It is known simply as the incident of the grape pie in my family. Whenever anyone asks my mother about my cooking abilities, she can always say, "well there was that grape pie she made." You see, as a kid, the very first thing I learned how to bake was pie. And I was home alone one afternoon, locked in the house while my mother gone somewhere, and making a pie seemed like a good way to pass the time. The only fruit we had in the house was a big bag of grapes, but I enterprisingly found a recipe for "grape pie" in the Joy of Cooking. So I made a homemade crust and followed the directions and baked up a homemade grape pie. With green grapes. And yes, parents, I was probably too young to be making pies unsupervised.
The pie came out looking beautiful, I remember, but it was as inedibly tart as you would imagine green grape pie to be. My mom's friend Shawn, a swim coach with the requisite eat-anything appetite, managed to struggle down a few slices, but I'm pretty sure the rest ended up in the trash. After that failure, I avowed that grapes did not belong in dessert, pair them with your cheese, add them to salads, but keep them out of the baking arena. And despite my adventurous baking nature, I stuck with this rule for years.
Until I came across a recipe for a grape cake that sounded so intriguing, and had so many positive reviews, that I just had to make it. I had a bottle of muscat wine that I had picked up on a trip to Lebanon's Chatura Vineyards, and it needed to be used up or tossed (being far past its prime for drinking), and I found this recipe. It's just the kind of cake I like, simple, only slightly sweet, and with a burst of ripe fruit. And despite my skepticism about the grapes, well, they were fabulous, just the right accent to the cake.
Don't be skeptical of the olive oil either, it works wonderfully here, just as it does in plenty of other desserts. I've made this cake many times since then, and I've even come across similar versions of the recipe elsewhere (like Patricia Wells' Winemakers' Grape Cake), which means I'm not the only one who's been enamored of the slightly unusual recipe. And so I'll amend my rule for this cake, as long as you make sure to use red grapes, and not green.
Winemaker's Grape Cake
1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
4 tablespoons (1/4 cup) unsalted butter, melted
4 tablespoons (1/4 cup) extra-virgin olive oil
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon lemon zest
1 teaspoon orange zest
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup Beaumes-de-Venise or other Muscat wine
1 1/2 cups red seedless grapes
for topping: 1 tablespoon butter, 2 tablespoons sugar
1. Preheat oven to 400°F. Brush 9-inch-diameter springform pan with olive oil. Line bottom of pan with parchment; brush parchment with olive oil.
2. Sift flour and next 3 ingredients into bowl. Whisk 3/4 cup sugar, butter and olive oil in large bowl until smooth. Whisk in eggs, both peels and vanilla. Add flour mixture alternately with wine in 3 additions each, whisking just until smooth after each addition. Transfer batter to prepared pan; smooth top. Sprinkle grapes over batter.
3. Bake cake until top is set, about 20 minutes. Dot top of cake with 1 tablespoon butter; sprinkle 2 tablespoons sugar over. Bake until golden and tester inserted into center comes out clean, about 20 minutes longer. Cool in pan on rack 20 minutes. Release pan sides. Serve slightly warm or at room temperature.