When I was grocery shopping last Saturday, the apples were displayed prominently, piled high, noticeably less expensive than they’d been just a few days prior. The peak of apple season. I remembered the cake recipe. At the top right hand corner of the index card, in a darker shade of ink, my grandmother had written ‘good.’ And underlined it. Early Sunday morning, I baked her cake. The coffee pot steamed and gurgled as I stood in my chilly kitchen, reading her bold ballpoint script, gathering and assembling ingredients. The first of the oak leaves scuttled about on the deck outside in the slight breeze. My mind wandered to the last time I was in her kitchen exactly one year ago. How empty it felt to be in her house without her. As I baked I daydreamed farther back in time to when I was three and five and seven, busily working on mud pies in my tins under the apricot tree next to the garage while she, Grandmother, baked inside.
I got on the plane that Friday last October with a book and a gifted stash of salted peanut butter cookies to fuel me. After landing in Dallas, I found my way to the airport Marriott in my navy blue sedan rental. I killed time eating a burger in the hotel's restaurant while waiting for my brother to arrive. My anxiety about the next day pulsed through me in rhythm with the music. I felt my stamina exanguinate as my mind mapped out the day of Grandmother Louise’s funeral. I felt like an orphan.
My brother and I got up at dawn for the drive across the vast state of Texas. There were long, comfortable pauses intermingled with our stories as we drove those roads on which you can see, seemingly, forever. We had lunch with the other relatives who'd also come for the funeral. Some I’d forgotten about and some I love; many, I hadn’t seen in years. There was an instant intimacy with my cousins. We were still the children who opened our stockings together every Christmas morning. I walked into the funeral still smiling at something shared. Afterward, I spent a final hour in the house my grandmother and granddad built together, not wanting to leave, not wanting to be there in its ugly chaos and strange emptiness.
I cleaned up the kitchen, and the cake came out of the oven. The street smelled of bacon and woodsmoke as I took out the garbage. I wondered, how can I exist without a grandmother?
Butter for greasing pans
2 ¼ cups vegetable oil
3 cups sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla
4 ½ cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting pans
1 teaspoon salt
1 ¾ teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon cinnamon
4 ½ cups peeled and cored tart apples, like Honeycrisp or Granny Smith, thickly sliced
juice from one lemon
1 cup chopped walnuts (optional)
Butter, and then dust with flour, four loaf pans, two 9-inch round cake pans, or one 9-inch tube pan.
Peel, core and thickly slice the apples and then toss with the lemon juice, pouring off any excess.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Beat the oil and sugar together in a mixer fitted with a paddle attachment. After 5 minutes, add the eggs, one at a time, and the vanilla, and beat until the mixture is creamy.
Sift together the flour, salt, cinnamon and baking soda. Transfer the oil, sugar and egg mixture to a very large mixing bow and stir in the flour mixture a little at a time, until just combined. It will be very stiff - don't worry! Add the apples and walnuts, if using, and stir until combined.
Transfer the batter to the prepared pans. Bake until the cake has a golden, caramelized appearance and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean: 40-45 minutes for loaf pans; about 50 minutes for 9-inch cake pans; approximately 1 hour and 15 minutes for a tube pan. Cool in the pan before turning out.