Caramel Apple Cake and the Pumpkin Show of Ripley County
I lost a tooth at a fair once. It was the Ripley County Pumpkin Show. I spit it in the dirt and someone kicked it under a game booth. I never got my Tooth Fairy money for it and blood ran down my chin that night.
Midwesterners pray to a different set of harvest gods, and the Pumpkin Show was our Thesmorphia. It was a place to get cheap beer. A place to win a pocketknife in a ring toss. A place where I found a roach clip in an outhouse and gave it to my sister as an earring. The water tower stood in the middle of the town, its shadow elongated and grotesque in the dying autumn light before they turned the streetlights on.The Pumpkin Show is held by a courthouse where a hanging tree once stood. It’s held a block from where my great-grandmother lived until she couldn’t hold a spoon to her mouth. When I went last, someone had thrown a rock through the window and glass laid scattered in her old garden. A cat had cut its paw and tracked blood on the front porch. My mother never looked over at the house the whole time we were at the fair, she ignored it completely. My mother was a lost Madonna in the tumbleweeds of her youth and spend years between that house and an apartment after her mother passed away. Now it lay broken, shattered, abandoned except for one lonely stray. She bought kettle corn to distract herself and sat at a bench facing the water tower when she got too tired to walk around anymore.
I sat on the bench with her, watching the people throw darts at balloons and pingpong balls into fish bowls. She said she hardly recognized them anymore, she said a lot of families left when the town got too run down. She said she was glad we left, too. She asked me if I wanted any popcorn.
I watched the people’s faces and saw myself in other families. Broad German feet and hands, dark and rusty hair. Hungarian eyes. Dimpled smiles, hunched shoulders. I came from this place. The place where it felt like the corn grew year round, where miles of endless roads could take you anywhere but toward opportunity. Where they held a festival for pumpkins but the library had recently closed for good. It was a town I had gotten out of, but was so embedded into me.
We watched the people in silence while my siblings and father checked out the remaining booths, playing games and winning my mother a teddy bear. Each black-eyed woman, each tattooed man knew how to play Rummy, knew to use a cast iron for good corn bread, knew the way to my grandparents’ old farm was to avoid the highway at all costs. Most worked in factories, some had lost a leg or two in a war. One man stopped and asked if we knew his sister, my mother said that we weren’t from here. My mother was always trying to get away from this place, and I was always drawn back to it.
Even now, I look at myself in the mirror and see parts of me from those characters at the pumpkin festival. Parts of my smile crack at the same folds where my uncles did. My hairline is jagged, staggering, stuttering like the cashier at the only dollar store in town. And I have my grandmother’s eyes; full lashes and creased at the ends. From smiling, from squinting to read for signs from God in every bird that knocks at the window. I don’t think I’ll get away from this place anytime soon, when I can still see where the window frame was cracked when I close my eyes and how the world passed on, nonchalant, unnerved as the cat who stained the porch swing.
When my brother had seen the winning prize pumpkin and when my sister had fed all of the goats in the petting zoo. When my father had gotten a caramel apple for my mother and me to share, we all drove back to my aunt’s doublewide trailer. The windows were rolled down and the cold air hit our eardrums, the Pumpkin Show and all those familiar strangers behind us. And when I looked back, clutching the caramel apple wrapped in its cellophane, all I saw was the water tower at the center of town, streetlights and cigarette smoke casting shadows on its face.
Caramel Apple Cake, yields 2 8-inch round cakes that take on a dense and almost fudgy quality to them. Taken this week from another community cookbook called “Versailles’ Favorite Recipes”
Ingredients for Cake:
- 1 cup butter, softened
- 1 cup brown sugar, dark
- 2 teaspoon cinnamon
- ½ teaspoon allspice
- 4 ½ cup flour
- 2 teaspoon baking soda
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 1 tablespoon white vinegar
- ¾ cup whole milk or buttermilk
- ¼ cup strong coffee
- ¼ cup apple cider or apple juice
- 2 tablespoons clover honey
- 3 gala apples, cored, peeled, and chopped (or mix it up with one Granny Smith!)
Directions for the cake:
- Prepare two 8-inch cake rounds with parchment paper and butter
- Preheat oven to 375*F
- In the bowl of a stand mixer, fitted with a paddle attachment (or with a spoon or rubber spatula), cream butter, brown sugar, and spices together until light and fluffy
- Sift baking soda and salt into flour. Add three cups of flour and mix in until incorporated. Mixture will be very dry
- In a separate bowl or measuring cup, whisk vinegar, milk, honey, coffee, and cider
- Alternate adding remaining flour mixture with wet ingredients with mixer on low. When all ingredients are incorporated, turn mixer off and use a rubber spatula to mix by hand, paying attention to bottom and sides for any remaining flour
- Fold in apples
- Pour batter into cake pans and bake for 30-35 minutes, checking at the 30 minute mark for doneness
- Allow to cool completely before handling and icing
Ingredients for Caramel Icing and Topping:
- 1 cup brown sugar, dark
- ½ cup butter
- 1 tablespoon light corn syrup
- ½ cup whole milk
- 4-5 cups confectioner’s sugar
- Pinch of salt
- ¼ cup walnuts, roughly chopped to sprinkle on top
Directions for Icing and Assembly:
- In a small sauce pan, heat sugar, butter, and corn syrup on medium-high, stirring occasionally to avoid burning
- Allow for butter to melt completely into mixture and cook for a minute or two until sides begin to bubble slightly
- Add milk and stir only once. Allow to cook for an additional minute
- Take off burner and allow to cool completely before pouring into the bowl of a stand mixer, fitted with a whisk attachment
- When cooled, begin beating caramel mixture on medium, adding confectioner’s sugar one cup at a time, allowing for each cup to be mixed in fully before adding the next
- Continue to do this until you yield your desired consistency. It should be a pale tan, thick but spreadable (may need more than 5 cups)
- Place one layer of the cake on a plate and spread a little less than half of the mixture on top, spreading towards the edges and not being afraid of a little mess!
- Place second layer on top of first. With this one, scoop icing into middle of the cake and, using an angled icing spatula push out towards sides, allowing for large sections to run off and dry organically. Continue with remaining icing if desired.
- Sprinkle with salt and walnuts and allow to sit for a few minutes for caramel icing to thicken up (it looks prettier this way)