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The Once and Future Apple Cake

When I was so young that even my taste buds barely remember, my mother used to make an apple cake. This I am sure of, even when I falter on the exact color of her eyes, the shape of her hand, the smell of her red velvet bathrobe.

I recall poorly the world I shared with my mother. Yet I know that sometimes, on those stern fall afternoons when life itself seemed to bow down before some chilly power, I came home to the smell of baked apples.

The cake waited on the linoleum counter, its warm invitation extending beyond our door. It was cut into thick, steaming slices. The crumb was moist, dark and generously appled. To smell it ignited a flare of hope. To eat it was to feel loved, and deserving of love.

My mother died of cancer just after I turned 14, just before apple season. In the brief but complete wreckage of our lives afterward, many treasures disappeared, among them the binder and box where she kept her favorite recipes, copied in her upright, finely looping hand.

When I finally learned to cook a decade later, my grandmother and my aunts were able to supply many of the recipes -- the kung pao chicken, the "lion's head" meatballs, the banana bread -- that were family favorites.

It was many years before I realized the apple cake recipe was missing, and when I did I refused to believe it. I continued to inquire, but the apple cake must have been some private pleasure of my mother's, and nobody knew where it came from.

So began an annual ritual. Each fall, when the air began to sharpen, I would think about the apple cake and attempt to replicate it.

I read food-science books, which instructed me to use oil, not butter, to moisten the crumb. I moved to apple country, where heirloom apples my mother never dreamed of -- russeted, oblate, strawberry pink and gold -- blanketed the October hills. I became a cookbook reviewer, and every time a baking book arrived, I checked for apple cakes. Some were intriguing, with orange zest and cloves or brandy. Others were pruney with molasses, or soft, cakey and damp.

It always seemed my best apple cakes were made in a hurry for friends and that afterward my notes got swept away in the party trash or were otherwise forgotten. One apple cake after another floated down the river of memory; discarded recipes littering its banks.

Each year I felt certain I would reproduce my mother's cake, even if I had to reconstruct it using scientific principles. Each year about late winter, the apples went soft and leather-skinned, and I gave it up for another year.

This fall, I was mailing a package at the town post office when a familiar scent caught my attention. Toni, behind the desk, held up a plate. "Would you like some apple cake? Dotty made it. It's really good."

"Sure," I said. "I love apple cake."

The crumb was moist, the color of a wheat field. It was sweet, not sugary sweet, but appley sweet. The apple chunks (and there were plenty of them) had just a bit of bite left after their time in the oven. I ate it with my fingers and licked off the crumbs."Toni," I said, "could you ask Dotty for the recipe?"

It was not a difficult recipe. In fact, it was practically a "dump cake," the kind where you dump all the ingredients in a bowl and stir.

In my fruit drawer were the old, storied apples of the season -- Blue Pearmains, Roxbury Russets, Father Abrahams -- treasured one generation after another, shipped as scions across the sea, or sprung wild from discarded apple pomace centuries ago. I diced them in, and pushed the heavy batter around in a circle with a wooden spoon.

Something in me was protesting. I hadn't earned this apple cake, unlike the ones I'd constructed from charts and experiments and books. There was hardly any effort in making it, and the reward was patently disproportionate. Even its provenance was serendipitous. Like motherly love, it fell squarely in the category of the things we receive without asking, as opposed to the things we work for.

Yet as the warm breath of apples stole across the house, I began to accept that good things might come in unlikely guise, that what was broken can be made whole. Maybe the perfection of my mother's apple cake was a moving target, never to be satisfied until I made peace with life itself.

I took the apple cake out of the oven. It was craggy on top with protruding fruit, not brown and smooth like my mother's. The apple chunks and chopped pecans jostled shoulder-to-shoulder inside, and it smelled so good I could have torn it apart with my fingers right then and there. But I waited.

My son came home from kindergarten and, with the single-mindedness of childhood, homed in on the cake. He wolfed down a thick slice with a glass of cold milk on the side.

My baby daughter, who still takes her milk neat, without cake on the side, looked on hopefully from her high chair. It was then that I understood, not that everything I'd lost was found, but that in a sense it had never really been lost.

My mother is not only a mother-shaped hole in my heart. The days we walk the earth are but a portion of a whole, for we are dreamed of by our parents and remembered by our children.

My mother's apple cake was planted in me with love and belief, unearned and immortal, to last through empty years and match its memory with future apple cakes. In time, I myself would step into those motherless years long past, to fill them with apple cake and all I hold dear.

This is why I love my apple cake and share it with my children. Because, if all goes well, my children's children, too, will have their tomorrows thickly sliced and sweetly scented, studded with memory, and appled with hope.

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T. Susan Chang
T. Susan Chang regularly writes about food and reviews cookbooks for The Boston Globe, and the Washington Post. She's the author of A Spoonful of Promises: Recipes and Stories From a Well-Tempered Table (2011). She lives in western Massachusetts, where she also teaches food writing at Bay Path College and Smith College. She blogs at Cookbooks for Dinner.