The Local Food Report: espalier apples

First off, Stephen, thank you for the apple cake. I knew it would be good—I could tell that much from the warmth and the smell and the soft, crackly apple bits that peeked out around the edges. But I had no idea how good—that it would melt and give way and taste downright heavenly. So thank you. It made our Sunday.

I'd also like to thank you for showing me your trees. I'd never seen an espalier apple tree up close. I'd read about them, plenty, and looked at photos, but it was a lot more exciting to see the real thing. It made me want to do a lot more reading, and some bending of our own fruit trees. 

When I came home, I started looking into the science of espalier. You mentioned that people train their fruit trees this way—trunks cut to waist height, branches bent and trimmed to come out horizontally, in tiers, on a single plane—to increase fruit productivity. I found an article online about this, about the nuances of it, and apparently it's more than just the fact that separating the branches means the leaves get plenty of light. (Light, in turn, helps the plants make sugar, which of course is important for plentiful, healthy fruit.) There are also tree hormones involved—ethylene is produced when branches are bent or wounded, and it helps promote fruit bud formation. 

Of course the other reason you mentioned is that training trees espalier makes picking the fruit easier, and that's easy enough to understand. 

Finally, there's beauty. This is why you said you did it—for the look of a natural fruit and blossom fence. There's symmetry in the dead of winter, flowers in the spring, and fruit maturing and deepening in color all season. 

Well, it came out beautifully. I've been looking into varieties—you said you're growing Fuji and Free Mac and Red Delicious—and I found a neat resource for historical Maine varieties over here. The University of Massachusetts also has information on what varieties do well in our region, as does the New England Apple Association. If anyone else is interested, these are all good resources. 

Finally, I'd like to share your apple cake recipe. Everyone, this comes from Stephen Polowczyk, my neighbor in Wellfleet, who in turn says it comes from his friends' mothers' church cookbook. It's a keeper.


This cake is moist, moist, moist. For the sugar, Stephen says he likes to use half white and half brown—you can use all one or the other—but that's his ideal mix.

3 cups all purpose flour
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon plus 2 teaspoons, divided
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon baking powder
2 and 1/2 cups sugar plus 3 tablespoons, divided
1 cup vegetable oil
4 unbeaten eggs
2 and 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
1/3 cup orange juice
6 thinly sliced apples
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

Grease and flour a tube pan and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. 

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, 1 teaspoon of cinnamon, salt, baking powder, and 2 and 1/2 cups sugar. Stir in the vegetable oil, eggs, vanilla, and orange juice. In a separate bowl, mix together the apples, 2 teaspoons cinnamon, 3 tablespoons sugar, and cloves. 

Alternate a layer of batter into the pan with a layer of apples, batter first. (The batter will be sticky and gloppy, Stephen says, and that's okay.) End with a layer of apples. Typically, there will be three layers of apples. 

Bake for up to 2 hours. Check at 1 hour and 15 minutes using the straw test. Let the cake cool in the pan, then invert it onto a plate. Serve warm or at room temperature—it is just as good the next day.


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All text, photographs, and other original material copyright 2008-2010 by Elspeth Hay unless otherwise noted.