The History Dish: Reuben’s Apple Pancake

The Apple Pancake: Apples fried in a sweet batter, covered in a buttery, caramel crust.

In June, the Lower East Side Tenement museum held its annual benefit, themed around the multi-cultural food of the New York.  It featured vendors and restaurateurs cooking up some of the best food in five boroughs:  Tortilleria Nixtamel; Orwasher’s Bakery; Ma Peche; Murray’s Cheese; The Brooklyn Brewery and many more.  I was invited to do a little food demo, so I wanted to do something flashy: I decided on Reuben’s Apple Pancake.

Reuben’s Restaurant was one of the iconic eateries that haunted midtown from the turn of the century until 1966, when it shut its doors (debatable–it survived at a different location with a different owner until 2001).  A kosher-style deli, it was the type of place that the children and grandchildren of Ashkenazic Jewish immigrants would eat alongside stars of stage and screen; sometimes, the two were one in the same.  It was most well know for its sandwiches named for celebrities–yes, it was that kind of place, one of the ones from which all other celebrity themed sandwich shops descended.  Most notably, “The Reuben.”  Concocted by the restaurant’s owner for some hungry young starlet, it was a mighty stack of multiple meats, cheese and french dressing, that is arguably the grandfather of the Reuben we know today.

In the 1960s, New York was barreling towards bankruptcy, an economic inevitability that took many of New York’s most notable restaurants with it.  The same decade saw the decline and shuttering of Reuben’s,  Horn & Hardart’s Automat, Schrafft’s, and more.  After closing, Reuben’s still sold their famous cheesecakes via mail order.  But the restaurant was famous for another dessert that could not be purchased over phone lines: The Apple Pancake.

The apple pancakes had to be made fresh, by guys in the kitchen who had been doing it for thirty years and had built huge biceps from flipping endless steel skillets.  The pancake was a mixture of apples and cinnamon, cooked in a batter.  What made it exceptional was the process by which it was cooked:  the pancake was flipped in its skillet five or six times.  Before each flip, butter was scooped into the skillet and the topside of the pancake sprinkled with sugar.  When the pancake was fliped, the sugar and the butter worked together to create a caramel curst that was simultaneosly crispy and gooey.

After giving this recipe a try in my own kitchen, I discovered the result to be something between a funnel cake, an apple dumpling and creme brulee.  It was promptly declared “stoner food” by those who sampled my recreation (and meant in the best possible way).

An apple pancake dripping with butter and caramel is not something that could be shipped through the mail.  So when Reuben’s shuttered, it remained only in the hearts and minds of the New Yorkers who loved it.  And then slowly, over time, it was forgotten.

It is now my mission to bring it back.  MAKE THIS RECIPE.  Below, a video of me cooking one up at the Tenement Benefit.  It features two, mediocre pancake flips, but it will give you an idea of the technique.

Reuben’s Apple Pancake from Sarah Lohman on Vimeo.

Cooked by Sarah Lohman; video and narration by Eleanor Berke

Cooked by Sarah Lohman; video and narration by Eleanor Berke

The flip is important to the end result, but don’t let it intimidate you: with a little practice, anyone can flip pancakes like a pro.  Practice with dry beans in a skillet to get a sense of the flick of the wrist.  Then, when it comes time to hurl your apple pancake through the air, FLIP WITH CONFIDENCE.

Above all, make this recipe!  It may be the most delicious thing on the earth.



Reuben’s Apple Pancake
From The New York Times, 1971:
And NYTimes, 1986:’s+special&st=nyt

1 large cooking apple
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
¼ cup plus 3 tablespoons sugar
1 egg
⅔ cup milk
½ cup flour
⅛ teaspoon salt
6 tablespoon clarified butter

1. Peel, core, and slice apple into 1/4-inch thick, quarter-moon-shaped slices. Place in bowl with 1 1/2 tablespoons sugar and cinnamon. Mix well; cover and allow to marinate for at least 24 hours; longer if possible. Stir occasionally.

2. Beat egg with milk; combine flour and salt, then add wet ingredients.  Mix until batter is smooth.

3. In a non-stick, 9-inch skillet: heat 2 tablespoons butter until it sizzles. Add drained apples and cook over medium heat, stirring, for about 5 minutes, until apples soften.

