When Ina Garten was 21, she signed up for flying lessons. It was 1969, and she and her new husband, Jeffrey, were living at the U.S. Army base in Fort Bragg, N.C., where he was training as a paratrooper with the Green Berets as she finished college. She inquired about flying lessons at a nearby airport. "They told me that there wasn't an instructor that would teach a woman how to fly a plane," she recalls. "Isn't that astonishing?" But her resolve remained undimmed. "I was not about to take no for an answer," she laughs. "They finally found somebody in the next town over who would come over and teach me how to fly."
Around this time, Garten was also learning to cook. "It was really exciting, setting up a life for us, but I didn't know what was going to happen," she recalls. "I always wanted to cook, I was never allowed to, and so I started cooking." Armed with Pierre Franey and Craig Claiborne's New York Times Cookbook, she was soon hosting dinner parties. "When you cook, you create a community around yourself," she says. "It doesn't have to be huge. I've never liked cocktail parties and galas and things like that. I really like six people in the kitchen having dinner."
The coronavirus pandemic has put an indefinite hold on dinner parties as we once knew them, but as with flying lessons all those years ago, Garten has figured out a way. While it might look different—tiny groups, often outside—she still manages to feed her people. "Cooking and making things that make people feel good, it's really the most important thing," she says.
Garten's twelfth book, Modern Comfort Food (Clarkson Potter), out this month, is full of accessible dishes such as grilled cheese with chutney, Tuscan-inspired turkey roulade and the applesauce cake shown here. Like much of her handiwork, the dessert is rich and easy to make, but with a little flair: Raisins in the batter, as well as cream cheese frosting, are spiked with Bourbon.
"Bourbon has that deep caramelly flavor," she says. "I'm always looking for something that's going to make what I'm doing taste better and more interesting without overpowering it. That's the key. When you taste the frosting, you first taste cream cheese, then butter, and then you go, ‘Oh! That's interesting. There's Bourbon in there.' I think it connects the dots between the applesauce cake and the cream cheese frosting and brings down the sweetness a little bit."
Garten pairs the cake with Château Suduiraut Sauternes 2014, whose pear, fig and almond cream notes fold beautifully into the dessert.
The combination of homey cake and special-occasion wine is a fitting endpoint to a modern gathering—perhaps smaller in size these days, but closer-knit too. "It's a terrible time," Garten says, "but we've figured out how to make it okay."
Ina Garten has come a long way since setting off on her maiden voyage into recipe writing with The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook (Clarkson Potter, 1998). In 1997, a year after selling her East Hampton, N.Y., specialty-food store, Barefoot Contessa, she submitted her first cookbook proposal. To her surprise, a few days later, it was accepted by Clarkson Potter. “They just took a chance on a totally unknown author. I mean, I’d never written anything,” she reflects of her now-longtime publisher. “As somebody said, the only thing I’d ever written before then is a letter to Jeffrey.” Garten laughs. “That was it. And the rest is history. It worked out okay.”
Today, the author is known for her crowd-pleasing recipes that are eminently reliable. “Usually, I write a recipe that anybody can make,” she says. This is the direct result of her borderline fanatical process, testing each one over and over and over until she’s satisfied. “I want you to feel, when you’re reading the recipe, that I’m standing right there, and if you have a question, [the answer is] in the recipe,” she explains. The following tips add a bit of extra context, but Garten hopes making this cake will be the least stressful thing about your week. “By the time I’m done with testing something 10 or 15 times, there’s pretty much no surprises. Hopefully,” she chuckles.
Consider making the cake layer early. “It’s good either way,” Garten says of her raisin-, Bourbon- and spice-infused applesauce cake with Bourbon-spiked cream cheese frosting. “But if you wanted to make it a day ahead, it certainly would be just as good, if not better.” Not only will the flavors and spices meld more deeply, “It even gets moister as it sits.” You can refrigerate the cake for up to 3 days or freeze it for up to 6 months. If you make it ahead, be sure to wrap it tightly in plastic wrap to keep the surface from drying out before you frost it.
