I’ve never considered myself much of a baker, but when the fall season sets in, I want nothing more than to be cozy with a book, a mug of tea and something sweet.
Autumn is apple time in Vermont, and I wanted to attempt a baking project that’s both seasonal and sentimental: my late grandmother’s Quick Apple Torte.
My paternal grandmother, Susi, came here as a refugee from Austria in 1938 at age 12. Her family settled in Boston, where she grew up, and later, against the dictates of the times, graduated from Radcliffe College and Harvard Medical School, where she met my grandfather.
The tale was told and retold around countless Thanksgiving, Hanukkah and Passover dinner tables as she spooned out helpings of tzimmes, brisket or matzo ball soup. It was unbelievable to me as a young girl as I took in the delicacy of her signature Viennese desserts: mohr im hemd, dobostorte, mannheimer apfel. She had clearly learned to cook somewhere along the way.
When she died of brain cancer four years ago, I inherited a few pieces of her jewelry, some fancy dishware, a teapot I don’t remember her using. But all I really wanted were her recipes. For me, family and food spell tradition, and even though we don’t have Thanksgiving, Hanukkah or Passover with her anymore, I feel transported when I taste my dad’s versions of her recipes.
Last fall, I finally asked to borrow her handwritten recipe cards to scan and save for my own collection. I downloaded an app and spent several days taking photos of the cards, some of them in German I have no hope of translating on my own.
This weekend, with a bag of McIntosh from Chapin Orchard in Essex, I decided to make her torte. I don’t remember her baking it, but it seemed a bit easier than others, many of which call for ground nuts, and I don’t have a nut grinder or food processor.
With the exception of whipping cream for the topping, the ingredients were ones I already had at home. Apples, brown sugar, lemon juice, flour, salt, cinnamon, sugar, egg.
I set my metal mixing bowl and whisk attachment in the freezer, a tip I’ve picked up along the way to make better whipped cream. I then gathered the dry ingredients, using measuring cups in the shape of Russian nesting dolls in another small tribute to Susi; she had a few in her home, and they always remind me of her.
Next was peeling the apples, the most tedious and my least favorite step. To keep them from browning, the recipe called for placing them in a bowl with lemon juice and water. On top of this, I sprinkled a hearty dash of cinnamon and mixed in a whole cup of brown sugar.
Preheating the oven to 350, I started making the crumbly topping of white sugar, salt, flour and a beaten egg. I’m familiar with apple crisp toppings that use oats and butter, but I trusted her judgment.
The recipe didn’t say to grease the 8×8 pan, but I did just in case. I set my creation in the oven for 30 minutes, covered, and then removed the tinfoil after another 30 minutes.
I pulled it out of the oven with anticipation of a mess but instead found something that looked generally edible and smelled delicious. Setting it on the stovetop to cool, I removed the bowl and whisk from the freezer, poured in heavy cream, sugar and vanilla and set my KitchenAid stand mixer to high, checking frequently for the requisite stiff peaks.
Spooning out the torte, I was glad I’d used that spray of canola oil: The edges were a crispy golden brown of caramelized brown sugar. A plop of whipped cream and another dash of cinnamon, and I was done.
I never cooked much with my grandmother, but I felt comforted with each bite of the sweet apple treat. It was a good beginning to meet my goal of carrying out her memory, one scanned index card at a time.
Susi’s Quick Apple Torte
Preparation time: 15 minutes • Cook time: 60 minutes • Serves 4-6
1 quart apples (about 3-4 medium apples), peeled and sliced thin
1 C brown sugar
1 Tbsp. lemon juice
¼ C water
½ to 1 C white sugar, to taste
1 C flour, sifted
½ tsp. salt
1 egg, beaten
1 C whipping cream
1 Tbsp. sugar
½ tsp. pure vanilla extract
1) Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2) Freeze metal mixing bowl and whisk.
3) Combine apples with brown sugar, lemon juice, water and cinnamon. Stir and place in lightly greased 8×8 baking pan.
4) In separate bowl, combine sifted flour with sugar and salt. Beat egg and add to mixture, combining until crumbles are formed. Top apple mixture.
5) Place in oven 30 minutes, covered. Remove foil and bake another 30 minutes, then remove to cool.
6) Meanwhile, remove mixing tools. Add whipping cream, sugar and vanilla. Beat on high until stiff peaks form.
7) Spoon out torte and top with whipped cream (or ice cream). Enjoy!