What do you do with three pounds of apples—and a preheated oven sitting there ready to go—when the words “pastry crust” make you break into an involuntary sweat? You dice those McIntoshes and pile them high in a cake pan. With the help of a brown-butter-spiked batter that takes all of five minutes to throw together, suddenly you have the makings of a dense, buttery cake.
As the apples soften in the oven, the pockets of batter between them turn custardy, resembling a tall, craggy clafoutis or a noodle-less apple kugel. It’s so moist that you really have to try to overbake it. It’s sweet enough for dessert but not too sweet to eat with a cup of coffee at 9 a.m.—especially when made with tart apples. So go on, eat some apple cake for breakfast.
- Set a rack in the center of your oven and preheat it to 350ºF. Generously butter a 9-inch aluminum cake pan; line the bottom with a round of parchment paper and the sides with a long strip.
- Make the brown butter: Melt 3 tablespoons of butter in a small skillet over medium-low heat until deep brown and deliciously toasty, 5 minutes or so. Remove from heat and let cool while you make the rest of the batter.
- Cut your apples into roughly a 1/2-inch dice. My favorite way to do this is to roughly square off the apples by cutting off and discarding (or eating) four very thin slices from the roundest parts. Then, following the cuts you just made, slice off 1/2-inch-thick slabs from each side of the squared-off apple until you hit the core. Stack up the slabs, cut them into roughly 1/2-inch pieces, and pile the pieces into the prepared cake pan. Keep at it until the pan is full to the brim with apples.
- Make the batter: Whisk the eggs, sugar, and lemon zest together in a bowl until pale yellow, frothy, and thick, about 1-2 minutes. Add the yogurt, vanilla, and brown butter, scraping the skillet to get all the brown bits; whisk to combine. In a separate bowl, thoroughly combine the flour, salt, and baking soda with a fork or clean whisk. Pour the dry ingredients into the wet ones and whisk until smooth, scraping the sides of the bowl with a spatula as needed to incorporate every last bit of flour. The batter should be the consistency of pancake or waffle batter—if it thickens up, whisk again to loosen up or add an extra splash of buttermilk.
- Slowly pour the batter over the apples, spreading it all the way to the edges of the pan and smooshing it down with a spatula to encourage it to fill in all those little gaps. Once it's all in there, transfer the pan to the oven and bake for 45 minutes before checking for doneness. Since this cake is ultra-moist, a toothpick or cake tester is unlikely to ever come out completely dry, but you're looking for moist crumbs—not raw batter. When it's done, the center of the cake will be firm and springy to the touch. If it's not there yet, bake for an additional 15 minutes, or up to 30 minutes if needed. (Thankfully, all that moisture makes it basically impossible to overbake.)
- If you like, crank the heat to 400ºF for a few minutes to brown the top. This is totally optional; it mostly makes the cake look prettier, but it also adds a little extra caramelization, which is never a bad thing. Transfer the cake to a wire rack and cool in the pan until the surface is warm but not hot to the touch, at least half an hour. Flip the cake onto a wire rack, invert onto a serving platter, and cool completely—the center won't set until it does.
- Serve the cake at room temperature dusted with powdered sugar or dolloped with whipped cream—or a little of both. It's also excellent served slightly warm with vanilla ice cream, or straight from the fridge with a big scoop of yogurt for a totally balanced breakfast.
A.A. Newton is a Philadelphia-based writer, photographer, and recipe developer.