Whatever happened to layer cake for dessert?
For years I've been going to upscale restaurants where the savory courses shine and the sweet endings turn the experience sour. Crème brulee, panna cotta, molten chocolate cake have all but replaced the simple and often superior slice of cake. All of this came rushing back to me like the bullet train when I was in the little town of Tryon, N.C., forking into half a dozen desserts at the North Trade Café and Bakery.
A few of the writers and editors played hookie (or should I say cookie?) and skipped out on a day of cooking standard restaurant food (stuffed veal and the like) at the new Johnson and Wales school in Charlotte. We were determined to look for a real Southern experience that seemed to have been missing from much of the conference.
Our destination was the Rockhouse winery, which is considered by many to be the best winery in the state. After trying the wines and learning that this area was the oldest wine-producing region in the nation (a fact that I wasn't able to verify), we decided to grab a bite to eat before heading back to the city for a stop at Price's Chicken Coop. (We never made it, but I'll tell you about that tomorrow).
That's how we discovered the layer cakes crafted by owner Liz Rose. The desserts were absolutely gorgeous. Coconut raspberry cake had three layers of tender cake with a delicate crumb, with fresh crushed raspberries between layers and a rich sour cream frosting covering the sides, and wide strips of coconut.
The Italian cream cake was equally transcendent, and the buttermilk pie had a tangy, sweet filling and a flaky, sandy crust.
Purely for research's sake we then ordered a couple of more to see if we would wake up from our sugar-induced dream, but it only got better with the poppy seed cake, which had an equally delicate grain and a rich lemon curd frosting between the four layers and a melted sugar drizzle on top. The cake looked like it was a grand prize winner at the state fair. It wasn't trimmed or overly decorated like you'd find at a bakery; it looked natural, made with love.
The chocolate toffee cake was the kicker. Moist and rich, we were stoned from the rush, but we polished most of that off, too. That lead to a frenzied discussion about all the fancy frilly -- and mostly soulless -- desserts we find these days. The really satisfying ending that comes from a great layer cake seems to have gone the way of beef Wellington.
I related that for all the fresh ingredients we pride ourselves for in Northern California, the desserts are mostly cookie-cutter disappointments. It's ironic that an unpretentious Café that hasn't even been discovered by the Food editor of the nearby Charlotte Observer would give me the best experience of the weeklong eating binge.
Posted By: Michael Bauer (Email) | Sep 20 at 05:31 AM
By Michael Bauer - Posted on SFGATE.com
(Website of The San Francisco Chronicle)
September 20, 2006 after M. Bauer visited
10 North Trade Café Bakery