Surprise Apple Cake

Gala apples are ready for picking at Silverman's Farm in Easton, Connecticut. (Russell Steven Powell photo)
Gala apples are ready for picking at Silverman’s Farm in Easton, Connecticut. (Russell Steven Powell)

COUSIN KAREN was baffled. I had asked her for a recipe called Surprise Apple Cake, and she had no memory of it at all. Yet my wife had photographed the recipe from a cookbook at Karen’s house two Thanksgivings ago, and had even written Karen’s name on it.

Unfortunately, the page’s curl toward the book’s spine made some of the ingredients illegible. To make Surprise Apple Cake, I needed Karen’s help.

She racked her brain and made several fruitless searches. But at last she stumbled upon it in, of all places, Elsie’s Cook Book, by “Elsie the Cow, with the aid of Harry Botsford.” It was published in 1952.

Elsie the Cow became the Borden company’s mascot in 1936. According to Wikipedia, Elmer the Bull was created four years later as Elsie’s mate (he eventually went on to become the mascot for Elmer’s Glue, then a Borden subsidiary). Elsie continues to be a symbol of Borden’s today.

Karen and I have a special, personal connection to the real Elsie. The original Elsie the Cow, nee You’ll Do Lobelia, was raised at Elm Hill Farm in Brookfield, Massachusetts, where Karen and I grew up. According to the website Brookfield’s Elsie Connection, the cow was one of 20 from around the country selected to represent the Borden company at the 1939 New York World’s Fair.

My grandfather, Lee Boyce (Karen’s great-grandfather), was manager of Elm Hill, and he escorted Elsie on her tour of the World’s Fair and across the country, ending in Hollywood, where she met, among others, Spencer Tracy, Frank Sinatra, and John Wayne. A photo album in my attic documents my grandfather’s and Elsie’s trip west.

ELM HILL FARM had a large apple orchard in addition to Morgan horses and its prized herd of Jersey cattle. The livestock and orchard are long gone, but I still can smell the thick fragrance and imagine the clang and bustle of the cool apple barn, where the apples were sorted and packed when I was a boy.

Elsie and apples come together again in this recipe for Surprise Apple Cake. Karen, as it turns out, has never made it, but that may change before long.

Fresh from the oven, the cake is unusual for its lemon flavor and light texture resulting from beaten egg whites and applesauce. Its graham cracker crust provides a pleasing contrast, and it is sweet without being cloying.

Overnight the flavors meld and the cake settles to a creamy consistency more like cheesecake. Either way, it is delicious.

In a 2014 review of Elsie the Cow’s Cook Book, blogger Anne Verme writes, “I have to tell you, the cartoon drawings in this cookbook are delightful and hilarious.

“I mean, look at the cover: Elmer is wearing an apron, peeling potatoes and does not look at all happy about it. Poor Elmer. Methinks he should just accept his fate as a kitchen mate and be done with it.”

On a more serious note, Verme writes that “Elsie’s ‘no nonsense’ approach carried over to the kitchen in the form of recipes that are just ‘straight up,’ stick-to-the-ribs kind of fare that were representative of the times (1952). Nothing is overly-spicy, nothing contains a lot of unmanageable ingredients or steps and everything is pretty easy to make.

“The downside is that many dishes looked bland or potentially bland to this cook’s palate. And so I made a few adjustments to my soup to ensure a better outcome.”

While easy to make and using only a few ingredients, there’s nothing bland about Surprise Apple Cake — the lemon zest alone sees to that.

We’ve made a few adjustments, too, though, increasing the cinnamon and adding more butter to the packaged graham crumbs, which are denser and more consistent than the ones bakers in the 1950s would make at home by crumbling whole graham crackers with a rolling pin between sheets of waxed paper.

Surprise Apple Cake

Surprise Apple Cake (Russell Steven Powell)
Surprise Apple Cake (Russell Steven Powell)

8 T butter (1 stick), melted

1½ t cinnamon

2 c graham cracker crumbs

3 eggs, separated

1 14 oz. can sweetened condensed milk

2 T lemon juice

Grated zest of 1 lemon

2 c applesauce

Preheat oven to 350°F.

Mix together butter, cinnamon, and graham crackers. Spread a thick layer of crumbs on the bottom of a buttered 8-inch spring mold pan or 8×8 baking pan. Reserve ½ c for topping.

In a large bowl, beat egg yolks. Stir in sweetened condensed milk, lemon juice, zest, and applesauce.

In a small bowl, beat egg whites with a mixer until they form stiff peaks. Gently fold into the applesauce batter.

Pour into the prepared pan. Sprinkle with remaining graham cracker crumbs.

Bake until lightly brown on top, about 50 minutes. Cool on a wire rack for at least 10 minutes.

Serve warm for a lighter texture. For a creamier texture, store overnight in the refrigerator, covered with plastic wrap.


Gala apple (Bar Lois Weeks photo)
Gala apple (Bar Lois Weeks)

GALA is a good choice for applesauce, and they are ready now at many New England orchards. Gala is a sweet apple with plenty of pear-like and apple flavor. For a sauce with a bit more bite, add a few McIntosh or other sweet-tart variety.

Elmer needn’t grumble about peeling apples for the applesauce in Surprise Apple Cake; the skins add nutrition and color to any apple dish.

To make applesauce, just quarter a dozen or so apples and toss into a pot with 1 c water or, better yet, cider. Cook over medium heat until the apples are soft, and then put them through a food mill, discarding the seeds and leftover skins.

Watch this one-minute video to learn more about Gala’s history and characteristics:

Still hungering for more about Gala? Visit this earlier post from 2015:

You say ‘gal-la,’ I say ‘gay-la’


  • Franci Martin

    Never was aware of Elsie’s Cookbook. It is coincidental that I just talked with Elizabeth at the Emily Dickinson Museum about doing a display of heritage apples like we did last year. The seedling of the Tolman Sweet on the property was named in a contest there “The Dickinson Sweeting.” I located a recipe for a famous Maine recipe of apple cake using Tolman Sweet apples and we will have samples at the yet unscheduled event.

    • Russell Powell

      Thanks Francis! Let us know when the event is scheduled, and if you like the Maine recipe, please pass it along. Glad to know the Dickinson apples are doing well.