This French Apple Crumb Cake is easily one of my top 3 favorite cakes of all time. However, I will say that calling it a cake feels a bit dishonest because while true, nothing about this cake is very cakey.
In contrast to more traditional apple cakes, like Irish Apple Cake and Apple Cider Layer Cake, the texture of French Apple Crumb Cake is a delicious cross between apple pie and tart tatin. And the crumb topping is soft, buttery, and as thick as the cake itself.
"I made this for a large family dinner party. I had a lot of apples that needed to be harvested off my apple tree so it seemed like the perfect recipe to try. I was blown away. Not only is the “cake” absolutely beautiful the flavors were so wonderful. It’s a perfect autumn cake full of warm and comforting flavors. I highly recommend and I will be doing this cake again very soon."
The traditional French Apple Cake is a simple one-layer cake with an exceptionally high proportion of fruit to cake. It’s typically flavored with rum and has a texture that’s more custardy than cake-like. Like all things French, it contains a lot of butter and is all the more delicious for its elegance.
The apple crumb cake you see pictured here is a loose variation on that simple cake.
- Instead of rum, this cake is flavored with vanilla and almond extract.
- Like a traditional French Apple Cake, this cake is packed with more apples than you think the batter will hold. Unlike a traditional French Apple Cake, I cooked the apples before tossing them into the cake batter. This concentrates the apple flavor and reduces the water content so you end up with a rich, almost creamy cake instead of a soggy one.
- Like a traditional French Apple Cake, this is an all-butter cake. But, in this recipe, I browned the butter to give the cake even more flavor.
- And, completely unlike a French Apple Cake, this cake includes a thick, buttery crumb topping reminiscent of the very best New York Crumb Cake.
Like this buttermilk coffee cake and this almond plum cake, part of this cake's magic is in its versatility. Serve this cake to dinner party guests, as an afternoon snack, or (my favorite) for breakfast or brunch.
Just be aware that if you share this cake with others, as most of us are likely to do, it's almost guaranteed to generate frequent future requests. You might henceforth be known as "that person who makes that incredible apple cake". I can think of worse things.
Ingredients Needed to Prepare This Recipe
For the Apple Cake, you'll need:
- Ground cloves.
- Some finely grated orange zest from 1 medium orange
- Butter! I like to use salted butter in this cake and strongly advise you to do the same. This cake needs a relatively high amount of salt to achieve a balanced, flavorful result.
- Apples. 2 ½ pounds of them. Pretty much any variety of apple will work in this cake but I prefer sweeter varieties such as honeycrisp, ambrosia, jazz, sweet tango, or pink lady.
- Granulated sugar.
- Salt. Yes, yes, I know I just told you to use salted butter, but I'm serious when I say that there needs to be more salt in this cake than you might normally add.
- All-purpose flour. Preferably unbleached.
- Baking powder.
- Vanilla and almond extract. The almond extract is optional, the vanilla is not. Be sure to use real vanilla extract, not the imitation kind.
Here's what you'll need for the crumb topping:
- Butter. When butter appears twice in a recipe, you know it's going to be good.
- Brown sugar. Light or dark, it's up to you.
- Granulated sugar.
- Ground cinnamon. Because cinnamon + apples = 😋
- Salt. Just because there's salt in the cake does NOT mean you can leave it out of the crumb topping.
- Cake flour. Technically you can use all-purpose flour, but cake flour makes the most tender, melt-in-your-mouth crumb topping. It's 1000 times worth it. If you can't find any cake flour at your local supermarket, here's how to make a good substitute...
How to Make a Good Substitute for Cake Flour:
Cake flour contains a lower percentage of protein than all-purpose flour which gives this crumb topping an incredibly soft and tender texture. But, if you can't find any, here's what to do:
- Measure out 1 cup (120 grams) of all-purpose flour
- Remove 2 tablespoons (15 grams) of flour
- Add 2 tablespoons (14 grams) of cornstarch and stir with a wire whisk to blend
Follow this formula for as much cake flour as you need. In this recipe, you'll need almost 2 cups of cake flour. Go ahead and make 2 cups, then use the leftover 2 tablespoons to prepare the pan.
