A recent email from a reader asked me to suggest a wine to go with “a triple coconut cake with a tangy pineapple icing served with fresh fruit salsa that has kiwi, strawberry, madarine oranges, blueberries and fresh pineapple in it”. Quite a challenge (I suggested demi-sec Champagne or a peach-flavoured liqueur topped up with fizz) but it got me thinking that there are many possible matches for cake beyond a cup of tea or coffee, particularly if you're serving it as a dessert.
Here are my latest thoughts on the subject. Bear in mind the overall sweetness richness and density of the cake and whether there are any accompanying ingredients such as fruit or cream when you’re choosing between the options.
Plain madeira, pound cakes or almond cakes
A high quality tea like Darjeeling, a chilled 10 year old tawny port, a cream sherry or a spiced rum like Morgan’s or Sailor Jerry would be my top picks. Panettone is better with Prosecco or a Moscato d’Asti.
Orange flavoured cakes
Particularly delicious with sweet sherries. You could also try an orange-flavoured sherry liqueur (Harvey's does one) or even a dark cream sherry served over ice with a slice of orange. A Spanish Moscatel de Valencia will work if the orange flavour in the cake isn’t too pronounced or if it has fresh oranges alongside.
Lemon can be tricky if the lemon flavour is particularly intense. A very sweet Riesling is often a good option or, if the cake is light and airy - more like a gâteau - try a Moscato d’Asti or other light, sweet sparkling wine or an elderflower spritzer. I also like green tea and Earl Grey tea with lemon flavours.
A great opportunity to show off a sweet sherry or Madeira. A sweet oloroso sherry like Matusalem is delicious with crumbly, rich fruit cakes as is a sweet 5 or 10 year old Madeira. (Bual would be my favourite style here). A richly flavoured whisky aged in sherry casks - something like The Macallan - can also be great with a fruit cake. As can a barley wine (strong, sweet beer).
Light, airy gateaux and airy pastries like mille-feuille
In general these go well with off-dry Champagne which doesn’t necessarily mean demi-sec. If the cake isn’t too sweet or is accompanied by unsweetened fruits such as raspberries or strawberries you can accompany it with a standard Champagne. (Almost all Champagnes have some sweet wine added to them at the end of the bottling process so very few are completely dry.) Rosé Champagne or sparkling wine work particularly well with berries.
If the gâteau is slightly richer and sweeter or contains ice cream you might be better off with a fruit liqueur or a liqueur topped up with sparkling wine as I suggested to the lady who contacted me. Or, if you’re feeling brave with a matching fruit beer! A peach gâteau, for example could be served with iced shots of a peach-flavoured liqueur like Archers or with a peach, passion fruit or mango-flavoured beer. (The best ones come from Belgium.)
Iced cakes such as cupcakes
The extra sweetness from the icing may strip out the sweetness of a dessert wine. I’m not sure this isn’t one for a milky coffee such as a cappucino or a latte (unless they’re chocolate in which case see below). Cupcakes are comfort food after all.
One of those like-meets-like combinations but ginger wine (Stone’s is a good brand) or a ginger liqueur works well. Or even a Whisky Mac (a 50/50 mixture of whisky and ginger wine). For contrast try a liqueur Muscat or sweet sherry.
Usually needs something to cut through the richness though the sweet-toothed may go for the matching sweetness of a sweet sherry or a liqueur Muscat. Personally I like it with something bitter like a double espresso, a porter or a coffee beer (yes, they do exist! The Meantime Brewery in London does an excellent one.)
An alternative route, particularly if the cake contains cherries is to go for deep red fruit flavours - a Late Bottled Vintage or Vintage Character port, a Banyuls or Maury from the south of France or even a chilled shot of cherry brandy (very good with intensely rich, dark chocolate cakes and puddings).
A lighter chocolate cake like a roulade can be delicious with a cherry beer (Kriek) or raspberry beer (frambozen), particularly if it includes those fruits. Trust me - it works! See my new book Appetite for Ale for a great recipe. Orange flavoured liqueurs such as Grand Marnier are also good with anything made from dark chocolate.
Coffee and walnut cakes
Good with sweet sherry, Madeira and aged tawny port (a 20 year old is particularly good with coffee cake). Or an Australian liqueur Muscat. You could also try a chocolate-flavoured beer (Meantime, again, does the business).
Oddly coconut and Champagne have a great affinity so that’s worth considering. A tropical fruit juice or passion fruit liqueur could also be good.
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