This recipe is from my friend, Jeni, who loves October even more than I do; in fact, she’s probably at a pumpkin patch right now.
Jeni and I met as first-year English teachers around 1996, and I quickly learned that she lives for fall. She counts down to the Autumn Equinox and has a party in her back garden on the evening of the Harvest Moon, weather permitting. Do you know that the times of the spring and fall equinoxes change every year? I did not until I met Jeni, and just so you know, the Autumn Equinox officially occurred on September 22nd at 8:03 pm (CST) this year. I know because Jeni told me, and she’s up on other fall-phenomena too. For instance, the first full moon after the Autumn Equinox is the Harvest Moon, named for when the moonrise occurs earlier in the evening, resulting in a longer day, traditionally associated with a longer farming and harvesting day.
For Jeni, it is all about celebrating her favorite time of the year, but just like all good teachers, she makes learning fun while being genuinely excited and interested in understanding more about what she loves. I think I’ve finally retained what I was taught in elementary school about moon phases, equinoxes and solstices thanks to her.
As you might expect, she’s that person who is first to have her porch fully “fall-ed” and first to pull out her long sleeves and boots even if it means sweating through our southern Alabama afternoons that continue to be warm and humid despite the equinox occurring and slightly cooler mornings appearing. She has homemade pumpkin pie and hot apple cider, made from fresh-pressed apple juice by the way, ready to share before the sun sets on the first cool weekend of the season. Since Facebook began, there has never been a year without a picture of her surrounded by pumpkins, a huge smile on her face, generally hugging a dog or a child or both, by October 3rd. Her joy and enthusiasm are wonderfully infectious, and I thoroughly get a kick out of how passionately she loves this season.
One year not terribly long ago, I got so caught up in her fall-love that I agreed to join her on her trek north to Crow Mountain Orchard, an Alabama apple orchard close to 400 miles away in a place called Fackler, an “unincorporated community” of around 800 people. I had never heard of Fackler or this orchard before Jeni convinced me that we really needed to go.
Fackler’s Crow Mountain Orchard is near the Tennessee state line in northern Alabama. Thanks to Jeni I know of other Alabama apple orchards in other such out of the way places like Cullman, Hazel Green, Jamison, Athens, and Talladega—all in the northern part of the state and all hours and hours away from where we live. But this particular year, she got it in her fall-buzzed brain that we needed to check out Fackler and Crow Mountain Orchard, and that’s what we did.
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Stopping at every exit promising a pumpkin patch or a farmer’s market along our route through Montgomery, Birmingham, Gadsden, and Fort Payne, it took us a really long time to travel those 400 miles, but we had a ball.
Located halfway between Huntsville, Alabama, and Chattanooga, Tennessee, just outside of Scottsboro, Alabama and spanning 150 acres, we found the charming and beautiful Crow Mountain Orchard. We tasted apples like we were sampling the finest wines, comparing and contrasting sweetness, tartness, crispness, noticing hints of vanilla — we were ridiculous, thoroughly enjoying ourselves as we sampled everything they had to offer.
Apple cider, apple butter, you name something made from apples, and they had it simmering, baked, jarred, juiced, blended or iced. Although not all available at the same time, they grow Gala, Honeycrisp, McIntosh, Mitsu, King Lusk, Arkansa Black, Golden Delicious, Red Delicious, Winesap, Fuji, Jonathan, Pink Lady and more I can’t even remember. And that’s just their apple varieties. They grow lots more.
Back in the car, we continued on to a bed and breakfast in Valley Head, Alabama, which is east and across the Tennessee River from Fackler, and it was there that we had our first taste of what became Jeni’s Caramel Apple Cake. Wrapped in blankets and sitting in rocking chairs under the stars sipping hot bourbon cocktails, we ooh-ed and ahh-ed over the cake, wishing we could make room for another piece. It was so good.
In between laughing to the point of tears while reliving our day, Jeni interjected multiple times that she was certain she could re-create the cake we were eating because it reminded her of one her grandmother made. I figured it was just the bourbon talking, but I must admit, she did it.
