the cake of fall, aka the best apple cake ever

During my early twenties I worked at the corporate headquarters of a building materials manufacturer. If you’ve ever been to a Home Depot, you’ve likely seen the company’s products. The HQ where I worked was full of characters, namely the president and CEO. This man was a classic ego driven company man. He sported a Clark Gable mustache,  entertained on the company’s yacht, and lived in a company-owned estate complete with a helipad and chef. The corporate office occupied the top two floors of the tallest building in Portland, of course. 

Young and wanting to surround myself with friendly people, I sought out like minded folks in what was increasingly feeling like a pretty stuffy company. Lucky for me, I met a young professional in the environmental affairs department. Shannon’s job was much more interesting than mine. She did things like travel to the company’s manufacturing sites to make sure they were being run in compliance with regulatory laws and in a sustainable manner. She was not popular in the field; one because she was a woman in a male dominated industry; two because she was young; three because she wielded a decent amount of power at these facilities. I loved the environmental affairs department and the stories that Shannon came back with from the field. This was ground-breaking stuff for a corporation that had pretty much been allowed to do what it wanted environmentally since the early ’70s.

The director of environmental affairs, and Shannon’s boss was a woman, the first director level woman in the company. She was tough as nails in the male dominated, and very chauvinist company. She wasn’t very friendly, but in retrospect, she probably felt she couldn’t let down her guard. I tried to break down the barrier a few times, but didn’t get any further than talking to her about her backyard that had been featured in Sunset Magazine. If I had known at the time that one of her daughters was an avid cook and had been involved with what is now a three-location Seattle gourmet food empire, I would most definitely have tried to break down barriers with food talk.

My friend Shannon had a great working relationship with her boss, and procured from her what I think is the best apple cake ever. Hands down. Period. The apple cake is a family recipe of Shannon’s former boss. Not only was her backyard Sunset Magazine-worthy, she also was the keeper of the recipe for the most amazing apple cake: The Santori.

The boss’s daughter was involved in the early days of Seattle’s Pasta & Co. and volunteered the family recipe to the chef. Not surprisingly, after the Santori apple cake debuted on Pasta & Co’s menu, it became one of the most popular dessert items. I looked on the Pasta & Co. website, and on the menu page in the dessert section, Santori cake is still listed. The apple cake has stood the test of time.

Shannon and her family came to visit the San Francisco Bay Area at the end of the summer, and when I mentioned the apple cake, it spurred a nice conversation about our good ‘ol corporate days, and of course we talked about Shannon’s former boss. We both still make the cake regularly, both from the tattered photo copy that has a hand-written note from Shannon’s boss on it. It’s rustic and a perfect crowd pleasing cake for the fall, when apples are at the peak of the season.

I wish I knew the history of this family recipe. I wish I could contact Shannon’s boss and ask her myself. But I can’t. She passed away three years ago after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease.  The name Santori and its origin will continue to be a mystery. But what I do know is this, Santori apple cake is truly the best. Trust.

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My kitchen notes:

If you are allergic to walnuts, or just don’t like them, the cake is good with or without nuts.

If you want to up the ante, serve with a dollop of whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.

The cake is moist and stores well in the refrigerator.

Santori Apple Cake – from Liz Smith 

3 cups sugar

1 tablespoon baking soda

1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

1 1/4 teaspoons salt

3/4 cup vegetable oil

3 eggs

1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla

6 cups (about 4 apples) peeled, cored and sliced tart cooking apples such as Granny Smith

1 1/2 cups coarsely chopped walnuts

3 cups flour

1. Preheat oven to 325 if using a metal pan, or 300 if using glass. I’ve had better luck using glass. Lightly butter a 9×13 inch shallow baking pan.

2. In a large bowl, combine sugar, baking soda, cinnamon, salt, oil, eggs and vanilla. Mix well and stir in apples and walnuts until they are coated with the batter. Stir in flour. Batter will be quite firm. Spoon in prepared pan.

3. Bake for 1 hour, 20 minutes if using a metal pan or 1 hour, 30 minutes if using glass. Check for doneness by inserting a toothpick. If batter clings to toothpick, bake for up to another 20 minutes, checking every 10 minutes.

4. When done, remove from oven and let cool on a rack for 20-30 minutes. Once cool, cut into squares.

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