Scandinavian Apple Cake for the Holidays

RECIPE CARDS are in some respects like heirloom apples. They are both direct descendants of their ancestors. They add flavor to our lives and deepen our appreciation of the past. 

But recipe cards are fast becoming relics of the pre-digital age. Today, people look up recipes online – it’s simpler that way. It’s easier to find recipes online than thumbing through a box of index cards. In the ever-growing Recipes section of New England Apple Association’s website, there are many great apple recipes organized by meal, for example.

Yet there is something deeply personal and individual about recipe cards. They are tangible evidence of lives lived, from the distinctive, bold or spidery handwriting — often of a mother, aunt, or grandmother — to the smudges of flour, vanilla, or egg-white from years of use.

Like heirloom apples, the cards add greatly to our understanding of the past while informing our present. They may not represent the future, but they are worth preserving and treasuring.

Most of all, recipes like Scandinavian Apple Cake are delicious!

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THIS RECIPE for Scandinavian Apple Cake is in the handwriting of an old friend of my mother’s, Trish Leipold, of Wolfeboro, New Hampshire. That notation can be found in my mother’s handwriting in the upper right corner.

Sally Powell, who just celebrated her 98th birthday, painted this watercolor at age 90.

The recipe evokes my mother, Sally Powell, in two other ways. This week she celebrated her 98th birthday. Alas, we could not be with her; she is isolated in a nursing home during the pandemic.

But she was raised among apples, and later she painted them. She grew up on Elm Hill Farm in Brookfield, Massachusetts, which had a large orchard in addition to Morgan horses and a herd of Jersey cows (including the original Elsie the Cow). She later went to art school in Boston, painting well into her 90s, including her watercolor of apples here. 

The other reason I think of her is the recipe’s unusual use of cardamom. Every year at Christmas, my mother would make a braided Swedish coffee bread flavored with cardamom, which we ate Christmas morning. She made many batches, three braids at a time, not just for the six of us, but for the mailman, milkman, and a few grateful neighbors.

The bread was moist, aromatic, and chewy, topped with a thin layer of almond-flavored icing dotted with a few candied cherries and finely chopped walnuts. But it was the cardamom that gave the bread its distinctive taste.

Cardamom, a member of the ginger family native to India, is a complex spice, intense and fragrant. Like nutmeg or cloves, a little goes a long way. It can be bought finely ground, but my mother always started with whole pods, removing the spicy seeds from the cream-colored husks and grinding them with mortar and pestle to the consistency of coarse pepper. 

This worked to great effect in her breads — you could see tiny shards of cardamom bursting with flavor — and whole seeds stored in glass jars keep their flavor longer. But finely ground cardamom is considered preferable for most baked goods, infusing them with stronger cardamom flavor than the crushed seeds.

Either way, the cardamom gives this rustic-looking cake an unusual flair. Cortland and Mutsu, two large apples excellent for baking, are a good choice for this, with a McIntosh or two for extra moisture, aroma, and flavor. We served it with vanilla yogurt.

IT’S NO SURPRISE, by the way, that both the cake and my mother’s Christmas bread are Scandinavian in origin. Scandinavian cultures have taken to this sweet, pungent spice ever since the Vikings brought cardamom back from Turkey, then a center of trading between Asia and Europe. It has become a staple of Scandinavian baking ever since.

Today, the European Union imports more than 1,200 tons of cardamom a year, and Sweden is the largest user. Per capita use of cardamom is about 60 percent greater in Sweden than in the United States.

Perhaps this cake can close the gap!

Scandinavian Apple Cake. (Bar Lois Weeks)

Scandinavian Apple Cake

Scandinavian Apple Cake. (Bar Lois Weeks)

6 medium New England apples, cored and chopped

1 c sugar

1 c chopped pecans or walnuts

2/3 c butter, melted

2 eggs, beaten slightly

2 t vanilla

1 c flour

1 c whole wheat flour

2 t cinnamon

1 t baking powder

1 t baking soda

2/3 t allspice

1/4 t ground cardamom

pinch salt

Preheat oven 350°F. Grease a 13″x9″ pan.

Combine apples, sugar, nuts, and butter. Stir in eggs and vanilla.

Mix all dry ingredients together, then add to apple mixture, stirring just until combined.

Spread into pan. Bake 30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes clean.

Can also be made using a 10″ fluted tube pan. Bake 50 minutes.




  • Jonathan A. Wright

    I love the story, the painting, and the history of cardamom crossing the Mediterranean and up the Atlantic coast into the Baltic in the shallow holds of Viking ships!! Wow. I bet the cake tastes a little salty too!


    I’m in awe of the oil painting, simple beautiful!
    I will make this cake with a cup of coffee and hold tribute to Ms. Sally.🍎