This cake came about because I had buttercream to spare, and I wanted to find a tasty way to use it. Earlier this year, I made a resolution to bake more cakes, plus Canadian Thanksgiving was right around the corner, so the opportunity was just too good to pass up.
I flipped through my favorite cake book, Layered, and found the perfect platform to showcase the aromatic and silky smooth buttercream I had originally created to fill macarons. The apple cake is moist and slightly dense, like a carrot cake, and it is delightfully aromatic, thanks to the use of comforting spices. I grated half the apples to create a lovely texture and finely diced the remaining half so that you’d bite into tiny, juicy pieces of fruit while eating the cake.
For the buttercream, you need to caramelize the apples first, and then blend them to create a thick apple butter of sorts. You mix this into softened butter, sweeten it with powdered sugar, and end up with a dreamy frosting. It’s one of the tastiest buttercreams I’ve ever made, with the fresh taste of apples and the slight smokiness from the caramelization process combined into a creamy package.
You could simply spread the buttercream over the cake and serve it as is, but to make it truly special—hey, I don’t make cakes every day!—I topped it with a picture-perfect fan of thin caramelized apple slices and a sky-high mound of crunchy crumble. Both garnishes are quick and easy to prepare, and I think they make the cake even more perfect for fall. If you know any apple lovers, this cake would make a perfect birthday surprise! But really, don’t wait for a special occasion to make this dessert, or you’ll be missing out on a memorable treat.
Makes 10 servings.
For the apple cake: Place a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 350°F [175°C]. Grease and flour 2 8-inch [20-cm] round cake pans, tapping out the excess flour, and set aside.
Sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, kosher salt, cinnamon, and cardamom, and set aside.
Peel and core the apples. Grate half of the apples, then finely dice the other half. Set aside.
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, or in a large mixing bowl if you’re using a hand mixer, beat the oil, sugar, and lemon zest on medium speed for 2 minutes. Add the eggs one at a time, beating to incorporate fully. Scrape down the bowl.
With the mixer set to low speed, add the flour mixture in three batches, alternating with the buttermilk, beginning and ending with the flour mixture. Mix just until the last streaks of dry ingredients are combined. Using a spatula, fold in the grated and diced apples.
Divide the batter between the prepared pans. Bake for about 25 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cakes comes out clean. Let the cakes cool completely on a wire rack before removing them from the pans.
For the caramelized apple buttercream: In a large skillet set over medium heat, melt the butter, then add the sugar and whisk until it is dissolved and the mixture is bubbly, about two minutes. Add the apples, and sauté until soft and caramelized, about 10 minutes.
Place the butter in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or in a large mixing bowl, if using a hand mixer), and beat for a minute to soften. Add half the powdered sugar and beat on low speed to moisten the sugar, then increase the speed to incorporate fully. Add the cooled caramelized apple puree, and beat to incorporate fully. Add the remaining powdered sugar and the pinch of salt, and beat on medium speed until the buttercream is smooth and fluffy. Set aside.
For the apple topping: Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside. Core the apples and slice them very thinly (I like to keep the skin on, but you can peel them, if you prefer.)
In a large skillet set over medium heat, melt the butter, then add the sugar and whisk until it is dissolved and the mixture is bubbly, about two minutes. Add the apples, and cook until soft and slightly caramelized, about 5 minutes, flipping them halfway through. Thin apple slices will soften quickly so you want to make sure to remove them from the heat while they still hold together. Using a firm, crispy apple (such as Cortland, Honeycrisp, or Granny Smith) is mandatory, as other varieties will fall apart.
Gently remove the apple slices from the pan and set them flat on the prepared baking sheet, making sure no slices overlap. Let cool completely.
For the maple walnut crumble: Heat a skillet over medium heat. Dry-roast the oats and walnuts, stirring from time to time, until fragrant and slightly browned, 5 to 8 minutes. Add the butter, maple syrup, nutmeg, and salt, and stir to evenly coat the oats. Cook, stirring constantly, for 3 to 5 minutes more, until the crumble crisps and dries up. Remove from the heat, then spread out the crumble mixture over a piece of parchment paper. Let cool completely.
To assemble the cake: When the cakes are completely cool, cut off the pointy tops of each cake (keep the scraps to enjoy as a snack!), then halve them horizontally to create 4 even layers. Choose one of the bottom layers and set it on a cake stand or serving plate.
Spread on a quarter of the buttercream with a butter knife or an offset spatula. Top with the next layer of cake and repeat two times more with the buttercream, ending with the fourth layer. Frost the top of the cake with the remaining buttercream, smoothing it flat. Arrange the caramelized apple slices around the outside border of the cake, overlapping them slightly to create a “fanned” effect.
You can refrigerate the cake at this point: simply cover it with a cake dome, or loosely cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for up to three days. Make sure to bring it back to room temperature at least an hour before serving.
Right before serving, garnish the center of the cake with a generous mound of maple walnut crumble. (Serve any remaining crumble alongside the cake, or enjoy it for breakfast!) Drizzle with maple syrup, if desired, and serve immediately.
Apple cake and maple walnut crumble recipes adapted from Tessa Huff, Layered: Baking, Building, and Styling Spectacular Cakes.
Caramelized apple buttercream recipe by Marie Asselin.