If there is anything as magnificent as October in New York City, well, I don’t believe you. The trees I didn’t know we had deposit rust-colored leaves all over the sidewalks, the sky is impossibly blue, the air drinkably crisp and suddenly, you can walk for miles and never feel overheated or spent. It leads to a lot of trips to the market. Even when we don’t need anything, we just make up excuses to go, like just to get a tiny apple for our 13 month-old anti-New Yorker who smiles at and chats (“Ga-ga! Gaga!”*) willingly with strangers who pass him on the sidewalk and if that hasn’t charmed you yet, imagine this same child clutching a handful of flowers the eggplant lady at the market gave him to give to his mama. Seriously, guys, New York City is sweet in the fall.
And without fail, this is my favorite month to cook, the one in which every recipe that crosses my path delights me more than the one before. Remember last week, when I was all “these scones are October on a parchment-lined baking sheet”? I was lying. Turns out, this is. Well, in a buttered square cake pan. It’s one of these cakes you should make just because you can. Just because there’s nothing not to love about a kitchen filled with the scent of freshly baked spiced cake. Or because you’re probably drowning in apples and applesauce from your apple-picking excursions and are out of ideas for them. Or because you’ve never met an application for cream cheese frosting that you couldn’t love.
I don’t spend a lot of time talking about ingredients on this site because I like to focus on the kind of recipes that work with whatever you can get, whether it’s big chain store brand or ground from organic free range fairy wings. But. Two weeks ago, I stopped by the Penzey’s spice stand in Grand Central Terminal Market just to look which as we all know is shorthand for, “Time to break out the granny cart!” I had a list of things I’ve been curious about — What does good white pepper taste like? Why does Mexican vanilla extract smell so much more heavenly? Tell me about Aleppo pepper! — but the one that took this cake from “perfect” to “transcendent” was Vietnamese cinnamon, which managed to be stronger, clearer and richer than any cinnamon I had used before. I can’t think of a better thing to treat yourself to in this cinnamon-dusted season, or a more welcome addition to the recipe below.
* He thinks his name is Gaga. We keep trying to tell him that name is taken, and that he’ll have to be called “Little Lord Gaga” instead.
One year ago: Cauliflower with Raisins, Almonds and Capers
Two years ago: Deep Dark Salted Butter Caramel Sauce
Three years ago: Pumpkin Butter and Pepita Granola
Four years ago: Wild Mushroom and Stilton Galette
Spiced Applesauce Cake with Cinnamon Cream Cheese Frosting
Adapted, barely, from Gourmet.com
This cake is extremely moist, which means it’s a rare cake that tastes almost as good on day three as it did on day one, if you can get it to last that long. It’s the kind of cake that quickly slips into your repertoire; make it on a Monday, I guarantee you’ll find another event that wouldn’t be complete without it by Friday. And then again on Sunday.
If you’re using a stronger cinnamon, such as the aformentioned Vietnamese cinnamon, you can use 2/3 of the suggested amount for a similar impact, or full amount for an extra cinnamon pop.
Drowning in apples from an orchard excursion and haven’t made applesauce yet? Here’s my favorite, easy as can be, recipe for it, subtle and unsweetened. Want another fun fall riff on this? Try pear sauce, with or without the vanilla bean, instead or a mixture of the two.
Update 11/4/11: Just made these as cupcakes and it yielded 18. They bake for 15 minutes, same temperature. Mine didn’t dome terribly much, so you can safely fill them 7/8 of the way. I would suggest doubling the frosting (I 1.6x-ed it and came up a little short), especially if you frost cupcakes in the bakery style, as in, generously. Happy baking!
2 cups (8 3/4 ounces or 250 grams) all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons (10 grams) baking powder
1/2 teaspoon (3 grams) baking soda
1/2 teaspoon (3 grams) salt
3/4 teaspoon (2 grams) cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon (1 gram) ground ginger
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
1 stick (4 ounces or 113 grams) unsalted butter, softened
1 cup (6 7/8 ounces or 195 grams) packed light brown sugar (updated weight)
1 teaspoon (5 ml) pure vanilla extract
2 large eggs
1 1/2 cups (about 13 ounces or 365 grams) unsweetened applesauce
1/2 cup (about 1 3/4 ounces or 50 grams) walnuts (optional), toasted, cooled, and chopped
5 ounces (142 grams) cream cheese, softened
3 tablespoons (1 1/2 ounces or 42 grams) unsalted butter, softened
1/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 cup (4 ounces or 120 grams) confectioners sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Preheat oven to 350°F with rack in middle. Butter an 8- or 9-inch square cake pan. I had no trouble getting my cake out of a nonstick pan by just buttering it, but if you don’t have a nonstick cake pan or are a little nervous, line the bottom with parchment paper and butter that too.
Make cake: Whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and spices. Beat butter, brown sugar, and vanilla with an electric mixer at high speed until pale and fluffy, 2 to 3 minutes. Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition, then beat in applesauce. At low speed, mix in flour mixture until just combined, then stir in walnuts (if using). The batter will look a little curdly and uneven but don’t worry, it will all bake up perfectly in the end.
Spread batter evenly in pan and bake until golden-brown and a wooden pick inserted into center comes out clean, about 35 to 40 minutes. Cool in pan 15 minutes. Run a knife around edge of cake to loosen, then invert onto a plate. Reinvert cake onto a rack to cool completely. You can speed this up, as I always do, in the fridge.
Make frosting: Beat cream cheese, butter, and vanilla with an electric mixer at high speed until fluffy. Sift confectioners sugar and cinnamon over cream cheese mixture, then beat at medium speed until incorporated. Spread frosting over top of cooled cake.
Do ahead: We were impressed with how well this cake kept for three days but were unable to “research” if it lasted longer. Keep frosted cake in the fridge. If you’d like to bake the cake further in advance, I’d wrap it well and freeze it until the day you need it. Leave it out on the counter to defrost and frost it up to a day in advance.