Devon apple cake is moist & fruity, packed with fresh apple pieces & flavoured with cider. Crunchy honey crumble makes it a great dessert or teatime treat.
Plymouth is not usually celebrated as a tourist destination. Still, I was somewhat taken aback to learn that the city’s top rated visitor attraction on Trip Advisor is the Plymouth Synagogue. Since Kipper and I were spending a week in Devon, visiting the shul seemed like an opportunity that was too good to miss.
One of FFF’s lovely Facebook followers sent me the phone number of Jerry, the shul’s custodian, who gives tours by appointment. She must have warned him I would call, as he almost immediately asked, “Are you the kosher cake lady?” Well, no-one’s ever called me that before, but apparently I am! We made arrangements to meet at the shul the following day.
The oldest Ashkenazi shul in the English speaking world
The shul was built in 1762, making it the oldest Ashkenazi synagogue still in use in the English speaking world. However there is some evidence of a Jewish presence in the city much earlier. When Francis Drake set sail in 1577, he recorded that his quartermaster and navigator was “Moses the Jew, from Plymouth.”
Located in Catherine Street, the shul is close to the centre of town and behind the Plymouth Guildhall. From the street it’s easy to miss – a white, two-story building with no real distinguishing marks. The entrance is down a side passage and around the back, since the wall facing onto the street is the Eastern one, and houses the ark. Although the main doors now open onto a back alley, for over 100 years they faced the town’s main square.
Documents show that Plymouth’s Jewish community had been holding regular services in people’s homes and rented venues since around 1745. Plymouth was a major maritime hub, so jews from Holland, Germany and Central Europe were attracted to the town to trade and support associated industries including tailoring (uniforms), instrument-making and the like.
Growth and modernisation
In 1864, the shul building was extended, enlarging the women’s gallery and adding a larger entrance area with an ingeniously designed succah located above it on the first floor. This room has a latticed ceiling onto which leafy branches can be balanced, and the roof above can be raised using a pulley system. The room’s gorgeous stained glass window depicts a beautiful succah, decorated with hanging bunches of fruit.
The ark, which reaches the full height of the building, is of a richly decorated baroque design and was probably imported ‘flat-packed’ from Holland. Although it appears to be made of carved marble it is actually expertly painted wood. The columns and other embellishments have been highlighted with gold leaf, giving a magnificent overall appearance.
The shul’s bimah was made by local artisans in the Devonport Dockyard. It features ornate woodturning that would not look out of place on the deck of a galleon.
During WWI, Plymouth’s Crownhill Fort was used as a transport centre for troops being sent to the fronts in Turkey and Africa. Many of the men in the ‘Jewish Legion’ – the 38th-42nd Battalions of the Royal Fusiliers – passed through the town. One of those soldiers was David Ben Gurion, who became the first Prime Minister of the State of Israel in 1949. He wrote of his time in Devon:
“It is one of the most marvellous places I have ever seen. When I went out into the fields at dawn for the first time and gazed at the view around our tents, I was intoxicated by the charming scene. Somehow I didn’t imagine I would ever see a panorama like this in England. Green mountains and valleys covered with silk, fertile fields and the shadows of nearby forests… The Sabbath is observed here and on that day we are let off all training, apart from marching to the synagogue together with the officers, headed by the colonel.”
The shul continued to thrive after the First World War, but WWII was to spell the beginning of the end for this historic Jewish community. The building was miraculously spared during the extensive bombing of the town – aerial photographs show it standing alone, surrounded only by cleared bombsites. But the closure of the naval bases and shipyards after the war drove people away to seek employment opportunities elsewhere. The redevelopment of the city also moved residential areas out of the centre and away from the shul. This meant that many members were unable to walk the long distance to attend Shabbat services.
5 Star Rating
Does Plymouth Synagogue deserve its 5-star TripAdvisor rating? We spent a fascinating three hours there. We were astounded in equal parts by the beauty and tranquility of this historic building, and the remarkable depth of knowledge of our guide. To visit yourself, call Jerry Sibley on 07753 267616 or email email@example.com to book a tour.
The Kosher Cake Lady…
Since I am, apparently, the Kosher cake lady, I decided to bake a cake in honour of our trip. Plymouth is the largest city in the county of Devon, which is home to a deliciously traditional apple cake made with fresh apples and finest Devon cider. It seems a perfect choice for a Rosh Hashanah cake, too, especially if you make the honey-sweetened crumb topping. Apples and honey! What could be better?
This Devon apple cake is packed with fruit pieces, and the cider gives a rich apple flavour. It’s super moist, which contrasts beautifully with the sweet and crunchy crumb topping. This cake would make a gorgeous YomTov dessert as well as a sweet teatime treat.
Butter or margarine?
I used margarine when I made the cake, to keep it parve and dairy-free. However, if you don’t mind using butter then you will be rewarded with a richer flavour. For the full Devon experience serve with a dollop of clotted cream for an indulgent Rosh Hashanah pudding!
(Note for Americans – the ‘cider’ used here is a slightly fizzy alcoholic drink which I think you call ‘hard cider’. It’s also sometimes called ‘scrumpy’. It’s definitely alcoholic and not simply apple juice.)
The recipe makes one Devon apple cake which serves 8.
Want deliciously easy, family-friendly recipes like this one delivered straight to your inbox? Click here to sign up. (Of course, I’ll never pass on your email address to anyone.)
Devon apple cake with honey crumb topping
- 20cm (8inch) loose bottomed round cake tin
For the honey crumb topping
- 55 g butter or margarine, melted (approx. 3 ½ tbsp)
- 4 tbsp honey
- 150 g plain flour (1 ⅓ cups)
For the cake
- 2-3 dessert apples (approx. 350g)
- 125 ml cider (hard cider) (½ cup + 1 tbsp)
- 110 g butter or margarine (½ cup / 1 stick)
- 110 g golden caster sugar (generous ½ cup)
- 2 eggs
- 225 g plain flour (2 cups)
- 1 tsp mixed spice (or use pumpkin pie spice or your preferred sweet spice blend)
- 1 ½ tsp baking powder
- Start by making the topping. Whisk the melted butter or margarine with the honey, then stir in the flour to give a stiff dough. Set aside to cool while you make the cake.
- Line a 20cm (8 inch) loose-bottomed round cake tin with greaseproof paper and set aside. Preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F)
- Remove the cores from the apples and discard. Cut the apple flesh into small dice and place in a bowl. Pour the cider over the apple pieces and leave to macerate.
- In a large mixing bowl cream the butter or margarine with the sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs one at a time. If the mixture starts to split, add a tbsp or two of flour with the eggs.
- Add the rest of the flour together with the spice and baking powder. Mix well. Drain the cider from the apple pieces and beat in to give a soft and creamy batter.
- Finally stir in the diced apples until they are evenly distributed through the batter. Pour the mixture into the lined cake tin and level the top.
- To make the crumb topping, you can either crumble the dough by hand, or else gently rub it through a cheese grater to produce shreds of dough. Sprinkle the crumbs/shreds over the batter in an even layer.
- Bake at 180°C (350°F) for 45-50 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the centre of the cake comes out clean. If the cake seems to be browning too quickly, cover loosely with a piece of foil but remove it 5-10 minutes before the end of the cooking time.
- Remove the cooked cake from the oven and allow to cool in the tin for 20 minutes before gently removing and allowing to cool fully on a wire rack.
I’m linking this Rosh Hashanah recipe up to this week’s #CookBlogShare.