I used to be a fennel/anise/black licorice-hater, too. I say “too” because I know that it’s impossible to bring the flavor up without at least someone in the room saying “ew.” Like beets in anything or nuts in cookies, its presence is a deal breaker for a surprising number of people.
But I have always been certain that the foods we like to eat we were introduced to in a way that warmed them to us. Mike and Ikes? Ew. Ouzo with seltzer in tall glasses as we snacked on salty pistachios while sitting out on the balcony of my professor’s hotel room with a handful of my classmates after a long day of painting on the Greek island of Corfu one summer? It was impossible not to love, creating a clear delineation between my anise-hating and anise-loving days on the timeline of my tastebuds.
[Oops, got a little carried away with the Tastebud Timeline idea.]
So when I came across a cake recipe in my New Cookbook Obsession that involved a good amount of Sambuca (or ratafia, much more difficult to find), I was torn between wanting to make it and the threat that I would be forced to eat the whole thing by myself because of people’s refusal to come around on the flavor. Turns out, my husband doesn’t much hate the flavor either, and I left everyone else to figure it out for themselves.
While I think we all agree that there is nothing better than cake, cake with a good story behind trumps the competition any day. This one, The Grandmothers of Sils Apple and Yogurt Cake, first introduces us to these grandmothers, apparently something of a phenomenon in Catalonia after they formed a cooking club some 12 years ago with the idea of exchanging and recording traditional recipes that would otherwise disappear with their generation. In another time or place, this might have resulted in some inexpensively bound book for distribution at church bake sales and through immediate friends a family, instead made them famous. They’re on television, they hang out with celebrity chefs and they make grandmothers in the rest of the country green with envy.
With good reason. If this cake is any indication of their cooking savvy, consider me hooked. When you bake as much as I do these days, the playing field gets too wide for superlatives, and yet I have found another: This is the moistest cake I have ever made. Demanding a good reason that I should have to wait 31 years to find it, I did some research and realized that this has much in common with the French standard gateau de yaourt.
Still, I think it’s the lemon yogurt, olive oil and anise flavor that makes it unique. You can of course swap things, other boozes like Cointreau or apple brandy for the anise or skip it altogether, yogurt flavors besides lemon, honey for the sugar if you’re trying to give it a Jewish New Year spin, and I’m sure that pear could take the place of apple, if you must. But I’ll be making it just like this from here on out, closing my eyes and imagining a little Corfu sun beyond my squint and some Grandmothers over my shoulder urging me not to skimp on the spirits.
One year ago: Giardiniera (Pickled Vegetables)
Grandmothers of Sils’ Apple and Yogurt Cake
Adapted from The New Spanish Table
This is, in my mind, a true coffee cake, not overly sweet and best unadorned. It keeps exceptionally well, and is, if possible, more moist on day three than day one.
Unsalted butter, for greasing the pan
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting the pan
1 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
4 large eggs
1 1/4 cups granulated sugar
1 cup lemon yogurt*
1/4 cup anise liqueur, such as Sambuca
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons light olive oil
3 cups finely diced or shredded peeled and cored baking apples, such as Granny Smith or Jonagold, or a combination
Confectioners’ sugar, for dusting the cake
Creme fraiche, for serving (optional)
1. Position rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 350°F. Butter and flour and 9-inch springform pan.
2. Sift the flour and baking powder together in a bowl. Place the eggs and granulated sugar in a large mixing bowl and, using an electric mixer, beat until fluffy and pale yellow, about 1 minute. Beat in the yogurt and liqueur until completely smooth. Working in batches, beat in the sifted flour, alternating it with the olive oil. Gently but thoroughly fold in the apples.
3. Scrape the batter into the prepared springform pan, tap it on a counter to level the batter, then smooth the top with an offset spatula. Bake the cake on the center rack until the top is golden, a cake tester or toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean**, and the cake springs back when you touch it, 55 to 65 minutes. Let the cake cool on a rack.
4. Run a thin knife around the side of the cake to loosen it. Remove the side and the bottom of the pan, then place the cake on a cake platter. (The cake can be baked up to 3 days ahead.) Wrap it loosely in plastic until ready to use. Serve the cake sprinkled with confectioners’ sugar, accompanied by creme fraiche, if desired.
* For serious! I can’t tell you how many lemon yogurts I picked up at my totally yuppie gourmet grocery store before finding a single one with real, actual lemon in it and not artificial flavoring. I’m not naming names, but there were brands that I really expected better from. I finally landed on Stoneybrook Farms low-fat with lemon puree on the bottom. Why I went through this trouble when I could have just, uh, squeeze lemon juice into a plain yogurt, I don’t know. But just to warn that if you’re going through the effort of making a cake from scratch, you might want to make sure your lemon yogurt is the real deal.
** For some reason, this never happened for me. Well beyond the baking time (though my oven runs a little cool) the toothpick was still coming out with some damp crumbs attached while the top was golden and springy, so I took it out. It was cooked just fine in the center, so if this happens to you, don’t worry.