walnut-apple-calvados-caramel cake says “autumn,” avoids awful pumpkin spice

Gourmandistan enjoys autumn, and does not generally stand in opposition to cinnamon, cloves or nutmeg. (OK, Steve admits to being somewhat more averse to cinnamon than most people.) But we do not understand the current appeal of pairing the season with something called “pumpkin spice.” We are in awe of the marketing and social forces that have combined to make whatever constitutes “pumpkin pie” flavoring almost ubiquitous, but we wish more people would seek alternative “fall” flavors that are all around them. Apple, for one.


It is once again apple season in Gourmandistan’s Kentucky domain, meaning we have a fridge full of several varieties Steve scooped up at local markets, including his beloved GoldRush. As faithful readers know, Steve is quite happy to scarf down fresh fruit, but Michelle often seeks a way to enjoy the seasonal bounty in slightly more dessert-ish fashion.

Apple cake

This time she was determined to find an apple cake that did not reek of the aforementioned spices, but instead brought out actual apple flavor. Rifling through her hundreds of cookbooks, she found a likely recipe in The Perfect Finish, one of the many titles she picked up at remainder tables. She found the combination of walnuts, apple, Calvados and cream cheese appealing, and approved of the absence of “pumpkin” seasonings. However, while Gourmandistan held plenty of apples, we lacked the number of eggs (eight) required for former White House pastry chef Bill Yosses’ genoise, which was fine because Michelle was in the mood for a more traditional layer cake. She adapted a similarly-flavored (and less egg-intensive) cake recipe from “Cake Boss” Chef Duff Goldman by way of Godiva, then turned her attention to Yosses’ apple-caramel filling and Calvados cream cheese icing.

WinsesapMichelle was “too scared” to heat the caramel filling to the 374° temperature Yosses called for, choosing instead to thicken it by cooking a lot longer at a lower temperature. She also lacked cream for the icing (having used up all we had in the filling), so she substituted milk and some additional confectioners’ sugar. Despite her fears of runny caramel and too-thin icing, the cake proved to be delicious. The light crumb laced with walnut was a fine bed for the caramel filling, and the Calvados cream cheese icing added another layer of apple flavor. All without succumbing to the seasonal craze.


  • Servings: makes on 9-inch layer cake
  • Print

(filling and icing adapted from Bill Yosses’ The Perfect Finish)


We used this recipe, with no changes. It makes a sturdy, nutty two-layer cake with a nice crumb.


  • 2 large apples (we used Mutsus)
  • 1 lemon
  • 1 c. sugar
  • 1 c. heavy cream
  • Pinch of salt

Peel and core apples, and cut into small pieces. Toss with juice of 1/2 lemon.

In a heavy saucepan, melt the sugar with juice of remaining 1/2 lemon. Swirl the pan occasionally, but do not stir. When sugar is dark golden (about 300° F on a candy thermometer), gradually add cream, stirring with a wooden spoon, until incorporated. Add apples and salt. Reduce heat and simmer until apples are soft and caramel is thickened, about 30 minutes. Add salt. Remove to a bowl and refrigerate, stirring occasionally.


  • 1 lb. cream cheese, at room temperature
  • 1/2 c. confectioners’ sugar (plus a few TB more if needed)
  • 2 TB milk
  • 1-1/2 TB Calvados
  • 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract

Beat cream cheese in the bowl of an electric mixer until softened. Add confectioners’ sugar and beat until completely smooth, about 10 minutes.

Mix together milk, Calvados and vanilla. With mixer running, drizzle liquid into icing mixture. Scape down the sides of the bowl as needed. Beat for about 5 minutes more, until spreadable. If too thin, add a few more tablespoons of confectioners’ sugar.


Fill cooled cake layers with chilled filling. Frost with Calvados cream cheese icing. (There is not a ton of icing, so go thinly.)

Store finished cake in refrigerator, but bring slices to room temperature before serving.


  1. Yes, to calvados, the beautiful apple brandy that can deglaze a pork pan into a heaven-scented sauce. Good use of it in the cake. I bet it’s wonderful.

  2. Cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg make me think of hot spiced cider or mulled wine. I bought some wet walnuts from the farmer at the farmers’ market on Sunday – his new apple crop is on sale too – he does some amazing heritage varieties 🙂

    • Love all the apples you have in England. I made the mistake last week of making applesauce with some Winesaps—otherwise a delicious variety, but they aren’t Bramleys…

      • That’s funny, the Winesaps do sound like a good alternative.
        I just read an interesting story about the Bramley. The original tree still bears fruit in spite of being knocked over by violent storms in 1900!

  3. It’s true, there seems to be a pumpkin spice obsession happening all around us. Pumpkin spice latte?! My plan is to bake an apple cake today. I already have the recipe picked out and the ingredients on hand and here you go and throw this little masterpiece out there. 🙂 Love the caramel filling.

  4. I laughed out loud at the pumpkin spice comment. I do confess of owning it and it’s been lingering in my spice drawer for years so in a way it’s either less awful or totally gone in flavor. Your cake looks amazing. And the picture is wonderful – love the dark background and the plate design.

    • Thanks! And too funny about the pumpkin spice in the drawer. But I guess that at least means yours was real and not some synthetic flavor mix like they (for some unknown reason) put into coffee and everything else here.

  5. It’s too hot here to grow apples, therefore we eat them only when we are away from the farm. I think on our next trip out — whenever that will be — I’ll have to carry some cake tins in my luggage, haha. This looks and sounds really delicious!

  6. This cake is so special. What a beaut! I think I’d have a hard time resisting that apple filling (I love cooking with Mutsus!) and frosting before they made it onto the cake. Calvados Cream Cheese Frosting—I need this in my life.

  7. Haha this post made me laugh! I actually don’t like clove… other than that I only do the pumpkin spice thing once a year, so thats ok. Apple for the rest of the time is better. And anything with Calvados is even better…

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