Picture Humphrey Bogart as he strides confidently into the room. There, by the bar, stands the femme fatale, Lauren Bacall, a glass in her hand. What’s she drinking? Could be anything, but it’s probably champagne.
Champagne is the drink reserved for launching ships, toasting celebrations, and saluting victory on the battlefield. More than any other libation, champagne represents luxury, frivolity, and indulgence, but it was not always this way. The effervescent quality of champagne, the very thing that makes it so special, was once considered a defect.
In the Middle Ages, wine held a very important place in the church and religious ceremonies. Consecrated and used to celebrate the Eucharist, (a communion ceremony in remembrance of the last supper) wine was considered somewhat sacred and the church took a special interest in cultivating and creating the majority of wines produced. Every Abbey had far stretching vineyards and an extensive wine cellar.
The Abbey of Hautvillers, located in Epernay, in the region of Champagne, has a comparatively cooler climate and shorter growing season than France’s other wine-growing regions and the grapes are picked late in the year out of necessity. Unfortunately, this doesn’t give the yeasts present on the grape skins adequate time to break down and transform the sugar into alcohol before the cold weather puts a temporary stop to the fermentation process. When spring comes and things warm up, fermentation begins again, but this time in the bottle. Refermentation creates carbon dioxide and carbon dioxide results in sparkling wine.
Suppressing the Sparkle
For a long period of time, the bubbles in sparkling wine were considered to be a mark of wine that had gone bad, associated with unpredictable vintages and poor technique. Dom Perignon, who some consider to be the inventor of champagne, was said to have been only 19 when he was given the job of cellar master at the Abbey of Hautvillers. As cellarmaster, he oversaw the cellars and winemaking and was charged specially with the task of eradicating the bubbles in the abbey’s wine.
For fifteen years Perignon refined the wines of the abbey. He made advancements developing a method for producing white wine out of the pressings of black grapes, improved clarification techniques and experimented with blending wines to produce brighter flavors. Unfortunately, Perignon was fighting an unwinnable war against none other than mother nature, and despite his improvements, the bottles continued to bubble.
The Devil’s Wine
You might be wondering why the fizz was such an issue? Surely Perignon’s other achievements were enough to eradicate the stigmas surrounding sparkling wines. But it seems that the bottles flew in the face of more than just social mores. They, in fact, were prone to exploding, and sparkling wines were referred to as the “Devil’s wine”. One bottle would pop, ricocheting around the cellar and setting off a chain reaction of exploding bottles. Entire cellars filled with wine were ruined, often times injuries were sustained, and in a couple of freak eruptions, the results were death.
Among the Elite
The homicidal tendencies of Champagne’s sparkling wines made vintners reluctant to purposefully produce the stuff, but Champagne had caught on in England and demand continued to increase.
The tradition of toasting with the expensive drink to mark celebrations had already caught on by 1789 throughout the courts of Europe, and the expensive drink was considered a mark of affluence. “Royalty loved the novelty of sparkling wine. It was said to have positive effects on a woman’s beauty and a man’s wit.” Peter the Great, along with his partiality for dwarves, was rumored to love the bubbly, taking four bottles of champagne to bed each night. And so champagne had successfully staked its claim among the wealthy.
When the prospect of Prohibition cast its sober shadow over the U.S., a collective cry from the nation went up at the prospect of forsaking alcohol in general, but specifically champagne. Here’s a short poem published in Vanity Fair in 1919 describing the bleak outlook of things now that the well had gone dry.
“Champagne, Champagne, ah what a train
Of memories trickle from my brain,
Of groaning board, and feasts, -Oh Lord,
Where save for you I might have snored.
Have you forgotten? -say not so-
That night at Newport, long ago!
The soft allurement of the dance,
The sweet come-hither in a glance.
That kiss, beneath the myrtle’s shade!
Should I have dared–on lemonade?
Oh! Heidsieck of approved cuveé,
Oh! Krug, Mumms, Roederer, Moet
And Chandon, Perrier-Jouet,
Irroy and Lancon, pint or quart
Or magnum of illumined sport,-
Farewell, – to all your jolly crew-
When you are gone – Good-night – I’m through”
Thank goodness Prohibition is over and now we can make cakes drenched with the stuff! Here’s a recipe for a champagne cake that uses about half the bottle, the other half is for the chef.