4. Add another 2 tablespoons of butter. Pour in batter evenly and cook over medium-high heat, pulling sides of pancake away from edges and allowing batter to flow under and cook. Keep lifting with spatula to prevent sticking. When pancake begins to firm up, sprinkle 1/4 the sugar evenly over the top.

5. Add another two tablespoons of butter, slipping it underneath the pancake. Then flip the pancake and cook, allowing the sugar to caramelize. When it begins to brown, sprinkle top with another 1/4 of sugar. Add more butter if needed. Flip pancake again and allow sugar to caramelize on the bottom.

6. Sprinkle 1/4 of sugar on top. Add more butter to pan if needed. Flip pancake once again and continue caramelizing.

7. Sprinkle top lightly with sugar and place in 400 degree oven for 15 – 20 minutes, to caramelize further.

The History Dish: My Grandma’s Coconut Cake

Orange and Almond Cake with Meringue Frosting and Fresh Coconut.

I have very few taste memories from my grandmother.  By the time I was born, most of what she cooked came from boxes and cans, and there was an endless supply of Twinkies in the cabinet.  But when my mother was a little girl, my grandmother would cook, and bake, from scratch.

My mother always talks about a cake that her mother made once a year, at Easter.  A coconut cake.  “It was so good,”  my mother said. “It tasted

Boyfriend Brian bangs the nut.


best right after the frosting went on and the coconut was sprinkled on top.  My mother made it from a real coconut.  We had to grate it by hand. It was horrible.

“I think my mom would have used the recipe for yellow cake and white mountain frosting (I think it’s also called 7-minute frosting) from the Settlement Cookbook.  Preparing a coconut is a bitch. I’m sure you’ll find directions on the Food Network website.  Basically, you puncture the eyes with a hammer and nail, and then bake the whole coconut in the oven (I don’t know at what temperature and for how long) until the shell cracks, and then you wrap it in a towel and hit it with a hammer until it breaks in pieces, and then you pry the shell off the pieces, and then you peel the tough outer skin off the coconut meat, and then you grate it.  I would have (roommate) Jeff do all that!

“The coconut goes on while the frosting is wet (she kind of swirled the frosting on). And you have to do it pretty fast because the frosting crusts over quickly.  The cake lasts a long time, but the frosting starts to–I don’t know–dissolve after a couple of days.”

One day, a coconut just appeared on the kitchen table in my apartment.  I asked Roommate Jeff where it came from. “I dunno. I found it.” was his response.

I took it as a sign: coconut cake would happen this Easter.

I started tonight, by attacking the coconut.  Mom was right, directions can be found on the Food Network website here (Thanks, Alton Brown!).  Preparing the coconut was somehow both extremely laborious and not as difficult as I has expected.  It took about three hours and tasted no different that pre-shredded coconut from a bag.

I have my grandmother’s copy of  the Settlement Cookbook (the way to a man’s heart!), and I paged through it, unable to find a yellow cake recipe, unsure if this was the right book at all.  I stumbled upon a recipe for coconut layer cake that suggested using the white cake recipe on page 424.  On 424, I found this:

That’s my grandmother’s handwriting.  I love little notations in the margins of cookbooks–marks of personal preference and improved recipes.  But usually I find these notes amongst the books and recipes of strangers, unearthed at flea markets and garage sales.  Never had I seen such a cherished notation in my grandmother’s hand.

Who did she write it for? Surely she could remember that she preferred orange zest, not lemon.  Did she write it for my mom?  For the future? For me?

I zested an orange.  I beat the egg whites to soft peaks and set them aside, then sifted together Swan Cake Flour (a very old brand, still available) and baking powder, and set it aside, too.  I creamed butter and sugar; then, with the mixer on low, I added the flour and milk, alternating between the two.  I mixed until the batter was smooth, then added the almond flavoring and the orange zest; last, I folded in the egg whites.

My mother distinctly remembers this cake being baked in a plain square pan.  My grandmother would frost it right there in the pan; simple, easy and delicious.  I realized too late that I needed to double the recipe for my square pan; so instead, I baked it in a round, 9-inch pan. 375 degrees, for 20-25 minutes.  It came out of the oven looking perfect, despite the fact that I was tired and forgot to set a timer.

Here’s the frosting:

I made the frosting a little different: I cooked the first four ingredients in a metal mixing bowl over a double boiler until the sugar was dissolved and the liquid was hot to the touch.  Then I removed it from the heat and used my upright mixer to whip it until stiff peaks formed.  I gently mixed in the vanilla last.  After you frost the cake, sprinkle it with coconut immediately, before the frosting firms up.