If you’ve never made homemade caramel before, you are really in for a treat. It puts store bought to shame, and I think the process is so fun. Bringing the milk, butter and sugar up to a certain temperature changes it into caramel. And I’ll tell you, there is nothing better than dipping cold apple slices into warm caramel made right on your stove, particularly this time of year.
Traditionally, you use canned evaporated milk along with butter, brown sugar, and a little vanilla to make caramel, but I make mine with coconut milk. I prefer it, and if you are interested in trying it my way, see the Cook’s Notes section for directions. It is a bit more time consuming but it is not work intensive. You simply allow a can of full fat coconut milk to simmer long and slow until it is reduced by half, and voilà, you have evaporated coconut milk.
This cake is without a doubt a great cake to serve at your Halloween party or any fall party for that matter. The caramel frosting makes it, but the cake itself, moist and filled with fresh apples is truly outstanding. Use your choice of apple to make this cake; you can’t go wrong with any variety you prefer. Invite a friend over when you make it, someone who loves this time of year and will get excited about dipping apple slices in the caramel as soon as it’s ready.
Making this cake, especially making the homemade caramel, catapults me back to my childhood and being in the kitchen with my mother, standing on my little red stool, unwrapping individual Brach’s caramels, and dropping them into a bowl, helping her prepare caramel apples. Mom would stick a knife into the bottom centers of each apple so that I could then easily insert the popsicle sticks. I remember how I would stand the apples up like soldiers at attention in straight lines on the laid out wax paper while she stirred the melting caramels on the stove. My memories are so vivid and clear of us smiling and laughing while making them together, the smells and flavors bringing a past life back into sharp focus. I am continually awed and humbled by the way food evokes such deep and exacting memories—what a gift!
I am so grateful for the kitchen time I got with my mother and for having someone like Jeni in my life, with her childlike ebullience, to enjoy this season of seemingly simple things like the aroma of simmering mulling spices and going to pumpkin patches, and of falling leaves and fire pits. I hope you have these too, and I hope you love this cake.
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups sugar
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
2 tsp cinnamon
1 1/3 cups avocado or other neutral tasting oil
1 tsp vanilla
3 1/2 cups peeled, sliced apples
1 cup chopped pecans
2 cups brown sugar
1/2 cup evaporated milk
1/2 cup butter
1 tsp vanilla
1 cup chopped pecans
Preheat oven to 350. Mix dry ingredients and set aside.
Beat eggs and add oil and vanilla then add to dry ingredients.Mix in apples and pecans and allow apple slices to break up a bit as you stir together.
Pour batter into an oiled and floured Bundt pan. Bake 1 hour or until toothpick comes out clean.
Allow to cool 10 to15 minutes before removing from the pan then allow more cooling time on a rack. Meanwhile, make the caramel.
I use a candy thermometer (or a meat thermometer) when I make caramel, but it isn’t necessary if you don’t have one.Combine sugar, milk, and butter in a saucepan.
Bring to a low boil and simmer until until it reaches 245 to 250 on your thermometer or until it forms a firm ball when drizzled into a cup of cold water.
Add pecans and remove from heat then add vanilla. Stir until it cools and thickens.
Once it’s only slightly warm, drizzle over cake.
Evaporated Milk vs Evaporated Coconut Milk
If you’d prefer to use coconut milk, it is simple to make evaporated coconut milk from canned, full fat coconut milk.
You simply heat a can of coconut milk until it is reduced by half. This takes time because you want to keep it at a very low simmer. I generally turn the heat off and on, keeping it hot but not over boiling. Keep a whisk handy and give it a stir every 10 minutes or so. It will take about an hour to reduce to half.
Once it has reduced by half, use the amount called for in the recipe.
This is a very sweet cake if you follow the recipe. I reduce the sugar in it quite a bit by using one part Swerve (erythritol sweetener) to one part coconut sugar. As long as you make up for the bulk, you can reduce the sugar quite a bit if you like.
I have never tried reducing or using alternative sugar in the caramel.
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