In Search of Magical Estonian Apple Cake (Gluten-Free)

A couple of weeks ago, my husband went to the Adirondacks for a weekend and brought me back some Winesap apples.  This is a man who knows how to keep me happy.  Winesap apples are dark, dark burgundy colour.  They are not shiny and they are frequently blemished because they are an old variety of apple that has not been bred for supermarket beauty.  When the wicked queen disguises herself as an old hag and brings her step daughter an irresistible, magical, poisonous apple…it is a Winesap. You can see where the magic has crept into the apple’s flesh like little red veins.

Now I realize that this quality may not endear the Winesap to everyone, but I  have never met an enchanted apple that I did not like.  Another interesting quality of the Winesap, aside from being magical, is that when eaten raw it has a sort of starchy feel in your mouth, like a raw potato.   This starchy quality makes it a quirky choice at best for eating raw, but it means that the apple stands up BEAUTIFULLY in baking.

I needed to use my enchanted apples in an appropriately magical recipe!  My Ema’s apple cake came to mind.  Ema is mother in Estonian.  We called my Estonian grandmother Ema instead of Vanaema (grandmother)…I’m not really sure why.  My Ema is hands down one of the most magical people I have ever known.  First of all she’s Estonian.  Hardly anyone has heard of Estonia, but trust me they are very magical people.  Estonians have this way of talking about magical occurrences as if they were simply reporting on the weather or the health of a pet goat, or maybe its just my family?  Secondly, my Ema was full of love which she magically infused into the food which she raised and slaughtered, grew and harvested, preserved and cooked and fed to us.  She planted a fruit tree for each of her grandchildren and had a WHOLE ROOM full of delicious preserves that she harvested and set up from the grandchildren trees.  She never threw anything away, but not in a dysfunctional hoarder kind of way….everything was organized for maximum use and re-use.  Vegetable scraps were fed to goats and chickens who gave milk and eggs. Old cloths and scraps of fabric were organized into another WHOLE ROOM which I was allowed to cloth myself from through my entire teenage years.  Plastic bags were cut into strips and knitted into mats.  Okay, so I’ll admit a lot of the “magic” was frugality and hard work… and love.

I could go on and on about how she and her husband and children came to Canada as refugees during world war two, about how she read trashy tabloid newspapers, about how she was so emotional that her eyes would well up with tears whenever she spoke about my mother or father, about what a shrewd and fierce business woman and land lady she was, about her beautiful collection of glasses and tea cups and needlework pillow cases, about how she hated communists and celebrated the dissolution of the USSR by crocheting blankets in the colors of the Estonian flag.  She was a complicated and magical woman and I miss her every day.

I asked Ema for her apple cake recipe when I was in Junior high.  It is in my first recipe note-book.  She would layer sliced apples in a baking pan and then pour an eggy pancake-like batter with honey (from her own bees) and wheat germ on top.  It would separate into different layers as it baked. The wheat germ would sink and sort of make a crust, the middle was like cake and the top was custard.  Magic!  I would eat apple cake with milk fresh from Ema’s goats.  By the time I asked for the recipe Ema had already begun to have heart problems and I remember her telling me that this was a healthy way to make this cake.  I do not know how she made it originally.

Okay, so I tried to make a gluten-free version of my Ema’s magical Estonian apple cake using the enchanted apples that my husband had brought me.  I also decided to throw a persimmon in there, because persimmons magically taste like vanilla and cinnamon.

I am sad to report that despite all of this magic…my cake was a failure.  That is the way it goes with gluten-free experiments a lot of the time.  My husband ate it anyway, but it did not resemble my Ema’s apple cake in the least.

So after moping for a few days and acquiring some more apples (sadly not enchanted apples this time) I decided to try again, and again and again.  The plunders of my quest are detailed below.

ESTONIAN APPLE AND ALMOND CHEESE CAKE from The Food and Cooking of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania by Silvena Johan Lauta

First, I looked at a beautiful Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian cookbook that I bought myself recently.  This book has an apple cake recipe that calls for fresh cheese and sour cream!  The picture looks like my Ema’s cake.  Maybe this is something like the original not healthy version?

I tried it and it was really fun to make!  The batter takes on lots of different textures as you add the different ingredients (very magical).  The problem is that I don’t really like cheesecake and it was nothing like my Ema’s apple cake.  You might like it though!  My husband did.