For the Champagne Cake:
3 cups All-purpose Flour
4 teaspoons Baking Powder
½ teaspoon Kosher Salt
1 cup (8 oz) Butter, unsalted, at room temperature
2 cups Sugar
1 teaspoon Vanilla Extract
5 large Eggs
1 cup Champagne (Brut or Extra Dry)
For the Champagne Simple Syrup:
1 cup Champagne
½ cup Sugar
For the Strawberry Cream Filling:
½ cup (4 oz) Butter, unsalted, room temperature
4 ounces Cream Cheese
2 cups Confectioners Sugar
½ cup Strawberries, chopped
¼ teaspoon Kosher Salt
2 teaspoons of fresh Lemon Juice
For the Champagne Buttercream:
8 ounces Egg Whites (generally this takes 8 large eggs)
3 cups Sugar
½ teaspoon Kosher Salt
32 ounces (8 sticks) Butter, unsalted, room temperature
¾ cup Champagne
For the Champagne Cake
Grease and flour three 6-inch round cake pans and line the bottom of each with parchment paper. Preheat your oven to 350℉.
Place the butter, sugar, and vanilla in the bowl of a standing mixer. Using the paddle attachment, begin creaming the ingredients together on medium-low speed. You know the saying “a watched pot never boils”? This same principle can be applied to standing mixers. Allow the butter and sugar to become light and fluffy while you attend to your remaining ingredients.
In a separate bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, and salt and whisk vigorously to combine and aerate, then set aside.
Return to your standing mixer, by this time the butter and sugar should be well creamed and fluffy. Begin to add the eggs, one at a time, allowing time for each egg to be thoroughly combined with the ingredients before adding the next.
Once the eggs are fully incorporated add half the flour mixture and mix until combined. Add the Champagne, and follow with the remaining dry ingredients. Once the batter is just combined, divide it evenly into your three prepared cake pans and bake for 30-35 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in them comes out clean.
Once your cakes are baked allow them to cool in their pans for ten minutes before running an offset spatula around the edge and transferring them to a rack to finish cooling.
For the Champagne Simple Syrup
While the cakes are cooling, make your simple syrup by combining the champagne and sugar in a small saucepan. Set over med-high heat until you achieve a boil, then turn down and stir periodically. Once the sugar is completely dissolved remove from heat and allow to cool to room temperature before using.
For the Strawberry Cream Filling
Wash and hull your strawberries, throwing them directly into a food processor or Vitamix. Blitz the strawberries until they are well chopped, then add your butter, cream cheese, powdered sugar, lemon juice, and salt. Blend all until thoroughly combined and silky smooth. Transfer to a container and place in the refrigerator until needed.
For the Champagne Buttercream
In the bowl of a standing mixer combine egg whites and sugar and set over a small pan of simmering water. Whisk together until the amalgam reaches a temperature of 160℉. Using the whisk attachment, beat the egg whites on high until they form stiff peaks and the bottom of your bowl has cooled. Once the egg whites are whipped and cooled, begin adding in your butter, one tablespoon at a time. Finally, add your salt and Champagne and whip again until your icing becomes smooth and silky.
There are several stages the icing goes through, all of them look disastrous, but never fear, this is all part of the process. First, it will go soupy, then look as though it’s separated, and finally curdled. Just keep mixing, eventually, it will all come back together into a super smooth delicious icing. Trust me.
For the Assembly:
Separate your buttercream in half, placing part of it in a pastry bag fitted with large plain round tip. Level and split all three of your cakes, this should leave you with six layers of cake.
Affix your cake board to your turntable ( I like to do this with a ring of tape) then place a small daube of buttercream in the center of the board. Just like the tape one layer below the small amount of icing helps keep your cake in place and prevents it from sliding when you’re assembling and icing. Place your first cake layer on top of the icing and generously brush on the champagne simple syrup.
Using your bagged buttercream pipe a thick dam around the edge of the cake, this keeps your filling in place and everything neat. Fill in the dam with the strawberry filling. Repeat this process with your remaining layers.
Using an offset spatula ice the cake with a thin layer of icing, this is called a crumb coat and locks in the cake’s moisture and keeps the crumbs in place. Refrigerate for 15 minutes until chilled and firm to the touch. Ice the cake, this time with a generous amount of icing. To decorate I used layers of pale pink fondant and edible gold paint. The final look of the cake is entirely up to the chef.