Swedish Apple Cake
with Vanilla Sauce
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Let me get something out of the way right off the top. I'm not Swedish. I believe I have one Swedish ancestor - possibly a great-great-aunt. So without a personal cultural connection of my own, I was first exposed to Swedish apple cake at exactly where you're probably thinking it did: IKEA.
Like many North Americans, my primary exposure to Swedish culture to date has been the giant blue box store. As much as I'd like to go experience the real deal (Tourism Sweden, if you're reading this, I'm happy to discuss a recipes-for-accommodation sort of scenario), everyone's favourite flat-packed-furniture emporium has certainly piqued my culinary curiosity over the years. Case in point: Swedish apple cake. Now I'm sure my recipe is rather different from theirs, but I was admittedly pretty curious when I first saw a slice of it, chilling beneath it's plastic-wrap tent in hopes of being snagged by some meatball-munching shopper wending their ways through the cafeteria queue. The sign said cake, but frankly, it didn't look like any cake I'd ever seen.
Swedish apple cake is a curious dessert. Known in Swedish as sockerkaka med äpple (sponge cake with apples) or simply äppelkaka (apple cake), you'd be forgiven for thinking that it might resemble any of the other apple cake recipes common in Europe. But Swedish apple cake is something a little different - sort of the love child of a pie and a cake. Recipes vary wildly (as I discovered when I started the research necessary to develop my own recipe), but the most distinctive version is basically a soft, apple-rich sponge cake with a pie-crust bottom (and sometimes top). When done right, it's a thing of beauty - a delightful, flavourful cake with firm, sweet chunks of apple AND a flaky pastry crust. Cake wrapped in pie.
Now, perhaps there are some of you reading this right now who hail from beautiful Sverige. Or perhaps your lovely, flour-dusted mormor is waiting in the wings of your memory with an apron, rolling pin, and recipe card. In any case, let me start by extending an olive (or apple?) branch: I'm sure there are a boatload of amazing recipes out there for Swedish apple cake, and I'm sure no cake can compare with a beloved family recipe. As far as I'm concerned, there's plenty of room for experimentation AND tradition when it comes to äppelkaka and baking in general. But forgive my immodesty for a moment while I rave about how awesome MY recipe is. The crust is delicious, with vanilla and cardamom adding plenty of character to the simple buttery base. It's also mercifully simple. You don't even have to roll out the bottom - instead you simply press it into a more-or-less even layer in the pan. The leftover portion does get rolled out and made into a decorative crust topping, but a) you can go as simple or as fancy as you like, and b) if you're really pressed for time, you can skip it altogether and just let the filling do its thing. And let's talk about that filling, shall we? The apples (more on those below) are certainly the standout, especially given the way that they hold their shape and flavour, but let's not forget the spices or the almonds. I decided to forgo the cinnamon-heavy apple pie spice blend in favour of something a little more nuanced and a little more Nordic. The classic cinnamon-and-nutmeg duo still makes an appearance, but cardamom and vanilla (the real stuff) play equally prominent roles. The crumb itself is livened up with ground blanched almonds, making it sort of an apple-meets-almond cake. And in case you're worried or still somewhat unclear on this whole pie-cake-dichotomoy, the filling is decidedly cake-like. It will solidify and form a nice crispy/cakey top, and not a gooey pie-style filling. If you've got a nice, seasonally appropriate cookie cutter, roll out that leftover dough and put some decorative leaves (etc.) on top. Or, if you're a perfectionist/glutton for punishment (like me), you can spend two hours hand-cutting oak leaves yourself because you couldn't find a good cookie cutter anywhere. As the cake cooks, the decorative pastry bits sort of meld with the filling and create a tasty pie-cake interface. We can call it that. Trust me: I'm a scientician.
So yes, the cake is good. Scratch that - it's great. For the record, I tend to brag a lot more about my baking than my cooking, primarily because I'm so astonished when it works. I'm not sure if or when one becomes a confident baker, but let's just say that my successes continue to amaze me. Anyway, the cake is great - but let's not forget the sauce. Ohhhh, the vanilla sauce.
Now, if you were absolutely stuck, and had no way around it, you COULD serve this with whipped cream or a lovely vanilla ice cream. But let me tell you why you seriously need to make vanilla sauce.
Swedish vanilla sauce (called vaniljsås in Swedish) is a little tough to categorize. At first glance, it looks like a really heavy vanilla cream, but there's a bit of trickery going on. There is cream, but there's actually more milk in it than anything. The sauce is thickened with potato starch (or corn starch) and egg yolks. It's heated carefully, very much the same way that a custard is, so that everything becomes rich and unctuous without curdling or breaking. The end result is a velvety-smooth, wonderful sauce that just happens to go beautifully with fruit-based desserts (and, I would wager, chocolate). It's not a tricky recipe, and the cake just isn't the same without it, so do give it a shot. If you're new to working with vanilla pods (as opposed to vanilla extract), don't worry - they're easy, and the flavour is incomparable. Make sure to check out the tips and recommendations in the Recipe Notes below.
