Somewhere deep in my imagination, visions of a dreamy spiced apple cake have long swirled in my head. This yet-to-be loaf would be perfectly at home on a crisp Sunday morning, enjoyed with a hot cup of tea and a good book in hand. And yet it would be made for giving, the ultimate thank you for a kind gesture shown by a dear friend. It would be a recipe worth saving, and a recipe worth sharing. And after much testing and tasting, I can confirm: yes, this loaf is all that and more.
When I headed to the kitchen to test apple cake recipes, I used my mother-in-law's banana bread recipe as my navigation guide. Hers is a one-bowl wonder that makes a fabulous loaf every single time. Its beauty is as much in its ease as its flexibility — you can make it anytime, anywhere, with almost anything. So I subbed in some apples, added a splash of dark rum, and hoped for the best. As I tasted the first slice still warm from the oven, my heart sunk with the twinge of defeat. It was flat, not tasting of apples at all.
But it's amazing what a little brain-storming and kitchen alchemy can do. I went back to the drawing board and started dreaming up new possibilities. The first step was browning the butter, an instant way to make something already good even better. I used a mix of brown sugar and white sugar, and made an addition of all-purpose flour along with whole wheat. Apple brandy replaced the dark rum, and crème fraîche added flavor and fat. I finished it off with a dash of cinnamon for the slightest hint of spice.
And the results? A whole new cake that proved to be magical.
As I sliced into the cake I could tell that my dreams had become a reality. The texture was dense and rich, with specks of sweet apples flooding each and every bite. I had to go sit down to enjoy a piece, and then I had to get up for more. Every now and then I had to close my eyes, just to completely relish the moment. And then it seemed a shame to be enjoying such a wonderful treat alone. So I called my neighbor over and wrapped up another half for the oven repair man.
And then I headed back into the kitchen to bake up another batch, because one just wasn't going to be enough.
Brown Butter Apple Loaf
Makes 1 loaf
4 ounces (1/2 cup) unsalted butter
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 cup white sugar
2 large eggs
4 1/2 ounces (1 cup) all-purpose flour (See Recipe Notes)
2 1/4 ounces (1/2 cup) whole wheat flour (See Recipe Notes)
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
4 ounces (1/2 cup) crème fraîche
3 tablespoons apple brandy, such as Apple Jack or Calvados
1 teaspoon vanilla bean paste or pure vanilla extract
3 apples, peeled, cored and diced (See Recipe Notes)
1/2 cup chopped, toasted pecans
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Grease a loaf pan with butter or cooking spray.
Place the butter in a medium skillet and melt over medium heat. Continue cooking, swirling occasionally to prevent burning, until the butter is bubbling and golden brown with a nutty aroma. Combine the butter in a large mixing bowl with the sugar, brown sugar, and eggs. Whisk to combine.
Add the flours, baking soda, salt, and cinnamon, and stir with a wooden spoon until just combined. Follow with the crème fraîche, apple brandy, vanilla, apples, and pecans; the batter will be very thick.
Transfer the batter to the prepared loaf pan and smooth the top. Bake loaf for 1 hour. Allow to cool for 20 to 30 minutes before removing from loaf pan.
If you do not have a scale to weigh the flour, use the spoon and sweep method.
I prefer crème fraîche for this recipe, but you can substitute sour cream, buttermilk, or plain yogurt.
Use a mix of tart and sweet apples, such as Granny Smith, Braeburn, Gala, Golden Delicious, Honey Gold, Jonathan, McIntosh, and/or Honeycrisp. I used one Granny Smith (tart) and 2 Pacific Rose (sweet) apples for testing.