Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Applesauce Cake, a.k.a. Spanish Bar Cake.

Growing up, it is safe to say that we were a dessert family. There was a Boston Baked Bean crock, seldom devoid of cookies, that had permanence on the edge of the kitchen counter. I could usually hear the telltale rattle of the pottery lid just after my Dad would step in the door from work. Now that I'm an adult and a parent myself, I can appreciate that my Parents wouldn't ordinarily let us kids indulge before supper ourselves. I think of Jerry Seinfeld saying " as adults we understand, even if you ruin an appetite, there's another appetite". If we adults want, we can go ahead and squander our current one on as many cookies as we can hold.

That, my friends, is probably why I don't keep a cookie jar, and save the bulk of my cookie baking for Christmastime. Cookies are just too small and bite sized for me to resist. Cake, however, I am (usually) dutifully able to ignore until after dinnertime, when proper adults who have eaten responsibly for the day are free to indulge. While the family of my childhood always had cookies at the ready, my Mom also frequently had other desserts for those of us who ate our dinners. Cake, pie, kuchens, coffee cakes that were flaky and shaped like enormous tennis shoes (oh, but they were sooooo good!), fruit cobblers or crisps, rice puddings or tapioca. Seldom were we to end the evening without a few bites of something sweet.

One dessert that my Mom often made, also a favorite of my Gram, was this applesauce cake. They both made it in a 9x13 aluminum lidded pan, also with the telltale lid rattle I could hear from a mile away. Most families have a cake or two like this, ones that are made entirely of pantry staples and remind them instantly of home. For me this is that cake. While I most love chocolate cake, this is the cake that takes me straight back to the Northwoods, my Gram's kitchen. Her silver percolator of coffee hot, and this out of the oven just long enough to be frosted in maple cream cheese frosting. We had plate sized pieces, the bunch of us satisfying that Mendez sweet tooth heartily - and with ample amounts of vanilla ice cream alongside it no doubt.

My Mom grew up in Chicago area, a south suburb that at the time was almost rural. She remembers her dad picking up a cake similar to this at the A&P every Sunday and it was called Spanish Bar Cake. My grandfather was Mexican, so when she told me this years ago, I just figured it was something that he affectionately called this moist applesauce cake and didn't consider that the A&P store did actually have a cake of the same name. It's also true I hardly know what an A&P store was, since where I grew up there were no such things.

It's unclear to me the exact origins of our cake recipe. The A&P version (according to many Google perusals) was a dark spice cake with a fluffy, white frosting. Some recipes use molasses or a tablespoon or two of cocoa powder, but all use applesauce and shortening or oil and no butter. Most are studded with varying amounts of walnuts and/or raisins. I'm certain our version comes from a newspaper somewhere over the years, and was written down in my Gram's lovely cursive on a 3x5 index card that has yellowed and browned over time. Our instructions call for the use of a pint of applesauce, since my Gram's tree had, and still has, the best of the best apples for sauce.

Last year's applesauce, from Gram's tree... just a few pints remain before the 2010 batch kicks off.

This cake is topped with a cream cheese frosting flavored with the artificial maple flavoring, Mapleine. As far as the fake stuff goes, it is my favorite. It's a molasses-black bottle made by Crescent and it really isn't all that artificial. It's caramel colorant makes the otherwise snowy frosting into a rich, fall-like color, and it's syrupy sweet maple essence is the key to the Mendez version of Spanish Bar Cake. I was also able to make powdered sugar out of my raw sugar for the first time thanks to the new VitaMix. Even though it was completely powdered, the finished frosting had that crystalline raw sugar bite that I really love. I think everyone in my family knows how to make this frosting, and we never measure, we just add liquid and powdered sugar until the frosting feels like frosting. I will approximate the amounts below.


