Applesauce Cake by
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OK, I am copping out this week.  I have barely cooked since law school — and, even then, I took a lot of my meals at the counter of Tom’s Restaurant on Broadway and 113th Street in NY, which was used for the exterior shots of “Monk’s,” the hang-out often seen in “Seinfeld.”  And I only have a few of my mother’s recipes after she died.  Worse yet, the few I recovered, though I always thought were terrific, seem not to have been embraced by my current kith and kin.  To be fair, neither “prunes and chestnuts” nor “kidney beans in red wine sauce” may sound very appetizing to an uninitiated outsider.  But, trust me, the mere thought of them gets me salivating like a Pavlovian dog.

Ironically, applesauce cake is sort of the "Holy Roman Empire" of cakes.  At least my mother's recipe contained virtually no applesauce, and you certainly couldn't taste it. 

Anyhow, as a result, I felt I and my Retro readers would be best served (play on words semi-intended) simply by re-cycling my applesauce cake story from a couple of years ago.  My wife has even promised me one for my birthday in a couple of months.  These days, that and the election in November are the two things I most look forward to, at least with any certainty as to their dates.


My mother was a late bloomer as a cook, having had a fairly privileged childhood with cooks in attendance.  But she learned (and loved) to cook herself when she lived with my grandmother in a New York apartment with a typical New York — which is to say microscopic — kitchen while my father was off in China winning WW II.  For all of her delicious, and carefully cataloged, recipes, without doubt my favorite one of hers was for something called applesauce cake (hereinafter, “AC”).

I do not know AC’s “origin story” in family cooking lore.  My mother had the recipe written down on a large index card, but it may have come from a cook book.  I never recall having chosen it, but it somehow became the sine qua non of both my brother’s and my birthday parties.  Thus, to this day, I have a nearly Pavlovian reaction to AC: it brings to mind not just a yummy cake, but pony rides, magicians and the fact that the town always seemed to tar the road in front of our house the day of my birthday party.  (The smell of tar, accordingly, triggers almost the same reaction in me.)

Ironically, AC is sort of the “Holy Roman Empire” of cakes.  At least my mother’s recipe contained virtually no applesauce, and you certainly couldn’t taste it.  In fact, the cake itself was not all that different in ingredients from the dreaded Christmas fruit cake, although much moister. The real lure for me, I eventually realized, was not the cake itself, but the frosting, which was a rich, maple sugar/caramel/cream cheese concoction.  You could have probably spread that frosting on a piece of shirt cardboard and I would have been just as happy to consume it.

I only learned recently that, while my brother also loved the cake, he loved the cake itself and didn’t care much for the frosting.  He mentioned this in passing when my wife discovered the recipe among my mother’s old recipes and suggested that she could make it for my upcoming birthday, which my brother was going to attend.  In her Solomonic brilliance, she made the cake and covered only half of it with frosting. My brother and I were both in bliss while we pondered the Jack Sprat/wife nature of our love affair with  AC.


p.s.  The only image I could find of AC suggested a sheet cake.  However, for whatever reason, my mother always baked it in a Bundt cake pan (i.e., circular with a hole in the middle).  A little tough for inserting candles and writing birthday messages on, but so be it.  A worthy trade-off.

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Characterizations: funny, well written


  1. Suzy says:

    Wow, an applesauce cake for your birthday! For me it always had to be chocolate (and still does). AC would be fine for other occasions, but I would be very disappointed if that were my birthday cake. Although the frosting does sound delicious!

    I like that your father was off in China winning WWII. That is the hidden gem in this story!

  2. Risa Nye says:

    I love the idea of the special birthday cake. Mine was angel food, right out of the box! This brought back some nice memories of having my favorite made for me on my birthday. These days, I’m lucky if I get a single piece at a restaurant (not that I’m bitter). I’m with you on the frosting, by the way. The cake/frosting ratio could be 50/50 as far as I’m concerned! Thanks for sharing this tasty memory!

  3. Betsy Pfau says:

    Wonderful memory, John. I love the description of your mother becoming a good cook in a tiny NYC apartment with your father off to WWII, and your favorite birthday cake treat. A highly unusual one at that — very Proustian. And funny that you and your brother liked different aspects of the same cake! I’m with you; that frosting sounds amazing. While in college, my future husband and I used to buy a can of Betty Crocker’s chocolate fudge frosting and eat it with a spoon, right out of the can! Oh for the days of a speedy metabolism.

    I’m with Suzy for birthday cakes…mine have to be chocolate with fudge frosting, but when a little girl, we had a maid who made my cake and it was something to behold. It was a white cake with a doll sticking up from the center. The cake was her skirt and the frosting was the layers of the skirt, like Scarlet O’Hara’s big hoop skirt. It was a thing of beauty, set in the center of the table for all to admire, almost a shame to cut it up into slices, but also quite yummy as I recall. I don’t think I have any photographs of it, but do have some home movies of my mother coming in, presenting the cake for all to admire.

    • John Shutkin says:

      Thanks much, Betsy, though I admit that I never thought of the cake as Proustian — especially when I was a kid. And, yeah, I recall in college an episode or two of eating frosting right out of the can. However,I think the primary motivator was something a bit more external than my metabolism.
      Your cake sounds just beautiful but, in fact, one of the benefits of the applesauce cake was that it wasn’t much to look at: a round, hollow cake with caramel colored frosting on top of a dark brown cake. Absolutely no reason to keep it in its pristine form; just dig the hell in.

  4. John Zussman says:

    Like other commenters, I enjoyed this story; it made my mouth water. I especially appreciated your Holy Roman Empire reference, which immediately brought to mind the famous line about the HRE being neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire. Did we have the same history teacher? So what WAS in the vaunted applesauce cake, if not applesauce?

    • John Shutkin says:

      To be fair, John, I think we all got the same line about the HRE when we were studying it. And, if you may recall, it was also often cited during tours of Harvard Yard when referencing the statue of “John Harvard — Founder — 1638” in front of University Hall. The model for the statue was not JH, he was not Harvard’s founder, and it was founded in 1636.
      There was a little bit of applesauce somewhere in the AC, but it was mainly brown sugar, flour, eggs, butter, cloves, cinnamon, dates (to be avoided) and chopped pecans.

  5. Wonderful memory John, and I can see your mom and grandmother in their little apartment together bravely carrying on as your dad was away winning the war!

    And your mom’s applesauce cake does look moist – there MUST. be applesauce in it! Did it taste apple-y?

    If you have no recipe to send, I’ll google!

  6. Well it’s new to me, John. And I suppose it Mock Turtle Soup is a thing then a no AC AC should pass muster. Have to wonder about the Solomonic solution for you and your brother, though. As the frosting lover I would have suggested baking it regular way and hospitably scraping the unwanted frosting from your brother’s portion. Just sayin’ And about the fruit cake reference: has there ever been a baked good with such an undeserved reputation?

  7. Methinks the applesauce in the cake is akin to the carrots in carrot cake…you don’t really taste them as such. At least I don’t.

  8. Laurie Levy says:

    I hope you get your cake this year, John. So funny about being a frosting lover or a cake lover. My grandkids are in two distinct camps about this, but thankfully it balances out well. Unfortunately, I like both parts of the cake.

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