Step-by-Step Photos and Instructions
There are 4 super basic steps to making this cake, which might lead you to think that making a French Apple Crumb Cake is going to be time-consuming and complicated. So, let me just set the record straight on that right now. Each step is super basic and not the least bit complicated or difficult.
- Brown the butter: put some butter into a skillet and let it cook until it's brown, about 5 minutes.
- Cook the apples: Chop up some apples and cook them in the same skillet you used to brown the butter.
- Make the crumb topping: Dump the ingredients into a bowl and use your hands to mix it up.
- Prepare the cake batter. This batter is so easy to make, you don't even need an electric mixer.
Step #1: Brown the butter
Put the orange zest and ground cloves in a small bowl and set it near the stovetop.
Cut a stick of butter into chunks, plop them into a 12-inch skillet, and set it over medium heat. Cook the butter, stirring constantly, until it turns golden brown, then pour it into the bowl with the orange zest and cloves.
(Scroll down for a few tips about browning butter.
If there's brown solids in the pan, like you see in this photo, use a spatula to scrape those into the bowl. These are toasted milk solids and they contain a tremendous amount of flavor!
Now, a very important step: Do not rinse or wipe out the skillet! You're going to use it to cook the apples and a slick of butter will keep them from sticking.
Step #2: Cook the apples
Peel, core, and chop your apples into bite-size pieces, then toss them into the buttery skillet along with a bit of sugar and salt.
Cook until the apples are just beginning to brown. This will take about 15 minutes.
Spread the apples out on a plate and put them in the refrigerator.
It's important that the apples cool down before you mix them into the cake batter. Placing them in the refrigerator speeds up the process.
Step #4: Make the crumb topping
Add some brown sugar, granulated sugar, cinnamon, and salt to a bowl and stir to combine. Stir in some melted butter.
Add the cake flour and stir just until it's incorporated. I usually use my hands to do this, but you can use a spoon if you prefer. Cover the bowl and set it aside while you prepare the cake batter.
Step #4: Prepare the cake batter
Add the all-purpose flour, some salt, and baking powder to a small bowl and stir with a wire whisk to combine.
Add the eggs, vanilla extract, almond extract (if using), and some granulated sugar to a larger bowl. Beat the mixture with a wire whisk until it's well combined.
Slowly pour in the brown butter, whisking as you add it.
Add the flour mixture and stir just until it's barely mixed in.
Stir the apples into the batter, mixing just long enough to incorporate them.
Add the batter to the pan and spread it out into an even layer.
Top the cake batter with the crumb topping, squeezing it together so you have large pieces. Time to bake!
How to Know When This Cake is Done Baking
Because of the thick layer of crumb topping, it can be kind of tricky to know when this cake is done baking.
- When done, the top of the cake will appear "set".
- If you gently shake the pan, the cake might jiggle slightly but it will not appear to be liquid.
- If you insert a toothpick in the center of the cake and pull it out, the toothpick will be wet and may have crumbs stuck to it, but it will not have any visible raw cake batter on it.
Allow the pan to cool for about 30 minutes before releasing the side of the springform pan. Before releasing the pan, run a knife around the outside of the cake to ensure that none of the cake is sticking to the pan.
When the cake is cool, sprinkle with a dusting of powdered sugar if you like.
Tips for Making Brown Butter
Making brown butter is a simple process of cooking butter until it melts, boils, and then turns a rich golden brown color. That brown color is important because it means FLAVOR!
Browning butter triggers the Maillard reaction: As some of the water in the butter evaporates, sugars and amino acids react and create new flavor compounds. In other words, browning butter is about more than increasing the flavor of butter. Browning butter creates flavors that didn't exist before you cooked it. Pretty cool, eh?