Spanish Bar Cake (a.k.a. Applesauce Cake)
one 9x13 pan (easily halved for a 9x9 inch pan)
  • 2 1/2 c. ap flour
  • 2 c. sugar (I used raw)
  • 1/4 t. baking powder
  • 1 1/2 t. baking soda
  • 3/4 t. cinnamon
  • 1/2 t. cloves
  • 1/2 t. allspice
  • 1/2 c. shortening or equivalent oil (I used coconut oil)
  • 1/2 c. water (I used raw apple cider I had on hand)
  • 1 pint applesauce (approximately 2 cups)
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 c. raisins
  • 1/2 c. walnuts, chopped (or more)
Preheat oven to 350.

Sift or mix the dry ingredients in a large bowl. Mix the wet ingredients (I melted my coconut oil first) in a medium bowl. Add wet ingredients to dry, and stir until well incorporated but do not over mix. Fold in the raisins and walnuts.

Spread into a 9x13 inch pan and bake for 25-35 minutes. Cake is done when tester comes out clean, and the top is lightly browned. (Time varies depending on the size and variety of your pan.)

Cool completely, and frost with Maple Cream Cheese Frosting (follows).

Maple Cream Cheese Frosting:
  • 4 oz. cream cheese, softened
  • powdered sugar (3-4 cups more for thicker frosting layer)
  • milk (2-3 T.)
  • 1/2 t. (or more) Mapleine
  • (optional 1-2 T. butter)
Using a hand mixer (or by hand), beat the cream cheese and optional butter until well mixed. Add Mapleine and enough powdered sugar to create a thick frosting. Thin with a bit of milk, and correct with additional powdered sugar should it get too runny.

(I made a sourdough version of this cake as well!)

Many similar recipes call for soaking the raisins, but I don't bother.

These days, I half the recipe and make it in a 9x9 glass baking dish, since I have one boy who won't eat any sweets, and one who eats far too many. I find it's the best way. Not to mention, I would totally eat a 9x13 pan of this cake and it's better to just resist temptation at the baking stage.

I've been thinking about this cake a lot lately, ever since Julia posted her version of the Applesauce Cake. Admittedly, hers is more virtuous in the sugars department (frosting free and all), but I have to wonder if way on down the line, we are using the same recipe. Like language and nomads, recipes have a way of circumnavigation that is mind boggling. I wonder when just exactly it was that I first ate this cake myself, and now that I've set it free into Internetdom, where it will end up next, and for how many generations. I think about the staple foods of my life, the simple things like apples and how some years, the tree didn't produce. Somehow, there was always enough sauce to get by until the next harvest. Who planted that tree - and how old is it? We don't even know the variety of the apples...yet there were always plenty for everyone who needed them.

Pleasant questions for a chilly day - the stuff my daydreaming is made up of. Tomorrow morning, you can think of me with my coffee and perhaps a plate sized piece of this cake for breakfast, since after all - I am an adult, and there will be more appetites. I can always be more responsible the day after tomorrow.


  1. I love the maple cream cheese frosting. It's similar to my favorite frosting recipe for carrot cake. I have actually been known to soak my raisins in bourbon (or brandy) for recipes like this... a little indulgence for that "adult" appetite :)

  2. This is a beautiful, nostalgic post. So sweetly written. And that cake, it looks gorgeous. The way you describe the frosting, with the slight grit of sugar makes my mouth water.

    I was waiting for this post, and I guess I must have missed it! But just caught it now, in order to link to it. And btw, tennis shoe shaped coffee cake? Really??

  3. Lo, last year I did soak the raisins in brandy first... good, but not the cake of my childhood!

    Julia, thanks! And you make me think about the tennis shoe coffee cakes, and how I NEED to get that recipe from my Mom. I'm going to the Farm this weekend, so I am going to get it then. I HOPE it is as good as I remember!!

  4. You write so beautifully. I'm enjoying reading your posts immensely. You've got me thinking, too, of the recipes of my own youth. One my mother made was a little butter cookie of exquisite tenderness and butteriness. She'd roll them in powdered suger or almonds, and they had almond extract. These--and pfefferneuse--whispered "Christmas!" and good things to come. I'm wrapping myself in a warm throw, toasting your health and happiness, and planning holiday treats for my now-grown kids. You're making Fall perfect.


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