The cake was a huge hit: despite the bounty of our Easter potluck, everyone managed to find room to cram in a slice of cake.  It was fluffy and not too sweet and the orange and the almond was a great flavor combo.  Guests were eating leftover frosting by the spoonful it was so good. The coconut was fine.  Get it from a bag.


The History Dish: Birthday Cakes

It’s my birthday today!  So naturally, I got curious about the history of birthday cakes.  This is the earliest b-day recipe on the books, from Jennie June’s American Cookery Book, published 1870:

The “cakes” are actually cookies; but the most interesting part of this recipe is the directions to “sprinkle colored caraway seeds on top.”  Colored could perhaps mean “toasted.”  It could mean dyed with natural dyes. It could mean candied.

But does it mean that “colored caraway seeds” are proto-sprinkles?  Jimmies?  Hundreds and Thousands?


At any rate, I decided not to make these cakes for my birthday: I anticipate them to be floury, dry, and full of currants.  Very 19th century and not my favorite style of cookie.  Instead, I’m baking an apple up-side-down cake and a plum cake, and my friend Jeffrey is arriving with a vegan delight.  The more cakes, the better, I say.

The History Dish: Apple Pan-Dowdy

I first made Apple Pan Dowdy way back in July, for the Edible Queens summer issue.  Originally part of an article about a traditional Fourth of July dinner, this dish is also perfect for this time of year.  Apple usage?  High.  Simple? Indeed, because the end product is far from glamorous: a sloppy, delicious mess of baked appleness. I could line up testimonials about how good this dessert is; it’s one of the recipes I’ve made this past year that I get requests for again and again.

You can choose to use either real maple syrup or molasses to sweeten the apples; each adds a distinctive flavor.  The molasses has a strong taste, so if you’re a fan of dark sugars and ginger breads, that’s the way to go.  But for a lighter finish, the maple syrup delivers a surprisingly clean and gentle flavor.

Apple Pan Dowdy

Adapted from American Heritage Cookbook, 1964 and Miss Corson’s Practical American Cookery by Juliet Corson, 1886.

1 9-inch pie crust, store-bought or homemade
5 large baking apples, peeled, cored and cut into ¼-inch-thick slices
½ cup sugar
½ tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
½ teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
½ cup maple syrup or molasses
¼ cup water
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

1. Preheat oven to 400°F. In large bowl, gently toss together first six ingredients.

2. Use half the crust to line the bottom of an 8- by 11-inch baking dish. Top with apple mixture. In small bowl, whisk together maple syrup, melted butter and water; pour over apples. Cover apples with remaining pie crust by weaving together wide strips, or by simply scattering torn pieces of crust over the top. Bake 10 minutes.

3. Remove from oven and“Dowdy” the crust by pushing it down into the apples with a knife. Reduce heat to 325° and bake one hour more.

4. Serve hot or cold with a dollop of whipped cream.

The History Dish: Pear Ice

Three frozen baby food blobs of pear ice.

If you love eating things that are slimy and gross, you’ll love Pear Ice.

This recipe is the last in the triumvirate of pear creations selected on We Dig Plants.  This one was my pick; I loved it because it was so simple.  From Buckeye Cookery, published in 1877, the recipe read: “Grate, sweeten and freeze well flavored apples, pears, peaches or quinces.”  Easy.  And it sounds like a wonderful way to enjoy pure pear taste.

But at the same time, it doesn’t make sense that I picked this recipe.  I hate grating.  I hate trying to hold on to slippery things while grating them.  I hate trying to grate that last tiny nub and grating bits of my finger in the process.  Grating is tedious and boring and I hate it.

I pared and cored good-sized bartlett pears and grated them.  It gave me about two cups of baby food-esque pear squish.  To that, I added 1/2 cup of white sugar, which ended up being a little sweet.  1/4 cup is advisable.  Then I threw the goop into my ice cream maker and let it do its thing.

It was frozen in less than 30 minutes and I dipped my spoon in to get a taste.  The flavor was good, sweet and peary. But the texture was appalling.  Simultaneously slimy and gritty, I make a “blech” face every time I swallowed a spoonful.

My roommate/guinea pig Jeff didn’t mind it; in fact, he liked it and ate a whole bowl.  Go figure.  Perhaps it’s a better recipe for apples or peaches.