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This apple spice cake might well be the reason I’m a lifelong baker.
The quiet, comforting aroma and taste of this cake are such staples of my childhood, and I can’t remember a time I didn’t know about it. Its existence taught me that the way to bake a cake – in our family, at least – was not from a box in the grocery aisle, but by mixing together a few pantry staples and popping them into the oven before your afternoon tea guests arrive – something I still do with regularity today.
Today I’m sharing my treasured recipe with you. Not only has it turned out to be a great cake for combi steam, it’s one which stands the test of around a hundred years (maybe more) of happy eating. And I don’t think that’s something which should be kept a secret!
Fifth generation family cake
Passed down by my great grandmother to her daughter (my Nanna), then to my Mum and finally me, spice cake is a true family heirloom recipe spanning four generations. Five, if you include my kids who now eat it and who will very likely make it for themselves one day soon. I’m not sure where it originated before my great grandmother started baking it, but it makes me so happy to know that the very same cake she baked for her kids is just as appealing to mine many decades on.
Although it didn’t begin with her, I’ve always thought of this as my Nanna’s spice cake. It’s her house, with the dark orange square-tiled kitchen floor, little gas oven and big dark Jarrah wood dining table, set close to the picture window overlooking the river, that I deeply associate with it. Nanna doesn’t cook much anymore but she still loves a good cake, so in honour of her 80th birthday last week, I set out to make this prettied-up version.
Why change a recipe that works?
You might wonder why, if I love and respect this recipe’s history so much, I’d muck around with a sure winner. But here’s the thing: updating, altering and adding to a recipe is what humans have been doing almost forever. It’s how we develop the cuisines of our families and our cultures, and although it helps to have a foundation in the ‘old way’, bringing these older recipes forward so they suit today’s kitchens and tastes is how we keep them alive. The women in my family are all foodies and have always encouraged the idea of taking a recipe or dish, understanding the basics and then making it your own. This probably says a lot about where I’ve ended up career-wise!
In the end I changed very little about this cake. A grated apple was added to the batter for texture and lightness, plus I bumped up the spices a little and reworked the baking directions to suit my combi steam oven. That’s it. Beyond those alterations, only a generous quantity of not-too-sweet cream cheese frosting and a little decoration sets it apart from the cake of my childhood, and that’s just fine with me.
The end result of my efforts is tender-crumbed and soft, with a structure and flavour that’s gorgeous on the first day but further improved by leaving overnight for all the flavours to meld together. I love it for sentimental reasons (cue Nat King Cole’s all time classic tune, which fits nicely into the timeline here, and gives a musical nod to my late grandfather, who was an avid lover of both jazz and this cake), but I also think it’s still worthy of any café cabinet today. Give it a try and I think you’ll agree.
Happy steam oven cooking, see you here again soon.
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Apple Spice Cake
- 2 cups self raising flour if it’s not available where you are, use all purpose flour and 1 1/2 tsp baking powder
- 3/4 cup superfine sugar caster sugar
- 2 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1 tsp ground ginger
- ½ tsp nutmeg
- ¼ tsp ground cloves
- 4 eggs
- 1 cup whole milk
- 2 tbs honey
- 1/2 cup rice bran oil any other flavourless oil will work; Nanna used to use grape seed oil
- 1 apple large, about 100g/3oz, peeled and coarsely grated
- 16 oz cream cheese 2 x 8oz/250g packages, at room temperature
- 4 oz unsalted butter room temperature
- 1 cup confectioners sugar icing sugar
- Preheat oven to 180°C/350°F, combination steam setting. If your oven has variable steam settings, use 30-40% humidity. Grease and line the bases of three x 20cm (8inch) cake pans (if you haven’t got three pans just batch bake in one – you’ll need to be quick smart about turning out each layer and refilling the pan, so you can use the batter up while the raising agents are still active).
- Put all the dry ingredients into a large bowl and whisk to combine and remove any large lumps.
- Put all the wet ingredients, including the apple, into another bowl and whisk to combine. Pour this mixture into the dry ingredients and stir to combine. The batter will be quite runny.
- Pour the batter evenly between the three pans, and bake each one until a skewer tests clean in the middle, about 12 minutes. I can fit two pans at a time into my oven, so I just bake the final one as soon as the first two come out.
- Leave the cooked layers to cool for a couple of minutes before turning out onto wire racks to cool completely. At this point you can cover and leave the layers overnight before frosting, if you like.
- To make frosting, put all the ingredients into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle blade, or into a food processor, and beat or process until well combined and fluffy.
- Layer the cakes with a generous spread of frosting between each one, then frost the top and sides to finish (you can do a ‘naked’ frosting on the sides as per the photos, if you like – just scrape the frosting almost off the cake to expose the individual layers). Add decorative apple slices if desired (see note), then serve. This cake will keep, covered in the fridge, for up to four days.
- Serves 8-10.
- I remember Nanna baking this in either a standard 20cm (8in) round pan or a loaf pan. It was always baked as one single cake and I never saw it iced. You can certainly do it that way too, and the lack of icing/frosting has its benefits: on about the third day, if there’s any left, you can toast slices of the cake and load them up with good butter just as you might a banana bread. It’s almost worth saving some (or doubling the recipe) just for that purpose.
- Partly for aesthetic reasons but also because it cooks faster, I’ve chosen here to bake the cake in three quite thin layers (still in a 20cm/8in round, though). If you’d like to cook a single larger cake that’s fine, you’ll just have to play around with the timings. I’d start checking for doneness at about the 25 or 30 minute mark, but it could take up to 45 depending on your pan. Also, be aware that baked as a single cake, it will rise and crack a bit on top. There’s nothing wrong with that at all.
- The frilly apples you see on top of the cake were simmered in a simple syrup of 1 cup sugar and 1 cup water to stop them oxidising and give a little shine. Here’s how I do it: bring sugar and water to the boil and simmer it for a few minutes to thicken slightly. Turn the heat down so it’s just bubbling and drop in very thinly sliced apple. Allow the apple to cook in the syrup for about 10 minutes before removing to a rack. Allow to cool completely before using them as decoration. The apples will last a good couple of days on the cake, and they’ll be glossy on the first day you make them, but less so after that.
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And if you’re after more delicious combi steam cake recipes, the Cakes and Baking Index page has plenty. The Lemon Ricotta Cake and the Simple Steam Oven Chocolate Cake are among the most visited recipes on this entire site, but if spiced cakes and cream cheese frosting are your kind of thing, these Spiced Pumpkin Cupcakes with Brown Butter Cream Cheese Frosting are outstanding.