A Star Baker’s Obsession with an Alpine Cake Elevates an Unlikely Wine

Baking ingredients are set out on a counter below a bright window. A bottle of wine and wine glass are centered.
The makings of a soaring pairing, photo credit Martin Sorge

After a taxi to the airport, a transatlantic flight, a connection from Frankfurt to Innsbruck, and a train across the Brenner pass, my husband and I finally arrived in Bozen-Bolzano, the Alpine capital of Südtirol-Alto Adige. For the final leg, we climbed onto a cable car to our hotel on the Renon-Ritten plateau, some 1,200 meters above sea level. I peered out the windows as we lifted off. Suddenly, we were floating over the hillside vineyards of St. Magdalena. It was late September. The valley smelled of ripe apples. Some of the grapes had been harvested, but many still clung to the vines. Thus began my love, my obsession, with the region.

A sweeping view from a balcony takes in red geraniums and a mountain valley in northern Italy at Gasthaus Steinegg.
Gasthaus Steinegg offers a stunning Alpine view, photo credit Martin Sorge

Hike, Cake, Wine, Repeat

The next day, after a morning of hiking, we zipped back down the mountain by cable car to explore Bozen-Bolzano. As an avid baker, I popped into Franziskaner Bäckerei. Inside, I spied slices of Buchweizenkuchen — a hazelnut and buckwheat cake, rich with local butter and filled with tart berry jam. We bought two slices and noshed on them as we roamed the city. While visiting Ötzi, a glacially preserved hunter who lived in the region 5,000 years ago, at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology, my mind kept wandering to that little slice of cake. 

A few days later, we moved on to Dorf Tirol-Tirolo, a resort village above the larger spa town of Meran-Merano, whose Schloss Tirol gives its name to the wider region of Tyrol. We rode the cable car at Seilbahn Hochmuth up the mountain for a long morning hike, then snagged a terrace table at Gasthaus Steinegg.

From there, we could see west down the Vinschgau and southeast down the Etschtal/Adige Valley. The vineyards and orchards stretched for miles. We drank Weissburgunder as crisp as the mountain air and ate Speckknödel mit Pfifferlinge — hearty dumplings studded with local Speck and swimming in sauteed chanterelles. 

When we opted for dessert, I noticed Buchweizenkuchen mit Schlag on the menu. We ordered a slice and an espresso. Out came a warm, buttery wedge of cake topped with a mountain of whipped cream as generous as the peaks around us. While we lingered, this flavor began to lodge itself into my brain. The complex flavor tasted like nothing I’d had before: earthy, grassy, nutty, with the zing of agreeably sharp-sweet jam and welcome richness of the butter. It didn’t taste showy or have a flavor dominated by an extract or a spice. It caught me as subtle yet assertive, comforting yet haunting.

A slice of cake with jam and whipped cream on a white plate with a silver fork.
Buckwheat Cake at Gasthaus Steinegg, photo credit Martin Sorge

Alpine Flavors at Home

I knew I had to recreate Buchweizenkuchen when I got home to Chicago. But before we left South Tyrol, I grabbed a few bags of locally milled buckwheat flour — and one last slice of the homely, hearty Buchweizenkuchen at Franziskaner Bäckerei.  

As soon as I got home, I whipped up the cake. The first try was overly dense, with too much vanilla extract. I simplified the recipe and used a light hand to fold the egg whites. With the first bite, I knew that I’d nailed it. This rustic dessert relies on the flavor of traditional ingredients: dark buckwheat flour (earthy and herbal), hazelnuts (toasty and sweet), and butter (you know butter). A vein of raspberry jam brightens everything. This cake is hearty and less sweet than American-style cakes, so whipped cream — and a lot of it — is essential. 

Since I first baked it at home, Buchweizenkuchen has become one of my signature bakes. Its flavors transport me to that mountainside table.

After being cast on the Great American Baking Show, I knew I had to make a version of this cake. When given a challenge to create a decorated sheet cake, this recipe fit the bill. Instead of serving it simply and casually, with Schlag on the side, I piped a literal mountain of whipped cream: creating a scene of the majestic Dolomites on my cake. I even used Italian buckwheat flour and ground hazelnuts in the recipe. The cake impressed the show’s most critical host, Paul Hollywood, despite the unconventional flours and subtle, earthy flavors.

