Estonian apple cake, an ongoing saga

Once upon a time I tried to make apple cake from my grandmother’s verbal recipe: “It’s a sweet dough, with yeast and cardamom. Then apples and some sugar and flour on top.” Yeah.

My sister had the rather more practical idea of going over to Vanaema’s place and watching her make it. That sensible approach resulted in this excellent illustrated recipe, which involves kneading the dough by hand.

Since I had visiting parents who wouldn’t mind being guinea pigs, since we were making pasha anyway, and since we’d be visiting Vanaema it seemed like a good time to have a whole Estonian-dessert-making extravaganza and try making apple cake again too.

First attempt, I used my grandmother’s method. I suspect I killed the yeast with milk that was a bit too hot. The dough turned into a liquidy gloop which I poured down the drain. I’ll try it again sometime with milk of the appropriate temperature but it still seems like a lot of liquid (1/2 c water, 1 1/2 c milk, 3 eggs) for only 4 cups of flour. I’d be inclined to reduce the amount of milk by at least 1/2 a cup.

Still, the gloop smelled good, so I gave it another try. Second attempt, I cut the liquid and tossed everything in the bread machine on the dough setting.

Then we pressed out the dough and added the apples and topping as per the official recipe. Success!

On the left, my grandmother’s apple cake. On the right, mine. Applecake

The main difference is that hers has a rolled edge on the crust, a feature which means that when choosing pieces from a serving tray one must be virtuous and choose at least SOME pieces for one’s plate that are edge pieces instead of hogging all the best crust-free middle pieces. My aunt once whispered to me that it was possible to make apple cake without the rolled edge, so while doing so reduces one’s opportunities for public gastronomic virtue my helpers and I decided to take the crustless route.

I had also added a bit of cardamom, nutmeg and cinnamon to the topping mixture. My grandmother agreed it was good, but not correct. Hers, she says, isn’t totally correct either. My mother tried to open the door to innovation, but Vanaema was having none of it:

Mom: “But surely every Estonian mother makes it slightly different–”
Vanaema: “No.”
Mom: “–puts her own touches on it–”
Vanaema: “No.”

So this isn’t the Platonic-ideal-if-Plato-were-Estonian apple cake. I’m sure somewhere legions of Estonian grandmothers are deeply disapproving of the use of a bread machine for the dough (and the lack of the rolled crust edge, and the continued existence of Russia, and my failure to marry an Estonian, and and and.). But it is good.

Vanaema’s recipe, as recorded and illustrated by my sister.

My dough variation:

In a bread machine, combine:
1 tsp sugar
1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp (8g package) yeast
1 1/2 c milk
4 1/2 c flour
2 eggs
1/4 c butter (plus 1 tbsp)
1 tsp ground cardamom

Use the dough setting.