Culinary Complicity


Our Daily Correspondent

The beloved family wine cake

Back in 2011, I wrote a paean to my family’s one and only signature recipe: the wine cake. I hadn’t read it since it went up, and recently ran across the post while searching for a recipe for the cake; I was craving one for my own birthday.

At the time, I described wine cake as the sole edible thing to emerge from my grandparents’ kitchen, and explained that it was a constant at all family birthdays. It wasn’t too galling, so far as rereads go. But I worry that I failed, in 2011, to express the most important thing: wine cake is amazing.

Is it made of cake mix, instant pudding, oil, and the cheapest Bristol Cream sherry money can buy? You bet. But it’s not good in spite of this; rather, these same chemical components are what make it delicious. Although I admit to a fierce sentimental attachment to the flavor of wine cake, I will happily go on the record in saying that it is objectively delicious. The flavor is rich, buttery, refined but accessible. The cake, rich with oil and pudding and soaked in glaze, is almost unbelievably moist. To add to its charms, it’s easy to make, hard to screw up, and travels and slices like a dream. Oh, and it’s cheap—especially if, in family tradition, you use only past-sale ingredients from a discount commissary.

At the time of publishing, one commenter kindly pointed me towards John Thorne’s essay “Truly Awful Recipes,” in which that great food writer includes a receipt for a mix-based chocolate cake. Of such concoctions, Thorne writes,

They increase in appeal when exchanged hand to hand with a glowing personal recommendation. It was an officemate who first got me to try the cake recipe, creating in the tension between the intensity of her praise and the humdrum ingredients a sense of complicity, like getting a spell from a witch.

It is with great pride and pleasure, then, that I pass along, for the second time, this particular bit of alchemy. As Thorne says, “any unbiased observer would have to admit the direct line between these dishes and the living pulse of American cooking,” but its appeal is not theoretical. It is not Proustian. It is obvious. 

Wine Cake

1 box yellow cake mix (we always used generic; as a fancy-schmancy adult I have switched to Duncan Hines)

1 lg. instant vanilla pudding (if you can’t find a big package, you can do a small plus 2 T or so)

1 c. oil (my grandpa liked to strain and reuse oil for years but this is not strictly necessary.)

3/4 c. sherry wine (If you paid more than a dollar for this, my grandfather would have labeled you a “wine snob.”)

5 eggs (past sell-by date is customary, but not necessary.)

Mix all ingredients well. Pour into a greased and floured bundt pan.

Bake at 350 degrees for fifty minutes. Cool for five minutes.

About 1 c. powdered sugar
Enough sherry to make a thinnish glaze—start with about 4 Tblsp.

Here is the important part! Without turning out of the pan, poke the bottom of the cake all over with a skewer, or a chopstick, and pour some glaze over so it soaks into the cake.

Let this stand for about ten minutes, so it hardens a bit and won’t drip out.

Turn the cake out, poke the cake all over, and pour the rest of the glaze over it. Sometimes I make more glaze to really soak it.

Squat pink candle and flowers are optional, but recommended.

Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.