The Gospel of Baking: Fear Not – Make This Cake

Think of me as a baking evangelist. If I could don a mini-toque and wander the world Pied Piper style, whisk in hand, preaching the gospel of joyful baking, I would. I love everything about baking, and I want everyone else to have the fun and satisfaction of making something sweet and delicious with their own hands and sharing it with people they love. Can I get a hallelujah?

All evangelists face doubters. I know you’re out there, because I’ve met you on the road. You’re the people who say, “I’m a great cook, but I just can’t bake.” Or, “Baking is so precise; I’m not the measuring kind.” Or, and this is what I hear most often, “I’m afraid of baking.”

Rise up, scaredy cats! You can do it.

As with all new things, you’ve got to ease in; happily, with baking, that doesn’t have to mean boring. I’m starting you off with a fabulous French-inspired dessert that’s a cross between a pudding and a slab pie (without a crust to worry about). That it comes from the land of fussy pastry only adds to its delights.

When I was writing “Baking Chez Moi” (the source of the recipe), I talked with dozens of French home cooks. So many of them said, “I don’t bake.” When pressed, they’d say: “What I bake is too simple. You wouldn’t want my recipes.” They were always right about the simple part, always wrong about the not-wanting part, and I was always surprised by how each recipe went a little further toward shattering the idea that everything French is precise, perfect and pretty much beyond the reach of us mortals.

The lesson for you is: Keep it simple. Start with a recipe that makes sense to you the first time you read it through, and always read through the recipe before you set to work.

Here’s another important one: Have fun. Take pleasure in each step along the way, from measuring out ingredients to the ta-da moment when you offer up what you’ve made. Remember that baking is, as much as I wish it were otherwise, an extracurricular activity, so it should be as much fun for you, the baker, as it is for the eaters.

You’ll have more success with anything you bake (and this applies to cooking as well) when you follow a few basic rules:

Measure all your ingredients beforehand and set them out on the counter; butter your pan. This is called mise-en-place, or mise — pronounced “meez” — for short.

Preheat the oven. Make sure it hits the right temperature before you slide in the baking pan. An oven-repair guy once advised me to preheat the oven and then wait another 15 minutes before baking to be sure the oven is solidly hot. Oh, and keep an oven thermometer in there.

Be patient. Just about everything you bake tastes better when it’s gotten a little color. So, wait for a cake to rise just a little in the middle and for the edges of apples to turn a lovely golden brown.

Now for your homework. For this recipe, you can use any apples you like or have on hand; my picks are usually sweet and juicy. The apples need to be sliced thin. If you have a slicer of any kind (mandoline, Benriner, food processor with a slicing disk), you might want to use it, or you can slice by hand; one of the many joys of this recipe is that precision isn’t important. The cake can be personalized, which means you can add spice if you’d like, or rum (my choice), or can even toss in some raisins or dried cranberries.

You’re the baker; take charge.

Although most things we bake have to wait to cool before they really come into their own — the texture of most sweets doesn’t set until they’ve rested at room temperature for a while — these Custardy Apple Squares are an impatient baker’s dream. You can dig in about 15 minutes after you remove the pan from the oven.

Cut, share, enjoy, repeat. Amen.

Photograph by Dixie D. Vereen. This story originally appeared in my Everyday Dorie column in Washington Post Food.

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Custardy Apple Squares

Adapted from “Baking Chez Moi,” by Dorie Greenspan (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014)

Makes 9 servings

MAKE AHEAD: The squares, which are good a few minutes out of the oven or at room temperature the day they are made, can also be covered and refrigerated for up to 2 days and served chilled.

  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled, plus more for the pan
  • 3 medium juicy, sweet apples, such as Gala or Fuji, peeled
  • 1/2 cup flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 2 large eggs, at room temperature
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • Pinch fine sea salt
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 6 tablespoons whole milk, at room temperature
  • Confectioners’ sugar, for dusting (optional)

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Grease an 8-inch square baking pan with a little butter.

Slice the apples from top to bottom using a mandoline, Benriner or sharp knife, turning the fruit 90 degrees each time you reach the core. The slices should be about 1/16 inch thick: elegantly thin, but not so thin that they’re transparent and fragile. (If they’re a little thicker, that’ll be fine, too.) Discard the cores.

Whisk together the flour and baking powder in a small bowl.

Use a whisk to combine the eggs, sugar and salt in a large bowl for about 2 minutes, until the sugar has just about dissolved and, more important, until the eggs are pale. Whisk in the vanilla extract, then the milk and the melted, cooled butter. Add the flour mixture into the bowl; use the whisk to form a smooth batter.

Add the apples to the bowl; switch to a flexible spatula and gently fold in the apples, turning the mixture until each thin slice is coated in batter. Scrape the mixture into the pan, smoothing the top as evenly as you can. It will be bumpy; that’s its nature.

Bake (middle rack) for 40 to 50 minutes or until golden brown and puffed — make sure the middle of the cake has risen — and a knife inserted into the center comes out clean. Transfer to a rack and allow to cool for at least 15 minutes.

Carefully cut into 9 equal squares in the pan (being careful not to damage the pan); or unmold the slab onto a rack, flip it onto a plate so it is right side up and then cut it into 9 squares. Either way, give the squares a dusting of confectioners’ sugar before serving, if you’d like.

VARIATIONS: You can add a couple of tablespoons of dark rum, Calvados, applejack or Armagnac or a drop (really just a drop) of pure almond extract to the batter. If you have an orange or a lemon handy, you can grate the zest over the sugar and rub the ingredients together until they’re fragrant. You can also change the fruit. Pears are perfect, and a combination of apples and pears even better. Or make the cake with 2 firm mangoes — the texture will be different, but still good — or very thinly sliced quinces. Finally, if you want to make this look a little dressier, you can warm some apple jelly in a microwave and use a pastry brush to spread a thin layer of it over the top.