery thin slices seen layered on perfect puff pastry rounds in the finest pastry shops, but thick, rustic chunky slices, and pressed them into the soft dough, fanning them around and around in concentric circles, heavily dusting them with sugar. In summer, the apples became plums, sweet, flavorful greengage plums from the tree in their yard or purple quetsche plums from a neighbor. In the winter, she would pop open a can of apricot halves in heavy syrup and plop them onto the dough or pull a bag of tree-ripened cherries from the freezer.
Her cakes were simple, fruit the only variation from plain vanilla pound cake, genoise or sponge. Never chocolate. No pastry cream or crème anglaise or anything fancy. Just something simple and homey that could be sliced and passed around with coffee at the end of the meal, easy enough for small grandsons to pick off chunks with their fingers to pop into their mouths, the leftovers haggled over a few hours later as the sleepy afternoon faded into time to go home.
Nothing American about this wonderful apple cake. No cinnamon nor streusel topping to be seen. Only a tender, most cake with a hint of vanilla and loads of sweet apples. Perfect for breakfast, snacktime or dessert, this apple cake stays moist and tender for several days. This recipe brings me back to those weekends during apple season out at my in-laws house in that tiny, forgotten village. It brings to mind the afternoon walks with my husband out passed the orchards, around the fields to the squawks of the chickens, by the cows, around in front of the cemetery where my father-in-law would eventually be buried, across the miniscule square in front of the medieval church and back to the house just in time to warm one’s hands around a mug of coffee accompanied by a thick wedge of apple cake.
FRENCH APPLE CAKE
9-inch round x 2-inch deep cake pan (23-cm x 5-cm)
6 apples *
4 large eggs at room temperature
¾ cup (150 g) sugar
1 1/3 cups (170 g) flour
2 tsps baking powder
¼ tsp salt
3 Tbs vegetable oil
4 Tbs milk
½ tsp vanilla
Granulated sugar (or cinnamon-sugar) for serving
* for the apples, choose fairly crisp apples that become meltingly soft and tender when baked. Choose apples that are tart and sweet and retain their flavor when baked as much of the flavor of this treat comes from the fruit. I used Rubinette apples.
Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C). Grease (with more vegetable oil) and flour the bottom and sides of the cake pan, shaking out excess flour.
Peel and core the apples. Cut each apple into thick wedges, about 16 or so per apple.
In a large mixing bowl, beat the eggs with the sugar until thickened and pale, about 2 minutes. Stir together the flour, baking powder and salt and beat into the egg-sugar mixture in 3 or 4 additions, beating after each addition just until blended. Scrape down the sides. The batter should be thick and creamy.
Add the oil, the milk and vanilla and beat just until well blended. The batter should be thick enough to leave ribbon trails when the beaters are lifted.
Reserve the slices from one apple and then place all of the remaining apple slices in the pan in concentric circles, filling the bottom of the pan from edges to center and then continuing; this might make 2 layers of apples. Pour the batter onto the apple slices in the cake pan, spreading the batter evenly. Gently lay the reserved apple slices in a circular pattern on top of the batter and press just to settle into the batter, not submerging them.
Bake the cake in the preheated oven for about 50 - 60 minutes or until the top of the cake is a deep golden brown and the cake is set in the center. Use a tester to check that no more raw batter remains. If the cake browns too quickly, simply lay a piece of aluminum foil on top of the cake while it continues baking.
Remove the cake from the oven onto a cooling rack and let cool before serving. Dust the top of the cake generously with sugar to serve.