Making brown butter is mostly a straightforward process that only takes a few minutes, but there are a few important things to pay attention to:
- Using a light-colored pan is ideal because it's more difficult to see the color of butter in dark-colored pans. However, sometimes that can't be avoided. If you, like me, only have a dark colored skillet, just lift a spoon full of butter from the pan every now and then, allowing the butter to pour back into the skillet. This will allow you to see the color of the butter as it cooks.
- It's important to stir the butter constantly while it cooks to help it brown evenly and prevent any of the butter from burning.
- As the butter cooks, it will foam up, and then the foam will recede. Right before the butter begins to brown, it will foam up again, but the foam won't be as thick as before.
- The foam will make it difficult to see when the butter is beginning to brown, so as you stir, pay attention to the color of the butter underneath the foam.
- Remove the pan from the heat when the butter is golden brown with dark brown specks on the bottom of the pan. It will smell nutty and look a bit like a dark, foamy beer.
How to Prepare the Pan so the Cake Won't Stick
This is a super moist cake that will stick to the pan unless you properly prepare it. Here's how to keep your cake from sticking to the pan:
- Smear the inside of a 9-inch springform pan with vegetable shortening or softened butter. I like to use a paper towel to accomplish this.
- Cut out a round piece of parchment paper big enough to cover the bottom of the pan. Press the paper into the pan and then smear it with a bit of vegetable shortening or softened butter.
- Add a couple tablespoons of flour to the pan and shake it around until the inside of the pan is completely coated. Shake out any excess flour.
Storage and Make Ahead Instructions
French Apple Crumb Cake can be stored at room temperature for up to 24 hours or in the refrigerator for up to 4 days. Be sure to cover the cake to prevent it from drying out.
This cake can also be frozen for up to 3 months. Wrap it well to prevent freezer burn. I like to wrap it in two layers of plastic wrap then one layer of aluminum foil. Allow the cake to thaw overnight in the refrigerator, then set it out on the countertop for about an hour to bring it to room temperature before slicing and serving.
The brown butter, cooked apples, and crumb topping can all be prepared in advance:
- Store brown butter in a covered container in the refrigerator for up to 1 week
- Store cooked apples in a covered container in the refrigerator for up to 3 days
- Store the crumb topping in a covered container or zip-top bag in the refrigerator for up to 3 days
For the French Apple Cake:
- ¼ teaspoon cloves
- 1 tablespoon finely grated orange zest from 1 medium orange
- 8 tablespoons (4 ounces/ 113 grams) salted butter
- 2 ½ pounds of apples that are peeled, cored, and chopped into bite-size chunks (6 medium apples/ 7 cups chopped)
- ⅔ cup + 2 tablespoons (158 grams) granulated sugar, divided
- 1 teaspoon table salt, divided
- ⅔ cup (80 grams) all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 2 large eggs
- 2 teaspoons pure vanilla
- 1 teaspoon almond extract (optional)
For the Crumb Topping:
- 10 tablespoons (5 ounces/ 141 grams) salted butter
- ⅔ cup (142 grams) light or dark dark brown sugar
- ⅓ cup (66 grams) granulated sugar
- 2 teaspoons cinnamon
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 1 ¾ cup + 2 tablespoon (225 grams) cake flour
- Powdered (confectioners) sugar, optional, for sprinkling
Brown the Butter:
- Put the cloves and orange zest in a small bowl; set the bowl near the stovetop.
- Cut 8 tablespoons (4 ounces/ 113 grams)of butter into chunks and put it in a 12-inch skillet. Set the skillet over medium heat and, stirring constantly, cook until the butter is melted and begins to boil.
- Continue to cook, stirring constantly, until the butter turns a rich golden brown color. As you stir, pay attention to the color of the butter underneath the foam. The butter will take approximately 3-5 minutes to brown. When it's done, the butter beneath the foam will be golden brown with dark brown specks on the bottom of the pan and will smell nutty. It will look a bit like a dark, foamy beer. Once browned, pour the butter into the bowl with the cloves and orange zest and let it cool to room temperature. (See photos above for reference.)
