I used to say I’d never do an audio book, but a 40 minute commute and some rockstar performances have changed my attitude and transformed my daily drive to work. I now listen to 90% of the books I read. Either I’m listening to an inspirational podcast, (i.e my better half’s One Percent Better https://www.onepercentbetterproject.com/), or I’m transporting to another place and time, thanks to my favorite genre, fiction.
Recently, I allowed myself to drift to the island of Nantucket, where I met Elin Hilderbrand’s character, Chef Deacon Thorpe. Hilderbrand is a self-proclaimed lover of all things Nantucket and food, and she marries the two in her 2017 novel, Here’s to Us. To my delight, she partnered with real life cookbook author and recipe developer, Jessica Merchant, and the two weave recipes into the novel. I practically salivated on my steering wheel while listening to Merchant’s clams casino dip with baguettes and fluffy white champagne cake with champagne candied strawberries. A beach setting, love stories, champagne, cake, strawberries, and fresh seafood. Can you get anymore on my level??
Now, if you know me, you know I can safely say I’m a damn good cook. Baking, on the other hand, not so much. Too precise for me. You can’t liberally throw extra baking powder in a bowl like you can chopped garlic. But the way Hilderbrand wrote about this cake – I was swooning right along with the lucky characters who got to eat it. And when I researched Jessica Merchant, I kind of wanted her to be my friend. Given that it was Christmas Eve, and I was hosting, I decided to take a risk, even if it was out of my comfort zone. Let’s bake, people!
Now, let me warn you: this cake is old school, so unless you’re not willing to give into the experience, the ingredients are nothing to fear – butter, eggs, vanilla, flour, white sugar – all pantry staples. (I’m not substituting nut flour or coconut sugar; this baby deserves the real thing.)
Pre heat the oven to 350. Grease an 8×8 cake pan with softened butter, then sprinkle flour in the pan and shake it around the bottom. Pour the excess flour out and set aside.
I made a rookie baker mistake and only made this once; it was only enough for one round cake pan. I wanted a high and fluffy cake, and it only took another ten minutes or so to mix up another one. It was more work to get my Kitchenaid out than to mix this cake up:
1 1/4 cups all purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 cup unsalted butter
1 1/2 cups white sugar
1 whole large egg plus 2 large egg whites
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 cup whole milk
Whisk the flour, baking powder, and salt in a bowl. In the electric mixer, beat the butter on medium speed until creamy. Add in the sugar and mix until light and fluffy, about three minutes. Then add the whole egg and egg white, one at a time, beating for about a minute each. Add the vanilla, and scrape the sides of the bowl if needed. Pour in half of the dry ingredients, mixing on low, then add the milk. Top with the rest of the dry ingredients, beating until it’s smooth. (I had to mix this longer than I thought; it took a while to get smooth.)
Pour the batter into the pan and bake for no more than 30 minutes. My oven only took 25, but apparently every oven varies. Just check with a toothpick at 25.
The icing was daunting because I learned that 4 1/2 cups of confectionary sugar is two whole boxes. That is super sweet, but I made a commitment to purity, and it was worth it in the end.
1/2 unsalted butter
4 ounces cream cheese, softened (that’s half a package)
4 1/2 cups powdered sugar
3 – 5 tablespoons champagne – and some for the baker!
1 tsp vanilla extract
Beat the butter and cream cheese in the electric mixer on medium speed. Then change to low speed and add the powdered sugar gradually. It will look strange and crumbly at first, but just keep going. Pour in the champagne one tablespoon at a time – after all the powdered sugar. The vanilla goes last; keep beating on medium to high. It took me a full 5-6 minutes to get it right; I was afraid of putting the mixer too high. If it gets too thin, add more powdered sugar. Too thick – add more champagne. I didn’t need to do this. (Good thing, since I drank the champagne!) Frost the cake when cooled.
Finally, the strawberry topping; this was also easier than I thought it would be. My syrup was a little thin, but still tasty.
Champagne Candied Strawberries
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/4 cup water
2/3 cup champagne
1 pint strawberries, hulled. Leave some whole and slice some for variety.
In a saucepan over medium heat, whisk together the sugar, water, and champagne. Keep whisking until the sugar dissolves and the mixture starts to simmer. Add in the strawberries, and let simmer for a few more minutes. Remove the strawberries with a slotted spoon, and put in a bowl. I kept this mixture in the fridge until the cake was ready to be served.
VOILA!My cousin, Joseph, is a truth teller. He loved it.
I’m not going to lie – the cake was a hit. It was very cool to read a book and bring a part of it to life to share with my family. Even my MIL, who is hands down the best baker I’ve ever known, raved about it.
For the purest experience, purchase a paperback copy of Hilderbrand’s book. It allows you to visit inside the novel every time you bake it, and it’s kind of old school to flip through a book and mark the right page. Then grab a copy of Merchant’s book – just because it’s prettier than the title implies, and her bringing the recipes to life makes you feel as fabulous as they taste.
Match made in heaven – and proof you can have cake by the ocean – literally. (Initially, I had no idea that was a sexual reference, and it was almost the title of this piece. What the F.)
Hilderbrand’s story explores a family, its memories and evolving untraditional traditions. I’m already thinking about finding flour dust on page 192 next Christmas, when I bake it again.