Just sleep on it. It's advice often given when contemplating a decision, as if through the transformative process of the night, the issue will emerge clarified. As a kid when my friends and I had sleepovers, we'd often try and stay up all night in an act of youthful defiance: we never quite succeeded, succumbing if not to sleep then to bleary-eyed silence. I have long believed that there is a moment in each night, somewhere between the late-night revelers and early risers, where everything is still. One moment where everything rests, pauses, comes into alignment, before proceeding again on its way. By its very nature, this is the one moment where your eyelids will flutter and you will drift off for a second, but if you concentrate hard and listen very carefully, you'll catch it.
If you've ever baked you know that yeast doughs are often left overnight, and that extra rest can give the dough or sponge magical lifting power. That idea of overnight magic is what attracted me to a little recipe for an apple cake: sliced apples are layered with some sugar and baked slowly overnight. In all honesty, I was sure it wouldn't work, the photo in the book was so beautiful it couldn't have resulted from a process so simple. However, my mom's neighbor offered to share the bounty of her apple tree, and with a surfeit of apples, it was little cost or labor to give the recipe a try. Last weekend I took the puppy and a basket and (feeling rather farmer-ish) headed down to pick some apples.
Pat had told us the apples were quite tart, and indeed they were inedibly astringent, only for use in cooking. I increased the amount of sugar in the recipe accordingly and slipped the apples into that oven that evening. By the time I had gone to bed the kitchen was wafting wonderful smells. The next morning when I opened the oven it was like I had stuck my nose in a dozen apple pies, an intoxicating complex scent. Drizzling the reduced juices over the cake, I was pleased to see it really was looking like the photo. But the real surprise was the taste: as outstanding as the lovely layered appearance. My mom, who has waxed rhapsodic about tarte tatin, called it "the best apple dessert I've ever had," and that's saying a lot. I'm inclined to agree. Because this is ready in the morning, it could be nice for breakfast with some sweetened yogurt, but if you can wait it's truly outstanding with vanilla ice cream. All it takes is a little overnight magic.
Overnight Apple Cake
4 pounds tart cooking apples, like Granny Smith
3/4 to 1 cup sugar, depending on your apples
2 tbl butter
1. Preheat the oven to 175 F. Choose a 6-cup souffle dish, generously grease it with one tablespoon of butter. Cut a round of parchment to fit inside the dish, generously grease it on one side with the remaining tablespoon butter.
2. Place the sugar in a bowl. Zest about 1 tablespoon of the orange zest into the sugar bowl, rub the zest into the sugar with your fingertips. Halve the orange and squeeze its juice into another bowl. Peel the apples, core them, and thinly slice them into rings (if you don't want to bother coring, simply halve them and thinly slice). Add the apple slices to the bowl with the orange juice as you work to prevent discoloring, tossing them to coat.
2. Layer the apple slices, overlapping them, in the prepared dish, sprinkling each layer with a little of the sugar. Place the parchment round, buttered-side down, over the apples. Place in the oven for 12 hours.
3. Remove the apple dish from the oven, there should be a good amount of bubbling juice. Pressing down on the parchment with an oven mitt, pour off the juice into a sauce pan. Bring the juice to a simmer and boil until brightly colored and thickened. Meanwhile, invert the apple cake onto a serving plate. Drizzle with the juices.
I should note dear Molly had some trouble with the original recipe. I believe because she used less sugar, not only was the cake too tart, but the apples didn't render enough juices. The pectin in the reduced juices holds the cake together and gives the pretty shiny top.