- DO NOT WASH OUT THE SKILLET. If there are a lot of brown milk solids in the bottom of the skillet, scrape those into the bowl, but it’s important that the skillet is slicked with butter to prevent the apples from sticking while they cook.
Cook the Apples:
- Add the chopped apples, 2 tablespoons (25 grams) of the granulated sugar, and ½ teaspoon salt to the skillet and set it over medium-high heat. Cook the apples, stirring every once in a while, until the apples are just beginning to brown. This will take about 15 minutes.
- Spread the apples out on a plate and put them in the refrigerator until they are cooled to room temperature.
Make the Crumb Topping:
- Cut the butter into chunks and put it in a microwave-safe bowl. Heat in the microwave until melted. Alternatively, melt the butter in a small saucepan set over low heat.
- Add the brown sugar, granulated sugar, cinnamon, and salt to a medium size bowl and stir to combine. Pour in the melted butter and stir until combined.
- Add the flour and use your hands to mix until completely incorporated. Cover and set aside.
Prepare the Cake Batter:
- Heat the oven to 375° F (190° C).
- Prepare a 9-inch springform pan: Coat the inside of the pan with a thin layer of vegetable shortening or butter. Cover the bottom of the pan with a piece of parchment paper that’s been cut to fit. Smear the parchment paper with vegetable shortening or butter. Shake some all-purpose flour around in the pan until the inside of the pan is completely coated. Shake out excess flour. (More about how to prepare a cake pan so the cake will not stick.)
- Add the all-purpose flour, ½ teaspoon of salt, and the baking powder to a small bowl and stir with a wire whisk to combine.
- Add the eggs, vanilla extract, almond extract (if using), and the remaining ⅔ cup (133 grams) granulated sugar to a larger bowl. Beat with a wire whisk to combine.
- Slowly whisk in the browned butter.
- Add the flour mixture to the batter and stir just until barely combined. Stir in the apples.
- Spread the batter into the prepared pan, smoothing it out into an even layer. Add the crumb topping over the batter, squeezing the topping together in your hand to create some large pieces.
- Bake in the center of the oven for 50-60 minutes. When done, the top of the cake will be set and golden brown, and the cake will be starting to pull away from the sides of the pan. If you insert a toothpick into the center of the cake it will come out without any signs of raw batter. (See note below)
- Allow the cake to cool in the pan for 30 minutes then gently run a knife around the outside of the cake to separate it from the sides of the cake pan. Gently release and remove the side of the pan and allow it to cool completely.
- Sprinkle the cake with some powdered (confectioners) sugar if you like, then slice and serve.
What kind of apples are best in this cake?
Pretty much any kind of apples will work in this cake but I prefer sweeter varieties such as honeycrisp, ambrosia, jazz, sweet tango, or pink lady.
What if I don't have any cake flour?
If you don't have any cake flour, here's how to make a good substitute:
- Measure out 2 cups (240 grams) of all-purpose flour
- Remove 4 tablespoons (30 grams) of flour
- Add 4 tablespoons (28 grams) of cornstarch and stir with a wire whisk to blend
This will give you 2 cups of cake flour, which is 2 tablespoons more than you'll need. Use the extra 2 tablespoons to dust the inside of your springform pan with flour.
How to know when this cake is done baking:
Because of the thick layer of crumb topping, it can be kind of tricky to know when this cake is done baking. When done, the top of the cake will appear "set". If you gently shake the pan, the cake might jiggle slightly but will not slosh. If you insert a toothpick in the center of the cake and pull it out, the toothpick will be wet and may have crumbs stuck to it, but it will not have any visible raw cake batter on it.
How to store this cake:
French Apple Crumb Cake can be stored at room temperature, covered, for up to 24 hours or in the refrigerator for up to 4 days.
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Nutrition Information:Yield: 8 Serving Size: 1
Amount Per Serving: Calories: 639Total Fat: 28gSaturated Fat: 17gTrans Fat: 1gUnsaturated Fat: 9gCholesterol: 115mgSodium: 622mgCarbohydrates: 95gFiber: 5gSugar: 58gProtein: 6g