I've talked this cake up a lot, so let's give some credit where credit is due. I spent a LONG time finessing this recipe, but I owe a debt of gratitude to a number of other recipes that inspired or filled in the blanks along the way. Of the 20 or so recipes I looked at while planning this, three in particular helped me make the transition from nebulous idea to functioning recipe. I was able to develop my crust recipe and to figure out the general construction of the cake with the help of this recipe from Semiswede.com. The center of the cake however, is based on this recipe from Donal Skehan, modified in a number of ways, including converting it to an almond-based crumb rather than an almond-topped one. Finally, the vanilla sauce is one of the few recipes on this site that I haven't tweaked or adapted myself. Full credit for the sauce goes to SwedishFood.com, which is a wonderful portal for plenty of English-language Swedish food resources.
Brevity and Clarity do not always go hand-in-hand.
I realize that both the ingredient list and the instructions look a little on the long side, but don't be put off. First of all, I repeat ingredients when the recipe has different components. This means that you'll see butter on the list twice - once in the crust, and once in the filling. I do this for clarity, and because I can't stand when something tells me to use 1/2 cup of something-or-other, but then tells me to divide that up in the middle of the instructions. Boooooo. To show you what I mean, here's the condensed ingredient list:
Now that's really handy if you're making a grocery list, but it's a royal pain if you're trying to cook from it. The vanilla beans, for example, are used in all three parts of the recipe and have to be divided up. Eggs, butter, and some of the spices make multiple appearances. The ingredient list below can look a bit scary at first glance, but it's simply been broken up for clarity's sake. Likewise, the instructions might seem a little long, but this reflects my desire to create clear and functional instructions, and not inherent complexity in the dessert. You don't need to be a baking whiz to pull this off - just go slow, and stay organized.
Vanilla beans are very easy to use, so don't be intimidated. While you could substitute vanilla extract in theory, I think you get exceptional flavour and a wonderful look from the tiny black vanilla seeds in both the crust and the sauce.
When working with vanilla beans, simply use a sharp knife to slice open the pod the long way, then scrape the fragrant vanilla paste out of the pod with the end of the knife or a very small spoon. The paste is ready to use, and the pod itself can be used to infuse liquids. In this particular recipe, I just like using the paste, so I keep the pods and toss them into a container with about 3/4 cup of sugar and set it aside for a few weeks to make wonderful, fragrant vanilla sugar.
On the downside, vanilla beans can be pricey (often ridiculously so). A fair bit of work goes into making vanilla, and it is something of a gourmet product, but it's also overly marked-up in many cases. I've seen two pods selling for 12 dollars before, which is frankly ridiculous. But keep your eyes open, as more and more fair-trade companies are trying to make good vanilla pods accessible. I live in British Columbia, and I've been incredibly pleased with the vanilla pods produced sold by Victoria BC-based Level Ground Trading Company. They're primarily interested in importing and wholesale, but they do have an online shop that sells 5 beans for 10 dollars (edit: crashing vanilla crops have spiked prices around the world, but LGT beans are still great and fairly priced). That's pretty darned reasonable, but given even better deals are found in stores carrying their products - I bought 10 (TEN!) Grade A, fair-trade, Vanilla pods for ten dollars. Seriously. The vanilla comes from small-scale, mixed-crop farmers in Uganda, and it's an exceptional product. Level Ground products can be found at a variety of retail locations in BC, and the online shop has free shipping in on order over $60 in Canada and the USA, so check them out. It's a great chance to really take your food to the next level while simultaneously supporting sustainable, responsible farming and business.
This recipe is part of a series highlighting the flavour and versatility of little-known and underappreciated apple varieties.
There has been a growing interest in rediscovering forgotten heirloom apples, as well as a resurgent interest in growing and marketing new hybrid varieties. Apples were once once of the most important and varied fruits in both North America and Europe, but large-scale commercialization favoured a handful of attractive, easy-to-grow apples with long shelf lives. But the longest lasting apples aren't necessarily the best or most interesting ones, and chefs, farmers, and apple enthusiasts around the world are working to give some of these forgotten apples the exposure they deserve. This little feature is my contribution to that worthy cause.
This recipes features a 19th century Dutch apple called Belle de Boskoop. This very large, crisp, russet apple is a fantastic dual-purpose variety, though I personally think it really shines in cooking and baking. They’ve got a very nice sharp, sweetly-acidic flavour when fresh, with a lot more tangy ‘bite’ than the average sweet apple, but they’re nothing near what you’d find in a Granny Smith. This sweet/sour character coupled with their large-to-very-large size makes them fantastic for baking and cooking. Apple desserts that use Belle de Boskoops have a good amount of natural sweetness while still benefiting from the tart, sour-apple flavour that one usually gets with something like a Granny Smith. They also hold their shape quite well when cooked, making them ideal for cakes and pies (or cake-pie-hybrids like this). While they might not be available all the time, if you can find them, plan a baking project! To read more about them, and to see other unique apple varieties and recipes that use them, check out the post.
