Thursday, October 11, 2018

Caroline's Cider Cake

A brief history of apple cider and a look at a forgotten favorite!

Fall is my favorite season, although I feel like between moving further south and the increasingly worrying trends of climate change, I haven’t really gotten to experience it the way I’d like to in a few years. Still, it’s fun to get excited about Halloween, and to indulge in some of my favorite seasonal fruit: apples. 

Of course, you can get apples all year round, but the best kind are only available from September through October, and I’ve already bought a couple bags full. They’re not as good as the ones from Bishop’s Orchards back home, but they’ll do in a pinch. 

It’s also meant I’ve had apple cider on the brain, and so it really just seemed obvious that we’d have to give this recipe a spin to really get into that fall spirit. 

But first, I just want to say another congratulations to Ashley for winning our giveaway! I hope you enjoy the recipe cards and can’t wait to hear what you try out first. Thanks to everyone who entered. Hopefully we’ll have another five years of exploring America’s culinary history to come!

The word “cider” historically meant alcoholic apple cider. The sweet, nonalcoholic cider we get to enjoy during the fall is actually unfiltered apple juice, and only started being called cider after the alcoholic variety fell out of fashion in America thanks to the Temperance movement. 

Hard apple cider was a staple of colonial American cuisine, and remained so well past the American Revolution. In a time when people were suspicious of drinking water due to possible contamination, alcohol was consumed by the entire population, from the oldest grandmas to the smallest babies. It spanned social classes as well: George Washington drank cider, as did middle and lower class citizens of the new republic. This doesn’t mean everyone was drinking hard liquor all the time, but consuming something fermented was considered a lot safer than drinking water, and things like milk or fresh fruit juice went bad quickly without refrigeration. 

Caroline is today’s hostess because in 1801, a man named John Chapman headed west to preach and plant apple trees throughout Pennsylvania, Ontario, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. You probably know him best as Johnny Appleseed! He was an apprentice to an orchardist, and used this skill to establish nurseries of trees wherever he traveled. He also cared deeply for animals and had great respect for the Native American communities he met in his travels. His image as a kind hearted, apple enthusiast have played a big part in establishing the apple as an American icon. 

So it probably shouldn’t surprise anyone that cider eventually found its way into the kitchen as more than just a beverage. The recipe I’m making today is an adaptation of the earliest cider cake recipes posted on Tori Avey’s blog. Very early cider cakes were actually pretty heavy on the dried fruit, and didn’t usually call for eggs, meaning they’d be very dense and more like a fruitcake than this adapted recipe turned out to be. By the 1840’s, the fruit had been abandoned in some recipes, allowing the cider and spice to really speak for itself. 

Despite the fact that there doesn’t appear to be a historical printed recipe for this exact cake, I don’t think it’s difficult to imagine Mrs. Abbott or Caroline’s grandmother making a cake that’s similar to this. None of the ingredients are especially exotic or something they wouldn’t have had on hand, with the exception of the baking powder. With some adjustments to add a historical leavening agent in it, this could easily be an Abbott family recipe Caroline looked forward to digging into after a long day catching British spies and working on her latest embroidery project. 

To start off, you have to get your cake pan prepped. The recipe includes instructions for various sizes of pans, but I used my 9 inch round pan. I greased it thoroughly with unsalted butter, lined the bottom with a circle of parchment paper, greased it again, and floured the whole thing. This will make taking it out of the pan again an absolute breeze.

Next, just like any cake, you sift together your dry ingredients in one bowl and cream your butter and sugar together in another. The recipe offers a few different options depending on what you have in your pantry. My dry ingredients were 1 2/3 cups of flour, 2 teaspoons of baking powder, 1/2 teaspoon of salt, and 1/2 teaspoon each of cinnamon and nutmeg, and I creamed 1 cup of white sugar with 1/2 cups of room temperature butter. 

Normally I would have liked to use brown sugar, but I was out of light brown sugar and wasn’t sure if the slightly stronger flavor of dark brown would overpower the flavor of the cider.

Two eggs get beaten into the butter and sugar mixture, one at a time, and finally a teaspoon of vanilla extract is added in.

Next, alternate adding your dry ingredients to the mixture with 2/3 of a cup of apple cider. I used hard cider because the stores near me only had pasteurized sweet cider. I also wonder if adding sweet cider would make this cake a little too sweet, as I know some orchards do add sugar instead of letting the apples speak for themselves. 

The batter seemed very thick at first, but it got more cake like once the full measurement of apple cider had been added, and it poured into the pan nicely.

