Some of you might remember that a few months back, I quoted a tribute to the classic American butter cake, the truth of which I believed at the time to be self-evident: “When you are thinking of making a cake, a butter cake is likely to come to mind. Butter cakes are part of our past. Our birthday cakes, our wedding cakes, our everyday cakes are butter cakes.”
What, then, is one to do when one wants to produce a triumphant celebration cake but one’s guests suffer from the condition that afflicts some 75% of the world’s population: lactose intolerance? (Can one even call what’s obviously the norm an “affliction”?)
Well, on the one hand, you can go whole-hog (so to speak) and whip up a vegan masterpiece, avoiding not only dairy but eggs into the bargain. Which is precisely what I have done in the past. Now, there’s not a thing in the world wrong with soy milk, almond milk, soy margarine, flax meal, or silken tofu, but somehow they just don’t get my poetico-gastric juices flowing. I can’t conjure up a story for soy milk, no matter how hard I try.
Is that why my Vegan Lemon Cupcakes didn’t appeal? Because my heart wasn’t in the baking? They tasted bright enough but had all the texture of a sodden sponge and they never rose into the gently rounded domes that always make cupcakes look so cheery.
Back to the drawing board. Think poetry, I told myself. Think history. Think cultures that don’t have to search out substitutes for milk and butter because they never relied on dairy in the first place.
And then I thought of the Mediterranean. The land of olive groves and grape vines. Where the grape harvest is celebrated with a cake known as a Schiacciata con l’uva, or Tuscan Grape Harvest Cake. Now we’re talking poetry, history, and a whole lot of culture.
Traditionally, a schiacciata (which is Italian for “flattened” or “crushed”) con l’uva is baked throughout Tuscany in the fall, when the grapes and olives which comprise its chief ingredients have just been harvested. Sort of like a focaccia, a schiacciata is flat, dimpled, and—in the case of a schiacciata con l’uva—covered with grapes, the juices of which burst joyously forth before being absorbed into the dough, often flavored with rosemary and walnuts. (Keats-lovers will know that I’m thinking of “him whose strenuous tongue/Can burst Joy's grape against his palate fine”—there’s poetry for you.)
Delicious, but not desserty enough for my purposes, I thought. And then I came across a recipe for a Citrus-Scented Wine and Olive Oil Cake in a recent issue of Vegetarian Times. It “takes its inspiration,” I read, “from the harvest cakes of Italy and Provence, where grapes and olives grow in abundance.” Instead of grapes, the cake features a sweet dessert wine such as a Marsala or Vin Santo; and instead of rosemary and walnuts, the batter is flavored with orange and lemon zest. Fruity olive oil. Sweet wine. Citrus perfume. What’s not to love?
And so I baked it. It was all I wanted it to be—beautiful, traditional, poetic, and entirely dairy-free. Topped with berries and dusted with sugar, it was also very delicious.
Citrus-Scented Wine Cake with Fresh Berries
2/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
¼ tsp salt
1/3 cup sweet dessert wine, such as Marsala or Vin Santo
1/3 cup fresh orange juice
1 tsp grated orange zest
1 tsp grated lemon zest
4 large eggs
1 cup sugar
2 tbsp confectioners’ sugar
- Preheat oven to 350. Lightly brush a 9” springform pan with oil and line the pan bottom with a circle of parchment paper.
- Whisk together flour, baking powder, and salt. In a separate bowl, whisk together the oil, wine, orange juice, and both zests.
- Beat eggs and sugar with an electric mixer for 4 minutes, or until very pale yellow and tripled in volume. Add half of the dry ingredients and mix on low speed until blended. Add half of the oil mixtures, and mix to blend. Repeat with remaining dry ingredients & olive oil mixture.
- Pour the batter into the pan & set on a baking sheet. Bake for 50 minutes or until a toothpick comes out dry. Cool 10 minutes, then remove the sides of the pan & cool completely. Top with berries & dust with sugar (or dust with sugar & serve with berries).