Custard, cake and apples all come together into one spectacular dessert in this French Apple Cake. The recipe was featured in a recent issue of Cook’s Illustrated (Sept/Oct 2012). Often, the test kitchen remakes recipes that I am already familiar with, looking for a better way to approach them. This time, I hadn’t heard of this particular kind of cake before, but it sounded too good to resist and I gave it a try as soon as I had a chance.
The cake is rich, eggy and custardy, with 1 1/2 pounds of thinly sliced apples packed into it. On top of that custardy layer is a thin layer of tender, fluffy cake. It’s a very unique combination of elements in this cake, but everything works together beautifully. The vanilla in the cake batter really comes through and is a nice compliment to the apples. I added a cinnamon sugar mixture to the top before baking, which made a fragrant and crisp topping. Making a layered cake like this one may sound like a daunting task when you’re looking at the picture of it, but it is surprisingly easy to make. The most difficult part of the recipe is peeling and slicing 1 1/2 pounds of sweet-tart Granny Smith apples when you start out!
The apples for this cake are cut into very small pieces that are cooked in the microwave prior to being incorporated into the cake batter. They’re cooked covered, so they actually steam in the microwave. This tenderizes the apples and helps them meld a little better into the finished cake, so that you get apple slices that still have some texture but aren’t too hard compared to the custard.
After my own testing, baking the cake several times, I found that I had a few changes over the test kitchen’s version of the recipe. First, I found that their recipe called for so much oil that while the cake was “moist” it was also greasy. I reduced the fat in the recipe by almost 25%. I also compared a cake made with melted butter one made with the oil they called for. While the oil version of the cake did taste good, I felt that the butter cake was just as moist and had a little bit better flavor overall. My taste testers couldn’t really tell the difference, however, so go ahead and use the oil if you want to keep things easy and you won’t miss out.
Croque monsieur is (essentially, but perhaps not officially) french for “grilled ham and cheese sandwich.” It’s a very popular sandwich that has been around for just about a century, having first appeared on a restaurant menu around 1910. Gooey cheese, salty ham and buttered, toasted bread makes a great combination. It’s so popular that there are now lots of different variations on “le croque,” changing up the type of bread used, the amount or type of meat and adding extra ingredients to the basic recipe. The basic recipe consists of ham and cheese toasted in between two slices of bread, and the whole thing is usually topped with another layer of cheese that is melted/broiled on. The Croque Madame is a very simple variation on the original and adds either a fried or poached egg to the top of the sandwich, usually replacing some of that final layer of cheese.
These sandwiches are meant to be a lighter meal or snack, not as heavy as a full dinner, and are quite popular as a fast food-type option. While you could pile one of these up with sliced ham to make the sandwich a bit heartier, I prefer to keep it a little on the lighter side and use just a slice or two of ham in the middle. This seems – as far as I can tell – to be a little more in keeping with the “traditional” French way of making the sandwich, since the sandwich is usually sold quite inexpensively and with only a slice or two of ham inside.
Cheese, on the other hand, is never in short supply in french cooking and even though I didn’t use too much on this sandwich, you can feel free to pile it on if you want more. It’s pretty traditional to use a cheese like gruyère, but any easily melted cheese is a good choice for this sandwich. I like havarti and will have it on its own or combine it with gruyère for my sandwiches.
Orangina is definitely one of my favorite sodas. I don’t remember exactly where I was when I first had the sparkling orange (it’s actually yellow) soda, made with real orange juice and pulp, but I do remember that I wanted more. It has a light, fresh flavor and is not too sweet – more like juice than soda, really. I also remember that there was a time when it was very difficult to find it in the States. Fortunately, times have changed and I am now able to easily pick up a bottle when I shop (Trader Joe’s in my area carries it). I am also able to play with it, as I did when I set out to make Orangina Cupcakes, because I can buy an extra bottle to drink while I work.
These cupcakes don’t have the effervescence of real Orangina, but they do have a very similar orange flavor. It’s almost refreshing to eat them, because the flavor is nice and light, and the cake is moist and tender. The recipe is a very simple one, made with butter, sugar, flour, eggs and a little sour cream. Where a regular cupcake recipe might use milk, however, I used Orangina. I also incorporated some into a cream cheese frosting to make sure the flavor carried throughout the entire cupcake. Cream cheese was still the dominant flavor in the frosting, but it added a little something extra.
If you want to boost the orange flavor of these, use a few drops of orange oil or a little orange zest, but not orange extract. Orange extract tastes a little fake to me, while orange oil (and zest, of course), have a more natural flavor that enhances the natural flavors of the Orangina.