It baked in the oven at 350 degrees for 40 minutes and came out looking beautiful! It was cooked all the way through and had a really nice color to it. I’m still learning the quirks of my new oven, so I was excited to see it had come out so nicely.

After letting it sit for ten minutes, I took it out of the pan and allowed it to cool on a wire rack for about an hour before cutting into it, which let me tell you was a challenge. It made the apartment smell like fall. 

I think it made for a very attractive slice. Jess told me in her very best Mary Berry voice that it had a “very nice crumb”, and I have to say I agree.

The recipe also provided instructions for a frosting to go with it, but I decided to let the cake stand on its own partially out of laziness, but also in a slightly na├»ve attempt to convince myself it was a healthier choice, which thus meant I could feel less guilty about eating more of the cake. 

And I can honestly say I don’t think the cake needs the frosting, and might even go as far as to say it would smother the slightly subtle flavors going on here. It’s a really nice cake, and the spices are lovely, but the flavor of the apple cider itself is definitely a little muted. I feel like I can taste it more eating leftovers out of the fridge than when it was freshly baked. It’s not too sweet, and is dense without really feeling heavy. I could easily pick a slice up in my hand and eat it without a fork when it was fresh and out of the fridge. It makes for a really lovely complement to a mug of tea… or maybe hot apple cider, if you really want to go all out. 

As always, Tori’s recipe was extremely easy to follow and came out exactly as promised. I know I’ve raved about her recipes before, as well as the really well written pieces she does on each of them, but I really can’t say enough how much I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve tried making from her site. I would definitely recommend it to anyone who’s looking to be a little more adventurous in the kitchen. 

I’d definitely make this again – and am already trying to think if it’s overkill to add it to the menu for our Halloween party later this month – and would fully recommend giving it a shot if you’re looking for something a little different (and historic!) to bring a little of that autumnal magic to your home. 

But why isn’t this something bakeries and coffee shops are still cooking up for us?

Cider cakes remained a popular staple of American home cooking until the Temperance movement really took off, and they pretty much died out entirely during Prohibition. Cider was a particular target for Temperance enthusiasts because it was a drink of the common man, and some especially passionate supporters for the criminalization of alcohol would even take axes to apple trees. The cakes made with cider went from being unfashionable to technically illegal, even though you were allowed to drink in your own home so long as it was alcohol you’d purchased before the law went into effect. I actually got to look through some receipts from a New York grocery store where people quickly bought up a lot of wine and champagne to try and get them through the long, dry years. 

In their place came apple or applesauce cakes, which are still very tasty (and should probably find their way onto this blog at some point…) but a little different from these cakes of years past. They never really came back into fashion even after Prohibition was repealed, although they remained popular among communities that still held hard cider in high esteem. Maybe they’ll find their way into your rotation of treats to make! I know I’ve definitely been won over.

Maybe next time we'll add in some apples to make Johnny Appleseed proud...


  1. Love the story that accompanies the recipe. Nice to have some history with what your baking or cooking. I swear I can smell your cake here in Cape May. I love apple cake in any form so I think I will give this a try. I love frosting but sometimes you just got to leave the cake speak for it's own. Maybe a light dusting of confectioner's sugar for a little decoration. I saved the recipe and added it to my fall things to do.

    I am with you its been far too warm and humid for mid October. I want chilly days, cups of hot tea and a cozy sweater. Instead flip flops, the air conditioner running and hot very humid days. Somebody needs to call Mother Nature and wake her up.

    1. It finally feels like fall down here! Fingers crossed that it stays this way.

  2. so 1) I'm sure Rebecca had to have had Jewish apple cake, right? 2) Was the cider flavor stronger the next day? I find when I make my beer cake recipe that you have to wait until the next day to fully appreciate the cake as the beer flavor has ripened then. Two or three day old cake has the most beer flavor but unless I hide the cake, no one ever gets to learn that but me.

    1. 1. It depends. "Jewish Apple Cake" often refers to a specific recipe that's popular in the Mid Atlantic, and while it could easily have made its way to New York City, it's more common in that region. However, cakes using apples and honey are popular staples of Jewish holiday spreads and have been for centuries, so she definitely would have eaten something similar, if not identical. We actually did an apple honey cake on our second ever blog post in 2013.
      2. Yes, the flavor was stronger the next day, but unfortunately the texture got a little worse after putting it in the fridge, so the trade off was a little disappointing. It's been so humid and gross we haven't been able to leave food out for fear of mold though, so it had to be done.

  3. I've never had cider cake, but I am all about cider donuts.