A close-up photo of an Alpine Cake called Buchweizenkuchen, with a slice removed revealing layers of cake, jam and a whipped cream frosting.
Buchweizenkuchen back home, photo credit Grant Kessler

Alpine Wine for the Win

Pairing wine and dessert presents a challenge. I had assumed that a bright, fruit-inflected Vernatsch (aka Schiava) or even a brooding Lagrein would make the ideal match — the red berry notes complimenting the raspberry jam and earthy-bitter nuttiness of the buckwheat and hazelnuts. But even this not-too-sweet dessert is too sweet for those reds. My typical rule of pairing is that the wine should be as sweet as or sweeter than the dessert, otherwise the wine can taste bitter or harsh.

Surprisingly, Kellerei-Cantina Tramin’s 2021 Nussbaumer Gewürztraminer fit the bill. The richness and complexity of the wine stands out next to the earthy cake. The Nussbaumer carries a rich mid-palate sweetness of ripe pears and honeysuckle, an ideal wine to savor alongside this straightforward cake. Neither dominates, rather it is an honest and equal conversation.

Gewürztraminer was one of the first wines I learned to pick out of a line-up. Even amateurs can detect the distinctive floral, sweetly spiced aroma. Sometimes this grape can produce a one-note, somewhat bitter, dry wine. But the Nussbaumer calls you back with its complexity and balance. I didn’t even notice the wine’s alcoholic heft. Instead, it felt ample and full of flavor, like it, too,  had basked in that glorious South Tyrolean sun.

Ingredients for an Alpine cake are set out on a counter below a bright window. A bottle of wine and wine glass are centered.
The makings of a soaring pairing, photo credit Martin Sorge

Hazelnut and Buckwheat Cake

This cake is a mouthful. So is its name. Called Torta di Grano Saraceno (Italian), Schwarzplententorte, Buchweizenkuchen, Buchweizentorte (all German), or Turte de Poia (Ladin, an ancient language still spoken in pockets of northern Italy), the name changes depending on who’s making it. Bonus: this cake is naturally gluten-free.

Makes one 8-inch cake and serves 6-8 people.

100 g (about 1 cup) toasted hazelnuts

115 g (about 1 cup) buckwheat flour

3/4 teaspoon baking powder

113 g (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, room temperature 

100 g plus 15 g (1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon) granulated sugar, divided

1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt

3 large eggs, separated, room temperature

3 tablespoons milk, room temperature

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

About 1/2 cup tart red berry jam, like raspberry, lingonberry, or redcurrant

About 1 tablespoon powdered sugar, for dusting

Unsweetened whipped cream, for serving

Heat oven to 350 F with a rack in the middle of the oven. Butter or spray an 8-inch cake pan (one that’s at least 2 inches deep) with cooking spray and line the bottom with a circle of parchment paper.

In the bowl of a food processor, pulse the nuts with a few tablespoons of buckwheat flour until the nuts are finely ground. Add the remaining buckwheat flour and the baking powder, and pulse about 5 times to combine. 

In the bowl of a stand mixer fit with a paddle attachment (or a large bowl, if using a hand mixer), combine butter, 100 g (1/2 cup) of the granulated sugar, and salt. Mix on low speed for about 30 seconds so that things don’t go flying when you crank up the speed. Increase to medium speed and mix for 3 minutes (or, if using a hand mixer, on high speed for 3 minutes) until the mixture looks light and fluffy.

Scrape down the bowl and beater and return to medium speed. Add egg yolks, one at a time, and beat until combined. Add the vanilla extract and beat to combine. Add the buckwheat-hazelnut mixture and beat just to combine — stopping when you can’t see any streaks of the butter mixture. Add the milk and beat to combine. Set the mixture aside. 

Add the egg whites to a clean mixer bowl and put the whisk attachment on the mixer. Whip the egg whites at medium-high speed until they start to get fluffy and the bubbles become small, about 1 minute. Increase the speed to high and beat for about 30 seconds more until the whites reach soft, floppy peaks. Add the remaining one tablespoon (15 g) of granulated sugar and continue to beat until just before stiff peaks form. (When you lift the whisk and turn it upside down, the “peak” of whipped egg whites should just gently fold over like the top of a soft-serve ice cream cone.)

Stir one-third of the beaten egg whites into the batter to loosen it, then gently fold in the remaining egg whites. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the surface.

Bake at 350 F for 28-30 minutes, until the cake feels mostly firm when gently pressed at the center with your finger. Let cool in the pan for 20 minutes, then remove from the pan and cool completely on a wire rack.

Using a long, serrated knife, cut the cake horizontally into two even layers. Lift off the top layer and set it aside. Place the bottom layer on a serving plate and spread with the jam. Place the top layer, cut side down, onto the jam filling. Just before serving, dust the cake with powdered sugar. Serve with a mountain of whipped cream. This cake is best if eaten in the first two days after making it. But that won’t be a problem. Especially if serving with a glass of chilled Nussbaumer.

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