If you want to find a traditional baker, then the county of Dorset in the south west of the UK is a good place to start. They make all kinds of artisan breads and cakes but one of their most popular offerings is the Dorset Apple Cake, a local speciality that also graces tearoom menus throughout the county, often accompanied by a hefty dollop of clotted cream. In 2006, the cake was voted the food most associated with Dorset and, earlier this year, the Guardian newspaper carried a feature on “How to cook the perfect Dorset Apple Cake”.
So what’s all the fuss about and what exactly is a Dorset Apple Cake? And can I make a Dorset Apple Cake worthy of the professionals?
I began my Dorset Apple Cake quest by looking at recipes, hoping I might find the definitive version of this local delicacy. I had no trouble finding recipes, indeed every celebrity chef or home baker seems to have one. The problem is that each recipe is unique, calling for different quantities of flour, butter, sugar, eggs and baking powder, and of course apple; some also add sultanas and lemon, and many include cinnamon. So, there is no definitive recipe and all we can say is that the Dorset Apple Cake is a rich cake containing apple.
I also found two older recipes, one from 1925 (Miss Hetty King) and another from 1932 (Miss Annette Vipan, North Chideock). These are simpler than many modern versions but include plenty of apple, probably reflecting local ingredients. There is also a reference to apple cake in a poem, Father Come Home (1834), by the Dorset dialect poet, William Barnes, and I suspect that apple cakes have been made in Dorset for a very long time.
Most apple growing counties in the UK make some kind of apple cake and I came across recipes from Somerset, Devon and Kent as well as further afield. There is some variation, for example cider is often included in the Somerset cake, but for the most part, these cakes resemble the Dorset version. So why has Dorset Apple Cake come to dominate, capturing the imagination of celebrity chefs and home bakers and featuring in the Guardian newspaper? I asked local bakers whether they knew what set the Dorset version apart but they just shrugged their shoulders. I came to the conclusion that Dorset Apple Cake has been made in the county for many years by local people but has recently acquired a certain mystique, partly through the appropriation of the cake as the county food and partly with the enhanced foodie profile of Dorset.
I visit the experts
My next stop was Leakers, a well-known, traditional bakery in the west Dorset town of Bridport. As well as making its own version of Dorset Apple Cake, Leakers has sponsored the Best Dorset Apple Cake competition at the local Melplash Show so they should know a thing or two about the county’s signature food. Although the business is now owned by Caroline Parkins, the apple cake is made by Jo Leaker, grand-daughter of George Leaker who moved from Devon in 1914 to take over the Bridport bakery. Jo has been making the cake at Leakers on a part time basis for ten years using a recipe dating from 1914 “handed down and tweaked”. I met Jo in the bakery at the end of a baking day and found her standing proudly by six large trays of apple cake, each a mosaic of rich chestnut brown cake and pale green apple chunks. She was very welcoming and keen to share her knowledge, providing this didn’t extend to the recipe! “Many people have tried to get hold of it!” she told me.
Jo described her cake as “rough and rustic with lots of apple”. She uses eaters or cookers, whatever is available, peeled and roughly chopped within the cake while the surface is decorated with chunks so the apple taste comes through; cinnamon is included but no sultanas or lemon. Her cake is very popular, it’s now a Leakers speciality, and in the peak season she makes twenty trays a week.
The Great Dorset Apple Cake Bake Off
Inspired by my visit to Leakers, I decided to try my hand at making apple cake. I made two versions: one according to the Guardian’s “perfect” recipe which, aside from the usual ingredients, used wholemeal flour and Cox’s apples; my second cake had less sugar and butter and was based on a recipe from Amanda Persey’s book of “Favourite Dorset Recipes”. I used cooking apples, added cinnamon and decorated the top with apple chunks. Details of these recipes are given below.
While the cakes were baking, I couldn’t help pondering the seemingly magical transformation taking place in the oven. What chemical changes were occurring as the cake baked and how does each ingredient contribute to the structure, lightness and flavour of the final product?
