Cathy and I are both of Italian descent (translation: batshit crazy), so it should be no surprise to anyone that the love of good food is culturally programmed into our genes.
Italian-Americans take their food seriously. I mean, seriously. And for Italian-American women, it is often a huge point of pride to be locally famous for a certain dish—to the extent that it is not unheard of to be absolutely refused the recipe if you request it or, if it IS handed out, for certain alterations to be made so that the finished product is not quite as good as the original. (They even did it to me, totally favorite niece and great-niece of my family—not understanding my experience in recipe development and testing, so I just shrugged and fixed it myself without them being any the wiser.) These women take no prisoners.
Which brings me to Aunt Lena’s Roman Apple Cake.
In the small Pennsylvania steel town where my family is from, my Aunt Lena (my materal grandmother’s sister) was famous for this cake. I have no idea where she got the recipe—she would never say—but I suspect, based on the title since my family is not Roman, it was something she found in a newspaper or church cookbook when she was young, then honed and refined it through the years until it became the legend it was.
And that was all well and good—until my Aunt Hattie, my Aunt Lena’s sister-in-law, submitted the apple cake recipe to be included in the cookbook our family church was publishing in the late 1960s (and how Auntie H got the recipe, we’ll never know). Except she did it under her own name instead of under Aunt Lena’s name—which was exactly how it was published for all to see—and precipitated a war in our family that lasted …
… for thirty. Freaking. Years.
I was too young to be involved when all this started (I was about five), which I will regret until my dying day because, from the stories my mother and her cousins tell, the drama was absolutely awesome. Family reunions, Sunday dinners—there was a permanent line drawn down the center of any gathering and you risked the wrath of some seriously pissed-off Italian women if you crossed it (I understand my cousin Joey, the family troublemaker, tried to stir up some trouble once by pushing that line, and … well. Suffice to say, he’s still alive. Barely).
I can understand the bloodshed because this cake truly is amazing. Don’t make it if you are expecting the usual fluffy, light cake—this is a really dense and heavy cake that’s almost like an apple bread pudding with a yummy streusel topping. Although it is good the day it is made, it is heavenly if you wait a day after you bake it to let it mellow a bit.
Aunt Lena and Aunt Hattie have both shuffled off this mortal coil, God rest their souls, and the family no longer gathers, so I don’t have to worry about retribution for sharing this with you. Much. I wouldn’t put it past either one of them to haunt my dreams.
Aunt Lena’s Roman Apple Cake
1/2 cup organic brown sugar
2 T. cold organic butter, grated
2 tsp. cinnamon (preferably organic Ceylon)
2 T. all-purpose flour
Pinch table salt
2-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1-1/2 tsp. baking powder
1-1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
3/4 cup organic butter, softened
1-1/2 cups organic sugar
2 large organic eggs, room temperature
1-1/2 tsp. pure vanilla extract
3/4 cup organic whole milk, room temperature
3 medium organic Granny Smith apples, medium dice
3/4 cup organic raisins
Make the streusel topping: Mix together the brown sugar, butter, cinnamon, flour and salt in a small bowl until well-combined. Set aside.
For the cake: Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease a 13×9-inch cake pan and set aside.
In a medium bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt; set aside.
Cream the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in vanilla extract. Alternately add the flour mixture and milk, beginning and ending with the flour mixture, and mix well after each addition. Stir in apples and raisins. Pour batter into the prepared pan and smooth. Sprinkle the streusel topping evenly over the cake batter.
Bake for approximately 50 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out with just a few crumbs clinging to it. Cool in pan on wire rack.
Makes 16 servings.