“Two applesauce cakes were on display in the middle of the kitchen table when Clay-Boy walked in. He breathed in the spicy aroma appreciatively. Something had happened during his absence. There was some quickening of excitement, a sense of Christmas rushing inexorably down upon them, but in spite of the two proud cakes, he knew that his mother was not really prepared for the day.” ~ Earl Hamner (The Homecoming)
Miss Michael Learned earned 3 Emmy Awards for her role as Olivia Walton.
When I heard June 6th was National Applesauce Cake Day, the first person I thought of was Olivia Walton.
Though she and Grandma spend a lot of time in the kitchen serving up good old-fashioned country dishes like fried chicken, mashed potatoes, biscuits, beef stew, fresh corn on the cob, scrambled eggs, bacon and heavenly peach pie, it is her applesauce cake that holds special favor. Whenever there is something to celebrate, Olivia makes an applesauce cake, and it seems to work wonders with anyone needing a good serving of down home comfort.
“The Homecoming: A Christmas Story” aired in 1971.
In Earl Hamner’s novel, The Homecoming (1970), upon which the series pilot is based, Olivia Spencer makes two applesauce cakes for Christmas. She is apprehensive because her husband Clay, who’s been working in the city far from home, is late returning home on Christmas Eve. She tries to hide her worry from the children by asking them to help her crack black walnuts for the cakes.
She eventually sends her eldest son, Clay-Boy, to go look for his father. One of his stops is the Staples home, where spinster sisters Etta and Emma ply him with whiskey-spiked eggnog. Though he is unable to locate his father, Clay-Boy returns home with a Mason jar of “Recipe.” A devout Baptist, Olivia eschews all alcoholic beverages, but decides she can use some of the Recipe to make frosting for her applesauce cakes. Just goes to show how special those cakes are!
Patricia Neal played Olivia in “The Homecoming: A Christmas Story”
After years and years of hearing about Olivia’s Applesauce Cake, I finally made some, using the recipe included in The Homecoming.
Those who bake know that things turn out better when you’re in the “mood” and have plenty of time. I declared a “no internet day” and set to work. If there’s one thing I love, it’s baking with spices. The cake calls for cinnamon, nutmeg and ground cloves, all of which smelled divine as I sifted them with the flour, even better when their aroma wafted from the oven during baking. These spices always evoke pleasant holiday memories, since I also use them to make gingerbread, pumpkin pie, molasses cookies and carrot cake. I pictured Olivia’s kitchen with its woodburning stove, Hoosier cabinet and small icebox, and smiled at my own baking cupboard, which I designed after Olivia’s.
Walton’s Mountain Museum, Schuyler, Virginia
I always like creaming butter, sugar and eggs, seeing them whip up yellowy smooth. I remembered another time my KitchenAid was used for a special cake — almost exactly a year ago, when the World’s Best Baker and his constant companion, Tanita S. Davis, graced my kitchen all the way from Glasgow, and turned out a sweet puckery lemon cake, pieces of which I froze and savored for several months afterward with celebratory cups of Darjeeling. This good memory, I knew, would add extra flavor to my applesauce cake.
This was my first time using golden raisins in a cake other than fruitcake, and I was a little apprehensive, since raisins can be very cloying. So I compromised by trusting Olivia’s raisins but leaving out the walnuts since I’m mildly allergic. I coated the raisins with flour to keep them from sinking, and added them to the batter after alternately stirring in the rest of the flour mixture and applesauce. Then all was transferred into my well greased tube pan (a veteran of angel food and lemon chiffon cakes), to bake at 350 for an hour.
Now, what to do about the frosting? It calls for the usual confectioner’s sugar, butter, and cream — and two tablespoons of bourbon. Yes, Olivia made an exception, but I decided not to, since I don’t like the taste of alcohol in my desserts when it’s not cooked off. I added 1/2 tsp of vanilla instead. This might be a good a time as any to also confess I doubled the amount of cinnamon in the cake and reduced the cloves by half. What good is a recipe if you can’t play with it a little?
I’m happy to report that after thoroughly enjoying this bout of relaxing, contemplative baking, my applesauce cake was a great success. Very moist, albeit dense, a perfect coffeecake for breakfast or brunch, also nice with tea or a tall glass of cold milk. The raisins were not overly sweet at all; in fact the cake by itself was less sweet than expected. It would probably be just as good with sweetened whipped cream, a dusting of powdered sugar, a favorite glaze, or if you like, the aforementioned bourbon frosting. Depending on your preferences, you could also experiment with the spices, add different kinds of nuts, and chunky applesauce might be a good idea.
The exact origin of applesauce cake is unknown, though some speculate it developed during the time of the first World War when sugar was scarce, and it was “patriotic” to use less of it, along with less butter and fewer eggs (this recipe only uses two). Health-conscious folks like the idea of substituting applesauce for some of the shortening. It’s easy to see how this cake might have been a staple during the Depression years, a favorite of the Spencers, Waltons and Hamners.
OLIVIA’S APPLESAUCE CAKE
1 cup butter
1 cup sugar
2 cups unsweetened applesauce
2 cups light raisins
1 cup chopped walnuts
1 tsp baking soda
3-1/2 cups flour (sifted)
1 tsp cinnamon
2 tsp cloves
2 tsp nutmeg
pinch of salt
Sift together: Flour, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg. Take 1/2 cup of flour mixture and stir into the nuts and raisins. Set both aside.
Cream butter until whipped soft. Add sugar a little at a time until mixture is smooth. Beat in eggs vigorously. Alternately stir in flour mixture and applesauce. When all mixed together, add nuts and raisins and mix well.
Pour batter into a well-greased cake mold. Bake in pre-heated oven at 350 degrees for one hour. Cool ten minutes, then turn out on cake rack. Frost with Whiskey Frosting when cake is cool.
JANE’S WHISKEY FROSTING
1/4 cup butter
1 T cream
Pinch of salt
2 cups powdered sugar
2 T bourbon
Cream butter, add sugar and salt, then cream and whiskey. Whip until smooth. Frost cake.
Sit a spell and have a piece before you rush off to your other business:
Happy National Applesauce Cake Day!!
(And, “Goodnight, Olivia . . . “)
♥ Related post: A Visit to Walton’s Mountain
“If John doesn’t get home soon with money, all we’ll have for Christmas dinner is my applesauce cake. We won’t even have that if I don’t get a move on.” ~ Olivia Walton
Copyright © 2011 Jama Rattigan of jama rattigan’s alphabet soup. All rights reserved.