Commentary: My holiday gift to you

by Steve Harrison

The season is upon us. There is much to do. Many of us are preparing for a house full of guests, a celebration of shared love. There are traditions to uphold and pass on. Meaning abounds. Love surrounds us. We can debate the value of gifts, even traditions. We can be cynical about society’s motives. Does a Christmas sale really celebrate a birth, a season, or familial love? Yet, Hallmark movies do remind us of the magic of this time of year.

Growing up, my mom’s side of the family put their best Scrooge foot forward, relegating and dismissing Christmas spirit to a made-up Hallmark holiday. My dad’s side couldn’t get enough tinsel, fruitcake, and giving. I didn’t grow up with a lot of traditions, and when John and I created our own family, I knew I wanted traditions to be a part of it. Seasonal decorations, special foods, annual destinations, repeated activities were something I envied from TV-show families. Creating traditions came easily.

For years teaching eighth-grade English, I read Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory” with my kids, having them talk and write about their own traditions, hoping to instill and reinforce their importance. Spending their few dollars on the ingredients and sending off their baked goods to near-strangers, as happens in the story, seemed incomprehensible to my students who wanted to spend their few dollars on a new cell phone or video game. Yet, the love between Buddy and his older relative was the true gift, and the tradition of preparing for, gathering ingredients, and baking those cakes became a cherished memory for a young Capote, which he had to memorialize in his story.

One of the few traditions I grew up with was this apple cake, usually made by my grandmother, and now me. It became my favorite birthday cake, as well as a partner to pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving, and the main dessert at Christmas. It’s a Bundt cake, though I have made it in a pyrex 9” x 12” pan and even in ramekins, if there is too much batter. My favorite part is the chewy cookie-like outside and a slightly gooey, thanks to the apple chunks, inside. For those of you familiar with Europane in Pasadena, it is very similar to their pear spice cake which they serve only in squares. The Bundt pan elevates it to celebratory status.

I must give you a bit of a warning: you must douse the Bundt pan with a lot of Pam Baking Spray with flour; without it the cake frequently will not want to come out. I have had to remake it more than once when half of the cake would refuse to drop. Here is my recipe—well, my grandmother’s. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

Delicious Apple Cake
3 c sugar
3 c flour
3 tsp vanilla
1 3/4 c oil
1 1/2 tsp salt
3 c red delicious apples
3 eggs
1 1/2 tsp soda
1 1/2 c chopped walnuts

Preheat oven to 370 degrees.

Add sugar to oil. Mix. Add eggs. Mix. Add flour sifted with soda and salt. Mix. Add vanilla. Mix. The dough will be stiff. Add apples (chopped and peeled one inch cubed) and nuts. Combine.

Spoon dough in a well-greased and floured Bundt pan. Bake anywhere from 80-95 minutes on lower rack. Cover top with foil if it is browning too much. Don’t open the oven for the first 50 minutes. Turn oven down to 350 after 45 minutes. I frequently poke a couple of holes in the top to let steam escape and help the inside bake. Gauging doneness is the trick and the mystery; like a gift, you never know what exactly you’re going to get.


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