Why Apple Cake Is Better than Apple Pie

updated Dec 17, 2019
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(Image credit: Maria Siriano)

My lack of very essential American food experiences is something of a running joke around the office. I don’t own a microwave or a slow cooker; I have never eaten meatloaf or, until recently, spaghetti squash (it’s delicious, it turns out, especially when it’s dressed with a creamy, tomatoey sauce); I have been to Trader Joe’s probably once in my life, which is also the number of times I have eaten a Big Mac; and I have yet to try an Egg McMuffin.

My food naïveté (we’ll call it that because it sounds better than ignorance) is largely due to the fact that my mother is German.

My mother’s parents were refugees from (then) Czechoslovakia and Hungary; they met at a camp somewhere in east Germany and moved to a tiny little town in far western Germany, basically on the French border. My mother lived there, in a house my grandfather, or Opa, built — until my dad swooped in and whisked her away to America. He was positioned at an army base in her town; she was working as a secretary.

My mom still complains, to this day (some 46 years later), that my dad promised they would go back to Germany. But, the truth is, she loves America. She’s now an American citizen and when she visits her hometown, they tell her she speaks sehr gut Deutsche fur eine Amerikanische Frau. In other words, her German is really good for an American. (She hates that, as you might imagine.)

But it wasn’t easy for my mom to find her footing in the States, especially since she didn’t speak much English when she got here. And the language wasn’t the only barrier. Back home, her mom went to the baker, the butcher, and the candlestick maker for whatever they needed. They had a garden out back. There were definitely no superstores.

While she adapted and we were soon making weekend breakfast trips to Bob’s Big Boy and getting our OshKosh B’Goshes at KMart, our home, our kitchen, and our eating habits were never really quite the same as those of my friends.

For starters, open-faced Liverwurst sandwiches were probably my favorite thing ever. They’re still really good and now I like them with pickles and a good schmear of mustard. My mom also went to the bakery, a little Swiss one a couple miles away, for fresh bread every single day. And our freezer was basically bare, reserved for ice cubes (which we didn’t use) and, occasionally, ice cream, which we ate with melted Toblerone chocolate on top. Yes, it was different. No, it wasn’t bad; not bad at all.

Which brings me (finally) to the main subject of this article: apple cake.

In Germany, afternoon cake and coffee is basically a rule. It was my favorite part about going to visit my relatives. When I was younger, Kaffee and Kuchen actually meant Orangina and Nutella slathered on bread, but as I got older, I learned to expand my appreciation of German baked goods.

(Image credit: Joseph Campbell)

My favorite sweet treat that my grandmother, or Oma, made was apple cake. It was rich and buttery and baked in a Bundt pan. Chunks of apple were interspersed throughout, a slightly toothsome delight.

My Oma also made the cake when she came to visit us in the United States, trips I recall with great detail: Her brown, practical stockings hanging in the bathroom I usually shared with my brother; her habit of cleaning every plate with the heel of bread so that the dishwasher hardly seemed necessary; her patience as she sat with me while I worked on my Charlotte’s Web shadowbox; and her thick, but nimble fingers greasing the bundt pan with butter, sprinkling vanilla sugar into the batter, and carefully placing the cake into the oven.

My grandmother passed this year and I feel so lucky to have these memories — and also to know that I can remember her simply by making German-style apple cake, which, to me, will always be better than apple pie.

Get the Recipe: Sunken Apple Cake