French Apple Cake. Courtesy of Colly Gruczelak

It would have been in May of 1947 when Sister Claire, my French-born teacher passed a copy of the poem ‘In Flanders Fields’ to each of us in her classroom. “Memorize this, every word, jeunne femmes” (young ladies), she said in her lovely French accent, “and one day, hopefully, you will remember it and understand its true meaning.”
This was not an easy task for a grade school student, and I remember thinking as I stumbled through each line, “Why would I ever want to remember this”? Years later I would learn this poem was written in May of 1915 by a Canadian doctor, Lt. Col. John McCrae. M.D. during WW1 while treating his wounded and dying comrades on the battlefield in Brussels, France.
During my school years, Sister Claire became my friend, tutoring me as I struggled with the French language. I knew very little of her life before the convent as this familiarity was frowned upon by their rules. For a few years following my graduation we exchanged Christmas cards; hers along with a holy card reminding me to keep my faith.
It was Christmastime in 1960 and I had mailed my Christmas cards early that year, when I received a small brown paper-wrapped package in the mail. Inside the package was my unopened card to Sister Claire along with a leather prayer missile and a note. The note, written by one of the nuns, revealed a small fraction of her background prior to entering the convent.
The note said Sister Claire had died unexpectedly; that she had been an English language teacher in her hometown of Brussels prior to entering the convent. One of her tasks was that of teaching the American National Anthem in English to the school children. These children sing the anthem in May of each year at the Flanders Field Memorial Cemetery in Brussels, France where so many known and unknown American soldiers are buried.
I was being sent her prayer missile, said the note, because my name was written on the back of the poem (In Flanders Fields) that I had mailed to Sister Mary Claire years before as a playful reminder of my sufferings, and that the poem had been discovered tucked between the missile’s pages. I was most grateful to have received this token of our friendship.
A few years ago several of us ‘convent girls’ held a reunion and visited the final resting place in Tacoma, Wash. of our nuns, including Sister Claire. As we were leaving, I scattered some seeds of California poppies over her grave with the hopes that at least one might grow. I wonder.
The following recipe is that of a French Apple Cake the nuns always made on Memorial Day using apples from their trees.

  • Colly Gruczelak, a Ben Lomond resident, loves people and loves to cook. Contact her at [email protected].

French Apple Cake
6 cups (1 ½ pounds) tart apples, peeled, quartered and sliced 1/8-inch thick. In a pie plate,
cover apples and microwave on high 3 minutes until soft and pliable.
When apples are cool, mix in 1 Tablespoon Calvados and 1 teaspoon lemon juice.
Oil a 9-inch springform pan and preheat oven to 325 degrees
In a bowl sift together:
1 cup flour (plus 2 Tablespoon set aside).
1 cup granulated sugar
2 tsp. baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
In a separate bowl add:
1 large egg
2 egg yolks (set aside)
1 cup vegetable oil
1 cup whole milk
1 tsp. vanilla
Whisk together and add to above dry ingredients.
Remove 1 cup of batter and set aside.
In the remaining batter, whisk in the 2 egg yolks and fold in apples. Pour into springform pan, pressing apples down and smooth top.
Whisk remaining 2 Tablespoons flour into the reserved one cup of batter and pour over top of apple mixture.
Sprinkle top of batter with 1 Tablespoon granulated sugar.
Set pan on cookie sheet and bake about 1 ¼ hours. Cool completely.

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