Comprised from The Prepared Pantry Magazine “Country Home Kitchen.” To sign up for a free subscription to the magazine click here>>
When we lived in Minnesota there was a great bicycle path called The Gandy Dancer Trail that cut through the woods not far from the St. Croix River and into Wisconsin. It was built on an old raised railroad bed with the ties removed and it was mostly paved. It was smooth, straight, and level.
I remember riding the path one bright, moonlit night. I had the path to myself and it was so light that I could see into the shadows in the woods. Visibility was good and the path was so smooth that I flew down it. All was well until I entered a tunnel where all went black. I slid to a stop.
I assumed the trail was named after the railroad line-Gandy Dancer Railroad Line.
Several years later I was on a work assignment in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The crew I was with was great. We worked hard during the day and at night, we worked hard to find the best restaurants in Ann Arbor.
Ann Arbor is an amazing culinary town. I don’t know of another town of its size that can boast about as many really good restaurants. We found most of them.
We found The Gandy Dancer, a fine restaurant built in a refurbished railroad depot. I wondered what a Gandy Dancer was doing in Michigan. I didn’t figure it out until years later.
Gandy Dancers were railroad workers, the men who built and maintained the tracks.
As the trains run the tracks, rolling with the landscapes and curves, the rails shift and slide on their beds. If left alone, the shifted track could cause a derailment. The Gandy Dancers pry the rails back into position.
Gandy Dancers carried long metal pry bars-levers to lift and pry the rails back into position. They worked in unison, heaving and pushing a length of rail back into position and then moving forward a few steps and doing it again.
Each man took a bite into the gravel with his pry bar and then threw his weight into the bar in a leaning, rocking motion while singing a song, a chant to stay in rhythm and work in unison. In the 1950’s, there were popular Gandy Dancer songs-songs that either memorialized the Gandy Dancers or were similar to the songs they sang on the job. And yes, I suppose that as they worked, leaning into their poles on cue, they looked like dancers.
Gandy Dancer Caramel Apple Cake
I found an apple cake recipe in an old time cookbook, a heritage recipe. It was a simple recipe baked in a skillet with diced apples scattered over the batter. Maybe it was nostalgia, maybe it was the simplicity of the recipe, but it appealed to me.
The next morning, I made some changes to the recipe and went to work. We baked several in the test kitchen, making minor changes. We served thick slices in the store with a drizzle of caramel and caramel whipped cream.
Customers really liked it, but we weren’t satisfied. The cake was thick and heavy and slow to bake. We were afraid that with different skillets, some folks may have trouble with baking times. So it was back to the test kitchen again.
What I thought was going to be a simple project turned out to be two or more days of testing. The final cake was no longer baked in a skillet, but in a 9×13 baking pan. Drenched in caramel and topped with caramel whipped cream. Of course it was good.
I called it a Gandy Dancer Cake. Maybe it was the time period, a recipe from when Gandy Dancers worked the line. Maybe it was the straightforward nature of the recipe, a moist, dense cake that hardworking men would appreciate. Maybe it was just me thinking of Michigan, apples, and the great restaurants in Ann Arbor.
For the Caramel:
3 cups brown sugar
1/3 cup corn syrup
1 cup heavy whipping cream
1/4 cup butter, plus more for the pan
1.Cook the sugar, corn syrup, and heavy whipping cream in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Stir continually until the sugar is dissolved and the mixture reaches a temperature of about 200 degrees and the caramel is a thin syrup, about the 7-10 minutes. The caramel will thicken as it cools.
2.Remove from heat and add the butter. Stir it in until it is melted.
3.Pour 1 1/2 cups of caramel into a glass measuring cup and set aside.
For the Cake:
3 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
cup sour cream
1/3 cup freshly squeezed orange juice
2 teaspoons caramel flavor
1/2 cup butter, softened
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
3 large eggs
1 to 2 large apples, unpeeled and sliced into thin wedges
Grease a 9×13 inch rectangular cake pan with 2-inch high sides. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
1. Pour the remaining caramel, not the 1 1/2 cups, into the prepared pan and set aside.
2. Whisk the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and cinnamon together in a medium bowl.
3. Cream the butter and sugar together using your stand-type mixer and paddle attachment. Add the eggs and beat in.
4. In a small bowl, whisk the sour cream, orange juice, and flavor together.
5. Add about a third of the flour mixture to the creamed mixture and beat in. Add a third of the wet mixture. Repeat using all ingredients, the dry and the wet.
6. Put a layer of sliced apples over the caramel in the pan. Spread the batter over the apples in the pan.
7. Bake on the middle rack of the oven until the cake is brown on top and springs back when pressed, about 30 minutes.
8. Remove the cake from the oven and let sit for 5 minutes. Loosen it with a soft rubber spatula and invert it onto a platter or cutting board.
9. Soften the reserved 1-1/2 cups caramel in the microwave, about 30 seconds. Drizzle the cake with some caramel. Slice and serve the cake with any remaining caramel and dollop of caramel whipped cream (recipe follows).
10. To make the caramel whipped cream, add 1/3 cup brown sugar and two teaspoons caramel flavor to two cups heavy whipping cream. Beat until soft peaks form. Leftover whipped cream can be beat again.
Original Caramel Apple Cake
The Gandy Dancer Apple Cake reminds me of a cake that Merri Ann and I made back in our Alaskan days that we tried to replicate a few months back for The Prepared Pantry Blog.
This is a very good cake. With the recipe for the caramel sauce, it’s sweeter than the Gandy Dancer cake.
We baked this in a 9-inch springform pan, our Candy Apple Red Silicone Springform Pan. The caramel sauce is fairly thin, enough so it soaks into the cake leaving almost a glaze on the surface. You could make a thicker sauce but I like it this way. Folks in the store loved it.
3 tablespoons butter
1 cup granulated sugar
1 large egg
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1 3/4 cups diced, pared apples
1/4 cups walnuts
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
1.Grease the bottom of a nine-inch springformSet aside.
2.Cream the butter and sugar together. Add the egg and vanilla and beat well.
3.Whisk flour, baking soda, salt, cinnamon and nutmeg together in another bowl.
4.Make a well in the dry ingredients and add the wet ingredients to theMix together.
5.Add the apples and nuts to theScrape the batter into the prepared pan. Bake for 20 minutes or until top springs back when touched. Cool 5 minutes before removing the ring from the pan.
6.Top with the caramelThe recipe follows.
For the caramel sauce:
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup butter
1/4 cup cream or evaporated milk
- Blend brown sugar, butter and cream together in a saucepan. Cook over medium heat until it boils and thickens, stirring frequently. With a cup of water and a pastry brush, brush water onto the sides of the pan a couple times to wash any un-dissolved sugar crystals into the sauce.
- Add the vanilla.
Slowly pour the warm sauce over the warm cake letting the sauce soak into the cake.
Serve with caramel whipped cream. To make caramel whipped cream, prepare as for other whipped cream but substitute brown sugar for the granulated sugar and caramel flavoring for the vanilla. Caramel Whipped Cream packets are available in our store.
Top of FormDennis Weaver has burnt food from Point Barrow, Alaska, to Miami, Florida. He is the founder of The Prepared Pantry in Rigby, Idaho and the author of How to Bake: The Art and Science of Baking, available free in an e-book or as a Kindle book on Amazon for $10.
He loves to help people bake and is giving away Free Digital Cookbooks and Magazines. There is no cost or obligation.
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Dennis lives in Rigby, Idaho, with his wife, Merri Ann. They have five wonderful children.
To learn more about The Prepared Pantry, visit our website at www.preparedpantry.com.