Traditional Irish Apple Cake Recipe with Custard Sauce
Tart, crisp apples suspended in tender vanilla spice cake with a crunchy sugar topping and creamy vanilla custard sauce. This cake is on the must-bake list at our house every year around St. Patrick's Day, but honestly, we make it much more often than that.
I have never been to Ireland but it's on my list of must-visit places for so many reasons, not the least of which is Irish food. I mean, from what I understand, most traditional Irish food comes smothered or encased in cheese, potatoes, beer or pastry. So.... yum.
Plus, the Irish really like their sweets. And, apparently Irish Apple Cake tops the list. If that's true - or even close to true - I'm in. Because Irish Apple Cake is the bomb.
The cake itself is not overly sweet, and gently spiked with cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves. It also somehow manages to be both light and dense. I know, that doesn't make any sense....
But try it and you'll see what I mean. All those chunks of apple have a lightening effect on the cake, adding moisture and flavor while breaking up the thick batter so that every perfect bite is a delicious combination of tender cake and tart apples.
But, my favorite part of Irish Apple Cake is the crunchy, sugary top.
Right before baking, Irish Apple Cake is sprinkled with sugar, creating a thin, crackly layer that contrasts nicely with the soft, tender cake. I baked this cake yesterday in a completely empty house. It was a challenge to not pick off that delicious sugary layer and eat it before my family got home.
Don't worry. I didn't. They all got slices of cake with the sugary topping still in tact. I can, occasionally, summon up some restraint.
And then there's the vanilla custard sauce.
I'm sure this cake is also delicious with whipped cream or a scoop of vanilla ice cream, but I beg you to try it at least once with custard sauce. Custard sauce, also known as crème anglaise, is basically unfrozen vanilla ice cream. It's a thin sauce, not thick like pudding. The sauce soaks right into the tender cake creating a texture that's almost like bread pudding.
What is it about apple desserts that begs for a rich, creamy vanilla accompaniment of some sort? A scoop of vanilla ice cream with warm apple pie or apple crisp is a given. Apple Slab Pie, with it's pâte brisée crust, spiced apple filling, and brown sugar topping is even more gooey and delicious slathered in custard sauce.
And, a drizzle of custard sauce on a slice of Irish Apple Cake somehow make this classic comfort food even better.
Also, custard sauce is a cinch to make and will keep in your refrigerator for about 2 weeks. If you have some left over after the apple cake is eaten and gone, drizzle it on pretty much any other pie, cake, or brownie. Or, stir in some cream and pour it into an ice cream maker to make vanilla ice cream.
What Kind of Apples are Best for this Cake?
It's important to use tart, crisp apples in this cake. I used Granny Smith, but any kind of tart apple will do. If the apples are crisp, they'll retain some of their crunch even after baking. The contrast of textures in Irish Apple Cake is one of the best things about it - slightly crispy apples, crunchy sugar topping, tender cake and smooth custard sauce.
Be very careful to not overwork the batter.
For a super tender cake, it's important not to overwork the cake batter. Beating or kneading flour into dough strengthens the gluten – those strands of protein that give bread it's sturdy structure and chewy texture. That's not the effect you're going for here.
In order to create a cake with a super tender crumb, stir the flour gently into the batter by hand. Be sure to mix only long enough to combine the ingredients and moisten all of the flour. Then, to create even more lightness, fold in beaten egg whites right before sprinkling the cake with sugar and popping it into the oven.
This recipe calls for buttermilk even though I believe fresh milk is more traditional.
I like the subtle tang the buttermilk gives to the cake. Buttermilk also reacts with the baking soda to create an even lighter and more tender crumb. However, if you'd rather use fresh milk, your cake will still be delicious.
It can be a bit challenging knowing exactly when this cake is done baking. In my oven, Irish Apple Cake takes approximately 56 minutes. In yours, it might take a few minutes less, or a few minutes more. To test for doneness, poke a toothpick into the cake in a few different place to check for evidence of uncooked batter. Because the cake is super moist, you might have some cake crumbs clinging to the toothpick, which is perfectly fine. But, if you see any batter on the toothpick, keep baking for a while longer.
Bake Irish Apple Cake in a Spring Form pan.
The sides of spring form pans are tall enough to contain the cake without batter spilling out over the sides. A spring form pan also makes removing this cake from the pan super easy.
