I've always had a vision of myself as a great connoisseur of wines—to be able to tell the subtleties between grapes grown from varied regions or, more rarely, the minute differences in the same wine year to year. I'm not a great connoisseur of wines. In fact, the word I and connoisseur don't belong in the same sentence. While I love a full-bodied glass of wine, I'm hopeless when it comes to actually describing what I'm drinking. Shamefully, I must admit the way I can tell wines apart (and if I enjoy them) is whether or not they taste like "church."
Now that is certainly nothing to brag about.
Nevertheless, while visiting the Tuscan countryside in Italy a few years ago, I decided a wine tour was absolutely necessary. If I couldn't be an actual wine connoisseur, I could at least fake it. There is no place better to pretend to have the fine skills of a sommelier than the true heart of wine country, right?
My friend and I ended up choosing a wine tasting combined with a bike tour of the countryside. At the time it seemed like the perfect idea. With the sun on our faces, we could bike between vineyards with the smell of growing grapes lingering in the air. We would stop only for a glass of the finest wines, while we explored the intricacies of a working winery. Our plan was flawless.
However, reality was much different from our daydreams, but no less of a story to tell.
The day started out bright and fresh. We rode our bikes, weaving between vineyards and gorgeous Tuscan villas. Our daydreams truly came to life as we stopped at a castle to taste wines and sample infused olive oils on freshly baked bread. Another ride through the countryside brought us to a small, quiet trattoria where we stopped for lunch. With our bellies absolutely stuffed full of salad, wine, pasta, wine, decadent desserts, and more wine, we settled back in our seats, never more pleased, with our eyes beginning to close from sheer bliss.
Then, to snap us out of our wine induced euphoria, we were told the hardest part of the ride was yet to come. The Tuscan countryside was full of gentle rolling hills, yes, but we had not anticipated climbing a hill so long and steep it could put mountains to shame (well, not quite, but to our alcohol addled minds it might have well been Everest).
After a bit of whining and complaining, we returned to our bikes for the uphill battle. Perhaps a little tipsy and our bikes a tad more wobbly, we trudged forward. The hill has a 17% percent grade in a few points, we were told. But only a few! Nevermind the fact that small hills put me and my biking skills to shame, I was determined to climb the hill.
It's safe to say I walked my bike up the entire mile long hill, treading so slowly I was easily the last to arrive. I later argued I got to see more of the countryside this way (that's my story and I'm sticking to it).
While the wine and bike tour was not quite what I imagined it to be, it was perfect for me—the ideal mixture of sun, sights, wine, and absolute ridiculousness. I didn't become a wine connoisseur, but I learned I can walk up a really big hill with a belly full of wine. Something tells me that might just come in handy again.
This Red Wine Chocolate Cake embodies the beauty of a glass of wine in a rich chocolate cake. Using red wine instead of buttermilk brings a deep red hue to the cake as well as a rich flavor. While you may not be able to pinpoint the wine exactly, it adds an extra touch that gives the chocolate cake a rounded flavor. The cake itself is not terribly sweet (I really wanted the darkness of the chocolate cake to complement the wine), but the honey mascarpone whipped cream adds a touch of soft sweetness to the overall picture. The flavors in the cake develop more overnight, making the cake even better on day two.
This is an adult cake. The oven does not bake out all of the alcohol from the wine, so keep this cake away from the kids (finally a treat just for you!). While the cake does contain alcohol, it is not enough to make you tipsy (or anywhere near there). A glass of wine with a slice of this cake will do that for you.
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Red Wine Chocolate Cake with Honey Mascarpone Whipped Cream
Adapted from 17 and Baking
Yields 9x5-inch loaf
Red Wine Cake
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, softened
3/4 cup light brown sugar
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1 large egg
3/4 cup red wine
1/4 cup plain yogurt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons cornstarch
3/4 cup cocoa powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
Preheat oven to 325 degrees F (165 degrees C). Grease a 9x5-inch loaf pan.
In a large mixing bowl, cream together the butter and sugars. Add the egg and vanilla extract and beat until smooth. Beat in the wine and yogurt.
In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour, cornstarch, cocoa powder, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. Add to wine mixture slowly, mixing until just incorporated.
Pour batter into prepared baking pan and bake for 50-60 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean and the cake bounces back slightly. Allow to cool in the pan for 10 minutes, before transferring to a cooling rack to cool completely.
Honey Mascarpone Whipped Cream
1/2 cup (4 ounces) mascarpone cheese
1/2 cup heavy whipping cream
2 tablespoons honey
In a medium mixing bowl, whip mascarpone, heavy whipping cream, and honey until soft peaks form. Spoon on top of cooled cake and serve immediately.