Of course this recipe doesn't require a highly specific heirloom apple; any good, sweet, firm apple with a bit of acid tartness will work just fine. Winesap, Cox's Orange Pippin, Cortland, Jonathans, and Jonagolds would all work admirably. I personally wouldn't go with Granny Smiths alone, as I think they'd be too tart, and there's not enough sugar in the cake to balance them out. That being said, a combinations of sweet and tart apples (Honeycrisp and Granny Smith, for example) would work quite well.
Disclaimer: I have not been compensated for any of the external (off-site) recommendations or links given in this article. I choose to recommend them based on personal experience and on my belief in their quality and/or educational value. Happy cooking.
Best way to avoid eating too much? Share it with the people you love. Bring someone a slice of cake.
No ingredient pages have been written yet for any of the ingredients in this recipe, but it is part of a series on unique apples.
No pantry pages have been written yet for any of the ingredients in this recipe. Like to see one? Let me know in the comments below or by email.
Swedish Apple Cake
- 1 cup flour
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 1/4 tsp ground cardamom
- pinch baking soda (~1/8 tsp)
- pinch salt (~1/8 tsp)
- 1/2 vanilla bean
- 1/2 cup butter cold and cut into pieces
- 1 egg
- 1 kg Belle de Boskoop Apples or similar variety (see note for suggestions)
- 1/2 cup blanched almonds (~90 g) or almond flour (see note)
- 1/2 cup flour
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1/4 tsp ground cardamom
- 1/4 tsp cinnamon
- pinch nutmeg
- 1/2 vanilla bean
- 1/2 cup butter warmed but not melted
- 2 eggs beaten
- 1 vanilla bean
- 1/2 cup cream
- 3/4 cup whole milk
- 2 tsp potato starch or corn starch
- 2 egg yolks
- 2 tbsp caster sugar
Pastry and Cake Filling
- PASTRY STEPS: 1-4, and 10 Grease a 10 inch cake tin (ideally a spring-form or one with a lifting bottom) with butter or cooking oil and set aside.
- Cut the vanilla bean in half the long way and scrape the seeds out from the inside. (Note that you can do the whole bean at once and save half of the paste for the filling and half for the crust, or you can keep half a bean set aside for when you do the filling steps).
- To make the crust, combine the dry ingredients and paste from half of a vanilla bean in a food processor and mix thoroughly. Add the cold butter and combine until the mixture forms small crumbs. Add one egg and pulse together again, stopping when the dough is evenly mixed.
- Press about 3/4 of the dough into the bottom of the cake tin in order to make an even crust. Roll the remaining dough into a ball and wrap in plastic wrap. Set everything aside to chill in the refrigerator.
- Preheat oven to 350° F (175° C).
- FILLING STEPS: 6-9 If you're using whole blanched almonds (see note below), pulverize them with a food processor or nut/spice grinder. Set aside.
- Peel and slice the apples. You can be relatively flexible on the size of the apple pieces, but I like large 'chips' of apple, about 2-3 cm (1 inch) long and 1/2 cm (less than 1/4 inch) thick. If you have a hand-cranked apple peeler, it makes quick work of this and cuts your apples into an ideal thickness.
- Combine the almond flour, flour, sugar, and spices in a large bowl. Scrape the seeds out of the 1/2 vanilla pod and add them to the mixture. Add the butter and eggs and combine with a hand mixer. Once the filling is well combined, fold in the sliced apples.
- Pour the filling evenly into the cake tin.
- Roll out the remaining chilled pastry. It should be about 1/4 cm (1/8 inch) thick. Cut the pastry into shapes of your choosing and layer them on top of the cake. They do not need to cover the entire surface of the cake.
- Bake for about 1 hour, or until the center is set and the top is golden. Serve warm or chilled, topped with vanilla sauce.
- Slice the vanilla bean open the long way and use the tip of a small knife or spoon to scrape out all of the seeds.
- Place the milk, cream, and vanilla seeds/paste in a small saucepan on the stove-top. Heat over a medium-low flame, stirring frequently (I like using a whisk to really mix in the vanilla). When the mixture is quite warm and beginning to very gently simmer, remove from heat and set aside for 15 minutes. DO NOT BOIL. (Note - you can add the scraped pod to the sauce as well if you like, though I personally prefer to keep it for making vanilla sugar).
- Place a portion of the vanilla/cream mixture in a small bowl. Add the egg yolks, sugar, and potato/corn starch to the bowl and whisk very thoroughly. Don't be tempted to add the eggs to the original sauce-pan with all of the cream in it, as they will be harder to mix and may cook too quickly in the residual heat.
- Combine the egg mixture with the rest of the vanilla/cream mixture in the saucepan and return to the stove-top. Simmer over low heat, stirring frequently. DO NOT BOIL. Once the sauce thickens and becomes glossy, remove it from the heat and set aside. Note that it will thicken further as it cools. It can be served warm or chilled.