At last, I have a new recipe for you in the heavily neglected category of Russian food. How could this have happened, you ask? Are you not married to a Russian? Does your son not respond to the question “Would you like to go to the library?” with “Da!”? Are you not still in love with all of the Russian food you’ve encountered in your (holy wow) 8 1/2 years of courtship? And the answer is very simple: I needn’t cook Russian food because my mother-in-law does it so well.
Weekly, she brings us deliveries of stuffed cabbage or Salad Olivier (which is one of my oddball son’s favorite foods) or blintzes or vegetable soups, oh, and farmers cheese, which I have come to believe Russians imbue with the healing/halo-ensconced qualities most American parents do yogurt. But, she never brings us this, and so I had to take matters into my own hands.
My mother-in-law insists that she does not bake — that’s my job — but she does make this, which the family calls “Apple Thing”. It’s official name is Apple Sharlotka, but that really gives you no more help than “Thing” by way of description. “Sharlotka” would sound like it relates to a dessert Charlotte, but Charlottes, with their mousse-like, Lady Fingers-decked grandiosity, have little in common aside from the course in which it is served. I’ve heard this referred to as a cake (but it contains no milk, no butter), a Russian pie (but it has no crusts) and/or a pancake (but it’s not very cakey). I wanted to tell you that it’s like a clafoutis, but no, that’s not right either, with no cream or milk and a proportion of fruit to batter that is nothing short of staggering.
And so, you’re just going to have to make it yourself. I know, I know, it’s JANUARY and We Do Not Eat Dessert In January. I hear you. But I cannot bear a life without dessert, without a bit of something sweet each and every day, and I think this is an excellent offering for the most resolute time of year. It contains no butter, save that which you need to grease the pan. Although it has sugar, it’s not very sweet. Although it contains flour, it’s not a whole lot for the size of the pan. Although it has eggs, it’s not very rich. Really, the whole structure comes from apples. You fill the cake pan nearly to the brim with peeled and chopped apples and you pour the batter over then smooth it to encourage it to seep down. It fills the spaces between the apples and makes a torte of what was a pile, and then you bake it until it’s done.
I am assuming that this is the kind of thing you throw together for a quick weekday night dessert, or maybe on a Saturday if your kids are staying for dinner. I assume this because it’s when I have experienced it but that isn’t to say that in the day since I’ve baked it it hasn’t come to fill other roles too: breakfast, with a hearty scoop of yogurt; an afternoon snack for an eager toddler, or simply a dessert that is the opposite of December’s decadence.
One year ago: Vanilla Bean Pudding
Two years ago: Barley Risotto with Beans and Greens
Three years ago: Fig and Walnut Biscotti
Four years ago: Goulash
Five years ago: Balthazar’s Cream of Mushroom Soup and World Peace Cookies
Adapted from Alex’s mother, who adapted it from her mother, and so on…
Butter or nonstick spray, for greasing pan
6 large, tart apples, such as Granny Smiths
3 large eggs
1 cup (200 grams) granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup (125 grams) all-purpose flour
Ground cinnamon, to finish
Powdered sugar, also to finish
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line the bottom of a 9-inch springform pan with parchment paper. Butter the paper and the sides of the pan. Peel, halve and core your apples, then chop them into medium-sized chunks. (I cut each half into four “strips” then sliced them fairly thinly — about 1/4-inch — in the other direction.) Pile the cut apples directly in the prepared pan. Meanwhile, in a large bowl, using an electric mixer or whisk, beat eggs with sugar until thick and ribbons form on the surface of the beaten eggs. Beat in vanilla, then stir in flour with a spoon until just combined. The batter will be very thick.
Pour over apples in pan, using a spoon or spatula to spread the batter so that it covers all exposed apples. (Updated to clarify: Spread the batter and press it down into the apple pile. The top of the batter should end up level with the top of the apples.) Bake in preheated oven for 55 to 60 minutes, or until a tester comes out free of batter. Cool in pan for 10 minutes on rack, then flip out onto another rack, peel off the parchment paper, and flip it back onto a serving platter. Dust lightly with ground cinnamon.
Serve warm or cooled, dusted with powdered sugar. Alex’s family eats it plain, but imagine it would be delicious with a dollop of barely sweetened whipped or sour cream.