With the searing news footage, the loss of lives, the destruction of homes, and the terrifying speed and ferocity with which this catastrophe all happened, Wine Country weighs heavily on our minds lately.
The series of deadly conflagrations that swept through Napa and Sonoma counties in a flash in the past two weeks left an indelible mark. Lives will be forever changed. Rebuilding will be a long, slow, painful and costly process. The fires of 2017 – and all they wrought — will not soon be erased.
We donate money. We volunteer our help. Still, we feel rather helpless in the face of the enormity of the destruction.
What else to do? In the months, and years to come, simply don’t forget. When the regions are no longer front-page newspaper stories or the lead item on the 6 o’clock news, don’t let Napa and Sonoma fall off your radar. Buy the wines to enjoy this Thanksgiving. Or send a bottle to friends across the country for Christmas. Plan a trip to Wine Country in to support hotels, restaurants, boutiques, and tasting rooms. Moreover, as you get ready to do your annual income taxes, take a deduction and do good at the same time, by making a donation to the Napa Valley Community Foundation or the Community Foundation Sonoma County.
And then bake this cake.
That may sound like a crazy idea, but there is something to be said for really being present in the moment, for taking the time to focus singularly on a place or a thing, that makes us truly appreciate it.
Baking does exactly that. The methodical measuring, sifting, folding and stirring it takes require our full attention. We give ourselves over to the process completely, losing ourselves in it, only to be rewarded in the end with something sweet and satisfying.
And in this case, perhaps meaningful, too.
During the firestorm, I happened to be leafing through a review copy of “Sweet: Desserts From London’s Ottolenghi” (Ten Speed Press), the new cookbook by superstar chef Yotam Ottolenghi, and his longtime collaborator and pastry chef Helen Goh. The Israeli-British restaurateur who owns Nopi and other restaurants in London, has written five cookbooks previously all of them runaway best-sellers.
As the name implies, this one is all about sweet treats. The book includes more than 120 recipes, including such arresting flavored ones as “Tahini and Halva Brownies,’’ “Beet, Ginger and Sour Cream Cake,’’ “Walnut and Black Treacle Tarts with Crystallized Sage,’’ and “Saffron and Almond Ice Cream Sandwich.’’
But it was the recipe for “Vineyard Cake,’’ which leapt out at me, for obvious reasons. Ottolenghi and Goh also dubbed it “Cleopatra Cake’’ in reference to all the grapes that go into it.
Yes, grapes, which along with the people, are what we most associate with the Napa and Sonoma valleys. So how could I not bake this at this very moment in time?
The recipe calls for a generous amount of Carte Or Muscat de Beaumes de Venise, a fortified French wine. I didn’t have that. But I did have a bottle of 1997 Ledson Monterey Orange Muscat that I had bought many years ago and had tucked away. For what? I’m not sure. I only knew I saved it, unwilling to open it, because it was purchased on a visit to the Sonoma Highway winery with a dear friend who passed away tragically way too young 16 years ago. I think I wanted to hold on to that bottle because it seemed like a way to hold on to her memory.
Finally, I thought, if ever there was an appropriate time to uncork that bottle, it was now. A wine from a Sonoma County winery. A treasure discovered with a friend whose joyous smile and do-anything-for-anyone personality lighted up the world. I poured all of that into this cake batter, along with fruity extra virgin-olive oil, aromatic vanilla seeds, and a shower of fresh orange and lemon zest.
Red grapes, cut in half, get added at two stages in the baking. The recipe calls for 3 ½ ounces of grapes at each stage. Of course, grapes vary widely in size, but to get an idea of just how much that is, I measured each 3 ½ ounces to be about a heaping 2/3 cup of grapes.
The first addition of grapes gets strewn over the top of the cake right when it first goes in the oven. The second round of grapes go on 20 minutes later when you remove the cake from the oven briefly to add them, as well as pieces of a sugar-butter paste, before returning the cake to the oven at a lowered temperature. What that paste does is create a rather miraculous crackling sugared top.
When the cake is done, remove it to a rack to cool. Because it is baked in an angel food pan, it is easier to unmold the cake when it is almost completely cooled.
Vineyard Cake is big, beautiful and bountiful. It has a tight crumb like pound cake, but is much lighter and fluffier in texture. It’s super moist, very buttery tasting, and with pretty, rosy grapes peeking through here and there at the top. The crunchy sugared top is not as in your face as streusel. It’s more subtle, creating an unexpected surprise when taking a bite.
I cut myself a slice, and poured a glass of the leftover Muscat to enjoy alongside. It was a toast to all the wonderful times I’ve had in Wine Country, and to the loving memories of a special friend.
Most of all, it was a sweet reminder to take time out of a busy life to cherish the places, people and things that have had a profound impact on us.
Vineyard Cake (aka Cleopatra Cake)
4 cups all-purpose flour, plus extra for dusting
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 2/3 cups granulated sugar
3/4 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus extra for greasing
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Finely grated zest of 2 lemons (2 teaspoons)
Finely grated zest of 1 orange (2 teaspoons)
Scraped seeds of 1/2 vanilla pod
4 large eggs
1 3/4 cups Carte Or Muscat de Beaumes de Venise wine, at room temperature
3 1/2 ounces seedless red grapes, washed and halved lengthwise
For Sugar Crust Topping:
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/3 cup granulated sugar
3 1/2 ounces seedless red grapes, washed and halved lengthwise
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Grease and lightly flour a 10-inch round, 4-inch-deep angel food cake or chiffon pan, tapping away any excess flour.
Sift the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt together into a bowl and set aside.
Place the sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer with the paddle attachment in place. Add the butter, olive oil, lemon zest, orange zest and vanilla seeds and beat for 2 minutes on medium-high speed, until smooth and fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Turn the speed to low and add a third of the flour mixture, followed by half of the wine. Repeat with the remaining flour and wine, finishing with the final third of flour and continuing to beat on a low speed. Once combined, pour into the prepared cake pan and scatter the grapes evenly on top. Place in the oven and bake for 20 minutes.
To make the sugar crust topping: While the cake is in the oven, place the butter and sugar in a small bowl and beat with a wooden spoon to form a thick paste. When the cake has been in the oven for 20 minutes, quickly but gently remove it and dot the sugar crust evenly over the top, breaking it into small pieces as you go. Scatter the grapes evenly over the top and return it to the oven.
Immediately lower the oven temperature to 350 degrees and continue to bake for another 35-40 minutes, or until a skewer inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean. Remove from the oven and set aside to cool for 30 minutes before removing from the pan. The cake can either be served straightaway or stored in an airtight container.
Note: This cake must be made in an angel food cake or chiffon pan. The cake is so large that it’s only this kind of pan — with a hole built into the middle — that will enable an even bake. Bundt pans will not work because you want the sugar crust and grapes to reamin on top when the cake is served, which would not be possible as the Bundt pan is inverted.
This cake will keep for up to 5 days in an airtight container at room temperature
From “Sweet” by Yotam Ottolenghi and Helen Goh
Other Fortified Wine Treats: Olive Oil Sherry Pound Cake