“Room temperature” really does mean “room temperature.” “I think a common mistake for recipes, and this is true both in the cake and in the frosting, is when it says ‘at room temperature,’ people think that they can leave it out for an hour,” Garten notes. “The only way to get something at room temperature is to leave it out overnight. People are nervous about leaving butter out overnight or cream cheese out overnight, but it makes a huge difference in baking. You end up with little bits of butter and cream cheese if you don’t leave it out overnight.” If overnight isn’t an option, Garten advises 4 to 6 hours of counter time. And if you’re anxious about bacteria, leave your butter and cream cheese wrapped in their original packaging, or put them in an airtight container, when you set them out.
OK, but what about eggs? “Eggs actually are these incredible things,” Garten says. “They’re a hermetically sealed package. You can leave them out for days.”
Doublecheck your bake time. Oven temperatures vary, which can lead even practiced bakers to ask, What’s the best way to test for doneness? “There’s only one way to know, and that is, I use little bamboo skewers,” Garten advises. “You go right into the middle of the cake. If it comes out clean, it’s done.” But if the skewer pulls out crumbs, leave the cake in the oven for another few minutes before trying again.
Pairing Tip: Why an Aged White Dessert Wine Works with This Dish
The deeper caramel tones in a lightly aged, good-quality dessert wine will marry well with the Bourbon and spices in the cake. Another good option would be a white passito such as the Donnafugata below, which, even when young, will have enough depth to complement the cake, and enough freshness not to step on the flavors of the dessert.
Chef’s Pick Château Suduiraut Sauternes 2014 (93 points, $59)
Wine Spectator Picks Château La Tour Blanche Sauternes 2011 (94, $65)
Donnafugata Passito di Pantelleria Ben Ryé 2016 (92, $44)
Recipes courtesy of MODERN COMFORT FOOD. Copyright © 2020 by Ina Garten. Published by Clarkson Potter, an imprint of Penguin Random House.
Applesauce Cake With Bourbon Raisins
MAKES ONE 9-INCH ROUND CAKE / SERVES 8
- ¾ cup golden raisins
- 2 tablespoons good bourbon, such as Maker’s Mark
- 10 tablespoons (1¼ sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus extra to grease the pan
- ¾ cup granulated sugar
- ¾ cup light brown sugar, lightly packed
- 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
- 2 extra-large eggs, at room temperature
- 1¾ cups all-purpose flour, plus extra for the pan
- 1½ teaspoons baking soda
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- ¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
- ¼ teaspoon ground cloves
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1½ cups unsweetened applesauce, such as Mott’s
- ½ cup coarsely chopped pecans
- Bourbon Cream Cheese Frosting (recipe follows)
- Whole pecans halves, for decorating
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9 × 2-inch round cake pan, line with parchment paper, then butter and flour the pan. Tap out the excess flour.
Combine the raisins and bourbon in a small bowl, cover, and microwave for 30 seconds. Set aside for 15 minutes.
Place the butter, granulated sugar, and brown sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and beat on medium speed for 3 minutes, until light and fluffy. Scrape down the bowl with a rubber spatula. With the mixer on medium, add the vanilla and the eggs, one at a time, and mix until smooth.
Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and salt. With the mixer on low, slowly add the flour mixture to the batter, mixing just until combined. Stir in the applesauce. Fold in the raisins (including the liquid) and chopped pecans with a rubber spatula and mix well. Pour into the prepared pan and smooth the top.
Bake for 40 to 45 minutes, until the top springs back when lightly touched and a cake tester inserted in the middle comes out clean. Cool for 30 minutes, turn out onto a cooling rack, rounded side up, and cool completely. Spread the Bourbon Cream Cheese Frosting on just the top of the cake (not the sides!) and artfully place the pecan halves on top. Serve at room temperature.
Make ahead: Bake the cake, cool it, wrap it well, and refrigerate for up to 3 days or freeze for up to 6 months. Frost the cake just before serving.
Bourbon Cream Cheese Frosting
Frosts one 9-inch round cake
- 6 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
- 6 tablespoons (¾ stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 1 tablespoon good bourbon, such as Maker’s Mark
- ½ teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- ½ pound confectioners’ sugar, sifted (see note)
Place the cream cheese, butter, bourbon, and vanilla in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and beat on medium speed until smooth. With the mixer on low, slowly add the sugar and mix well. Scrape down the sides and stir well with a rubber spatula.
Note: One-half pound of sifted confectioner’s sugar is about 2 cups plus 2 tablespoons.