Every baker wants their cake to be light and airy but it needs some structure as well and here the flour is a major contributor. Proteins in the flour come together to make gluten when they meet moisture; the gluten forms a protein scaffold, a flexible web that helps trap carbon dioxide and water vapour as the cake expands. The lightness comes from the raising agent, baking powder; during the early phase of baking it releases carbon dioxide gas which becomes trapped within the matrix of egg, butter, sugar and flour causing the mixture to expand and giving the cake a light, porous texture. Butter brings flavour and richness as well as restraining gluten formation helping to keep the texture light. The eggs provide moisture and the egg proteins solidify during baking, sealing off the bubbles of carbon dioxide; the structure of the cake is completed by the coagulation of the flour proteins.
The winning apple cake
Armed with two of my own cakes and a chunk of the Leakers version, I asked my home tasting panel which they liked best. The Guardian “perfect” cake looked good and had a light open texture, but everyone in my household found it too sweet, so much so that it overpowered the taste of the apples. It might work better with a tart cooking apple but it definitely was not to our taste. My second cake also looked good and the apple chunks gave it an appropriately rustic feel. We liked this cake with its dense but crumbly texture; it was not too sweet, allowing the apple taste to come through strongly. Jo Leaker’s apple cake was, however, the winner and it was especially good when warmed. We liked its very moist but dense texture and its strong apple taste, combined with a not-too-sweet crumb and an interesting buttery surface. I should have realised that the professionals know best!
Now it’s your turn to get baking and discover the mysteries and the pleasures of Dorset Apple Cake.
Recipes for Dorset Apple Cake
My first cake
slightly modified from Felicity Cloake’s Perfect Dorset Apple Cake Recipe
Wholemeal flour (225g) (I used spelt flour)
Baking powder (2 tsp)
Pinch of salt
Mixed spice (1tsp)
Rapadura sugar (175g) (Felicity Cloake calls for light muscovado which may work better)
Butter, melted (150g)
2 large eggs, beaten
4 medium Cox apples, cored but not peeled, then diced (The apple flavour may come through better with a tart cooking apple, but I followed Felicity’s suggestion of Cox’s)
Demerara sugar to top
Flaked almonds (2 tbsp) for top
- Combine the flour, baking powder, salt, spice, and sugar in a bowl.
- Stir in the butter and eggs and beat together for a minute or so until combined well.
- Stir in the apples until well distributed, then spoon the mixture in to the tin (circular tin, 20 cm diameter, with paper liner).
- Smooth the top and sprinkle with the Demerara sugar.
- Bake for an hour at 160 oC,
- Add the almonds and bake for a further 15-25 mins until coming away from the tin. (my cake needed more time overall so you may need to test with a skewer until it comes away clean)
My Second Cake
Modified from Amanda Persey “Favourite Dorset Recipes”
Plain flour (115g)
Spelt flour (wholemeal) (115g)
Baking powder 2tsp
Rapadura sugar (115g)
One egg, beaten
Natural yoghurt (1 tbsp) (this was an addition suggested by Hazel to make the cake more moist, it could have taken more)
Cooking apples, peeled and cored (225g roughly chopped (in the cake), 90g chunks (each chunk about one eighth of one apple) for the top))
Melted butter for brushing the top
- Mix the flours and baking powder and rub in the butter by hand until is resembles bread crumbs.
- Mix in the sugar and cinnamon.
- Add 225g of roughly chopped apple
- Mix in the beaten egg and the natural yoghurt and stir well until mixed evenly
- Put the mixture in a cake tin (circular tin, 20 cm diameter, with paper liner) and smooth the surface
- Press apple chunks (90 g in total) in to the surface
- Brush surface with melted butter
- Bake at 170 degrees for 30-40 min until surface is firm to touch or a skewer inserted in the cake comes away clean. The recipe calls for 30-40 min but I had to cook for longer, it will depend on your oven.