  •  5 apples, peeled,cored and thinly sliced
  • grated rind and juice of 1 lemon

    1 cup cream cheese

  • 1 cup ricotta cheese
  • 4 eggs separated
  • 2/3 cup semolina flour (I used millet flour as a gluten-free substitute)
  • 1 tablespoon ground almonds or almond meal
  • 1 cup sour cream
  • 2/3 cup castor sugar
  • 1 cup sliced almonds
  1. Put the apples in a large bowl and toss them with the lemon rind and lemon juice to prevent discoloration.
  2. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Butter a 8 by 12 inch cake pan.
  3. Combine the cream cheese and ricotta in a large bowl.  Add the egg yolks one at a time, stirring each into the cheese mixture totally before adding the next one.  Put your egg whites in a large, clean, dry metal bowl and place it in the fridge while you continue.
  4. Add the flour and almond meal to the cheese mixture and stir to combine.
  5. Add the sour cream and castor sugar and stir to combine.
  6. Whisk your cold egg whites until thy form stiff peaks.
  7. Stir two large spoonfuls of egg whites into the batter.  Then fold in the remaining egg whites.
  8. Add the apples to the cheese batter and fold in.
  9. Pour the batter in to the cake tin, smooth it out and top it with the almonds.
  10. Bake for about 40 minutes or until the top is set and golden brown.


Whenever I make cherry clafouti it reminds me a bit of my Ema’s apple cake.  I made an apple clafouti and it was very good, but it would not pass as my gluten-free version of Magical Estonian Apple cake.  Don’t let that stop you from making it though because it really was delicious!

  • 3 Tablespoon butter
  • I Tablespoon vanilla extract
  • 5 eggs
  • 5 Tablespoons honey
  • 1 and ¼ cup milk
  • 2 Tablespoons Calvados
  • a pinch of salt
  • ½ cup finely ground almond meal
  • 1/2  cup millet flour
  • 2 apples peeled and sliced
  • A bit of brown sugar
  1. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
  2. Put the butter in a 9 inch oven proof skillet (preferably cast iron) and place it in the heating oven to melt.
  3. Blend the eggs, vanilla extract, honey, milk, calvados and salt together.
  4. Add the millet flour and almond meal and blend until entirely smooth (you can use a blender if you like).
  5. Tip the butter around in the heated skillet to coat all sides of the pan.
  6. Layer the apples into the buttered hot skillet.
  7. Pour the batter over the apples and sprinkle the top with brown sugar.
  8. Bake 30 to 35 minutes or until the cake puffs up and turns golden on top.
  9. Serve it right away for full visual effect, or eat it later at room temperature or from the fridge.  It will be fallen but it will still be good!
I did some research on-line and found that many Estonian folks have posted their Vanaema’s apple cake recipe!  Oddly, at least one called the it Canadian Apple Cake.  It seems that there was a cookbook of recipes from around the world that was published in Estonian when it was still a part of the USSR.  This apple cake was chosen to represent Canada!  Why?  No one knows!  Anyway, although my grandmother was an Estonian Canadian this cake didn’t seem like hers.  Finally, I found one that the author called simple apple cake.  I made a gluten-free version and I am very pleased with the results!  This cake was dense and custardy, sort of a cross between a cake, a custard and a pancake.  It make me crave a big glass of goat’s milk.   Finally, we have a winner!
  • 1 and 1/2 cups flour (I used bob’s red mill gluten-free flour mix)
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • a pinch of salt
  • 1 and 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 7 tablespoons butter
  • 2 eggs
  • 3/4 cups buttermilk
  • 3 to 4 apples cored peeled and sliced (I didn’t bother peeling them)
  • sugar and cinnamon for the top (I also added some cardamom)
  1. Put the butter in a baking tin and place it in the oven.  Preheat the oven to 350
  2. Mix the dry ingredients.
  3. Measure out the buttermilk in a large bowl.  Swirl the butter around the baking tin to cover the bottom and the sides and then slowly pour the rest of the butter into the buttermilk, whisking as you pour.
  4. Beat the eggs into the butter milk.
  5. Add the dry mixture to the wet and mix well.  If it’s too dry, add more milk.
  6. Arrange the apples in a the buttered hot tin
  7. pour the batter over the apples
  8. sprinkle the top with spices and sugar
  9. bake for 30 minutes or until it is set, golden and lifting away from the tin at the edges.


15 Comments Add yours

  1. Glenda says:

    Yeah! Ema’s apple cake recipe! I’ve wanted this recipe for years. If only I still had goats for some fresh goat milk!

  2. Mona Banek says:

    I’m remembering Ema’s chickens and Glenda’s goats and those beautiful places that are not there anymore.

  3. Rima Fand says:

    I absolutely love this post. What an amazing storyteller you are my dear!

  4. How in the world did I miss this post the first time around? Amazing!! This is really gorgeous, Erin. And those apples, holy! I love the picture of the peels and persimmon top as well. It’s very autumnal.

    You could always send Ema’s recipe my way. I can eat gluten baking and share it with people 🙂


  5. You got it! I’ll put in drafts and you can make it and add the photo. Yes?


  6. If anyone is interested in the original not gluten free version of this cake your should check out this recent post at smitten kitchen. It is the author’s Russian mother in law’s recipe for “apple sharlotka” which is almost EXACTLY the same as my grandmother’s apple cake recipe. It seems that my Ema made it healthy by adding some wheat germ!

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