If you'd rather bake this cake in a regular cake pan, I'm sure it will be fine as long as the sides are at least three inches tall, and you butter and flour the sides and bottom of the pan really well. Let the cake cool in the pan for 5-10 minutes before flipping it out to cool completely on a wire rack.
For the cake:
- 3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
- ½ teaspoon baking soda
- 2 teaspoon baking powder
- ¾ teaspoon salt
- ½ teaspoon cinnamon
- ¼ teaspoon cloves
- ¼ teaspoon nutmeg
- 4 large Granny Smith apples, or similar variety of tart, crisp apples
- 1 stick (4 oz) butter, melted and cooled to room temperature
- 4 tablespoon vegetable oil
- ¾ cup granulated sugar, plus 2 tablespoons
- 2 whole large egg, separated, at room temperature
- 2 large egg whites (reserve the yolks for the custard sauce), at room temperature
- ¾ cup buttermilk, at room temperature
- 2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- 2 tablespoon granulated sugar + ¼ teaspoon nutmeg, for the sugar topping
For the custard sauce:
- 1¾ cup whole milk
- ½ cup granulated sugar
- 6 large egg yolks
- 1 tablespoon cornstarch
- 1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
Make the Cake:
- Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Butter an 10-inch spring form pan and fit the bottom with a round of parchment paper. Butter the parchment paper and then shake flour around in the pan to coat the inside of the pan completely. Shake out the excess flour and set aside.
- Add the flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg to a large bowl and stir with a wire whisk to combine. (*See note)
- Peel and core the apples, and then chop into chunky bite-size pieces, about the size you’d want if adding them to a fruit salad. Add the chopped apples to the flour mixture and stir to combine. Set aside.
- Using an electric mixer, beat the butter, oil and ¾ cup sugar on medium-high speed for 1 minute. Add the 2 egg yolks, buttermilk, and vanilla and beat for 1 minute longer.
In a separate bowl, beat the 4 egg whites until foamy. Sprinkle in the remaining 2 tablespoons of sugar and beat until stiff peaks form.
- Pour the wet ingredients into the flour mixture and stir with a wooden spoon or spatula just until all the ingredients are combined and all the dry ingredients are moistened. Gently fold in the egg whites, just until combined. Be careful to not over mix. It’s ok to have a few streaks of egg white in the batter.
- Scrape the batter into your prepared pan. Combine the 2 tablespoon sugar with ¼ teaspoon nutmeg and sprinkle evenly across the top of the batter.
- Bake the cake for 50-60 minutes. To test for doneness, poke a toothpick into a few different places on the cake and look for evidence of cake batter.
- Remove from the oven and let cool completely on a wire rack before removing the side of the pan to unmold the cake.
Make the Custard Sauce:
- Pour the milk into a heavy bottomed medium size saucepan and cook over medium heat until bubbles appear along the edges of the pan.
- While the milk is heating, add the sugar and egg yolks to the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Beat for 3-4 minutes, until the mixture is thickened slightly and pale yellow. Beat in the cornstarch.
- With the mixer running, gradually pour the heated milk into the egg yolks in a thin steady stream. Stop the mixer halfway through pouring in the milk to quickly scrape down the sides of the bowl. Resume beating at medium speed to slowly add the remaining milk.
- Pour the mixture back into the saucepan and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon or spatula, until the sauce thickens enough to coat the spoon with a light, creamy layer. Do not let the mixture come close to boiling. The maximum temperature it reaches should be 170 degrees.
- Strain the sauce into a bowl through a fine mesh strainer and stir in the vanilla. Cover and refrigerate. Custard sauce can be served over Irish Apple Cake either warm or cold and will keep for 2 weeks, covered in the refrigerator.
Be sure to use a large mixing bowl for this batter. The batter for this cake is made by continuing to add more of the ingredients to the same bowl you use to mix the flour and spices. By the end, you'll have a lot of batter in that bowl, so be sure to use a large one.
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Nutrition Information:Yield: 8 Serving Size: 1 slice with ¼ cup custard sauce
Amount Per Serving: Calories: 545Total Fat: 13gSaturated Fat: 3gTrans Fat: 0gUnsaturated Fat: 10gCholesterol: 190mgSodium: 510mgCarbohydrates: 92gFiber: 5gSugar: 46gProtein: 13g
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