Jake Cohen

With just six ingredients and one instruction, this family recipe has crossed oceans and bridged divides.

Jake Cohen
September 07, 2018

My mother couldn't help herself. “Do you know what would make it even better?” she suggested, hovering over my shoulder while I prepped for Rosh Hashanah last year. “Walnuts! I’m sure everyone will love it.” I was in the kitchen, trying to focus, as I took a stab at baking my great-grandmother’s famous apple cake for the first time. My great aunt Susi had passed along the little index card with the recipe from a box she inherited from her mother, Nanny. The box, and the recipes it holds—scribbled in calligraphy, in English and German—is the sole connection I have to a woman I never met.

Though my great grandmother was German, her apple cake comes from Cuba. Like many Jewish families, hers fled Europe during the Holocaust and landed in Cuba, where they rebuilt their lives. My aunt Susi was born and raised there, until 1955, when they had to flee again—this time for America. “You know, I don’t remember a ton, but there was a large Jewish community in Cuba with many vibrant temples,” Susi recounted as I prodded her for information about this cake’s origin story.

Nanny got this recipe in Cuba from her good friend, Arda, and it quickly became a family favorite. She loved to entertain, so when the High Holidays rolled around, she’d put out a feast of bagels, lox, whitefish salad, quiches, corned beef, all the fixings and, of course, this cake. Family and friends would trickle in after temple to celebrate and have a nosh.

After she passed away in 1981, Susi took over making the apple cake for the holidays, and in the process, created one of the most powerful ways I connect with my Jewish identity. Recently, I've been the one cooking the Rosh Hashanah seder, getting up early to braise the brisket and set the table to make sure clashing family members sit far apart. Last year, I learned to bake this nostalgic cake.

Now, to be clear, it’s actually not a cake at all—not in the traditional sense, anyway. Baked in a pie dish, leavened dough is divided so that one portion covers the bottom and the remainder is torn over chopped apples to make a streusel topping. Once baked, it’s a fluffy apple creation that lies somewhere in between a cake and pie, combining the best qualities of both desserts.

The recipe card has no directions, temperatures or times. Past the six ingredients (flour, sugar, baking powder, butter, egg and apples), lies only one nugget of information: "Cover with the same dough like streusel." When I first attempted it, Susi was there to coach me over the phone, sharing her tips and variations. (Nanny loved to swap out the apples for Italian plums, for example, since they’re at peak ripeness around Rosh Hashanah, so I've since made it that way, too.) I tweaked the cake ever-so-slightly, using some cinnamon for warmth, honey for a sweet new year and salt (Ashkenazi kryptonite) because every dessert needs some. At the end of the evening, we sliced into the cake, exposing the soft, custardy apples under the golden crust. It was perfect.

The cake, of course, isn't just another holiday dessert to add to my repertoire. It’s a connection to a family member I never knew. It’s a reminder of the persecution my family had to overcome. It’s a celebration of another year we’ve been able to live freely as Jews. It’s a wish for this upcoming year to be just as sweet. And it's the embodiment of the Hebrew expression, "L’dor V’dor," which means “from generation to generation.”

“Your great-grandmother would be so proud,” Susi assured me after the cake was done. My mother quickly jumped in, “Yes, she would be. But next year, you should really add nuts.”