Apfelkuchen (or apple kuchen) is a german apple cake.
Apfelkuchen translates simply to apple cake, but this is not just any old apple cake. This quintessentially German recipe consists of a single layer of buttery cake topped with neat and orderly rows of sliced baking apples. Most recipes today are made in a square or rectangular shaped pan and cut into bars, but I have seen some older European recipes that produce a thicker round cake. Most recipes are finished with a crumble or streusel topping, but some are simply sprinkled with confectioners sugar.
Fruit kuchens have been around for centuries, and many traditional recipes used to be leavened with yeast. Many cooks swapped the yeast for chemical leaveners like baking powder and soda as their popularity grew decades ago. However they’re made, most recipes today resemble a dense fruity coffee cake.
Growing up, my great grandmother was famous for her apple kuchen, and it came along with her to every family gathering and church function as far back as I can remember. She made it almost by instinct, measuring out all her ingredients in her hands, and since she didn’t use exact measurements she never put the recipe down on paper. It was definitely her signature and no get-together was complete without it.
When she passed in 2003, it dawned on everyone in the family that no one had ever asked her to teach them how to make it. Suddenly she was gone, and so was her apple kuchen.
She’ll always be Grandma Rindfleisch to me, but she was born Anna Hollatz in Germany in 1909. She emigrated in 1928 when she was engaged to be married to my great grandfather who lived here in the U.S. Before their marriage they sent love letters back and forth to each other from across the world, and my grandfather says she still had all those letters when he was growing up.
Get a look at that dress! Va-Va-Voom! If you ever wondered how wedding dress fashions may have looked in the late 1920’s, now you have an idea.
Writing about her apple kuchen got me really curious about my great grandmother’s history, and because I’m a total nerd, I researched her Ellis Island records. She sailed on the White Star line’s S.S. Arabic, and the ships manifest was full of information I never expected to find there, including handwritten changes to the name of the person who met her when she arrived. I was even able to find a few photos of the actual ship on which she made her journey, and I’m thinking of trying to get one printed and framed.
After they were married, she and my great grandfather moved from Connecticut to the Fingerlakes region of upstate New York, where they owned and operated a dairy farm on the shores of Cayuga Lake. My mom has tons of stories of what life was like on the farm when she was growing up, and even keeps some of the dairy’s original glass milk bottles on a shelf in her kitchen. One of her fondest memories is of watching Grandma Rindfleisch churn her own butter in the well worn wooden churn she kept on her countertop. I best remember her thick German accent and the way she used to tightly wrap her white braids on the sides of her head like Princess Leia.
When I started asking around about trying to recreate her recipe, my mom and all her cousins had loads of ideas and advice. “The cousins” (as mom calls them) had some ideas on what recipes would come closest, what ingredients should go in, and in what order. My uncle has a recipe that was supposed to come close, but a few of the cousins said it wasn’t right for a few reasons. First, and most importantly, the almond flavor should be present only in the crunchy streusel topping on the cake, but in his recipe the almond extract is added to the cake instead. There was also quite an uproar over the fact that his recipe called for (gasp) cooking oil spray!
The one thing everyone could agree on was that nothing would ever come close to the flavor of her home-churned butter, and therefore no one will ever be able to make her kuchen exactly the way she did.
My advice is to use the best quality unsalted butter you can find. If you have the means to churn your own, knock yourself out. If not, don’t sweat it. I was lucky enough to find some imported German cultured butter made with cream from grass fed cattle when I was butter hunting. The flavor was amazing and I think it really did make such a difference in my kuchen.
The recipe I ended up settling on, given to me by one of the cousins, comes really damned close to the real thing. It’s been over a decade since I tasted grandma’s kuchen, but if memory serves I think this is almost perfect. The only significant difference is that she would bake hers on a sheet pan or jelly roll, producing a thinner cake with a much higher apple to cake ratio. I didn’t go that route because it would make way more cake than I could handle, but if you’re looking to feed a crowd that’s the way to do it.
Either way, this cake is phenomenal. It’s simple, homey and unfussy but totally satisfying. It also happens to be really easy to make. The cake itself has an incredible rich buttery flavor that’s perfectly complimented by the sweet and tender apples. The topping combines even more butter with almond extract and cinnamon to finish the cake with just enough sweet crunch to tie everything together.
Grandma Rindfleisch's Apfelkuchen
1/2 cup (1 stick) highest quality unsalted butter, softened
3/4 cup sugar
2 cups flour
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup milk
3 or 4 firm baking apples (I used braeburns)
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup flour
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) highest quality unsalted butter
1 teaspoon almond extract
Preheat your oven to 350. Butter and flour a 9×13 baking dish (or an 18×13 jelly roll pan or half sheet pan). Cream butter and 3/4 cup sugar together until light and fluffy. Add the egg & beat until well incorporated. Whisk together the 2 cups of flour, baking powder, and salt. Add flour to butter mixture in three additions, alternating with milk. Beat just until incorporated, scraping the sides of the bowl after each addition.
Spread the batter in the bottom of the buttered pan. Peel, core, & slice the apples. Arrange the slices in three four or neat rows lengthwise, depending on the size of the apples. Whisk together the remaining sugar, flour, and cinnamon. Mash the butter into the topping with a fork, or with your fingers. Mix in almond extract, break the topping up so it’s nice and crumbly, and sprinkle it evenly over the apples. Bake for 40 to 45 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake (avoid apple slices) comes out clean. If you’re baking on a jelly roll the cake may cook faster, start checking after 30 minutes.
Cool for at least 30 minutes before dividing into three rows of slices.