photograph by ISTOCK/ASIFE

The oldest cultivated grapevine in North America grows on the northern tip of Roanoke Island.

Affectionately known as The Mother Vine, this old girl is a gnarly two feet thick at the base and has been producing scuppernongs — a variety of the family of grapes known as muscadines — for at least 400 years. This single vine once covered nearly a half-acre.

We North Carolinians love our native grapes. Compared to the imported, thin-skinned, seedless grapes found in the grocery stores, muscadines might seem like a lot of trouble, but they are worth it. The skins are thick and the pulp is shot full of stubborn seeds. Ah, but the flavor, the perfume, the musky sweetness. No other grape compares.


Muscadine Wine Cake

Yields: 1 (10-inch) Bundt Cake

Cake

Nonstick cooking spray

1 box white cake mix

1 box blackberry Jell-O

½ cup vegetable oil

4 large eggs, at room temperature

1 cup Muscadine wine

Glaze

¼ cup (1/2 stick) butter

½ cup Muscadine wine

2 to 3 cups sifted confectioners’ sugar, divided

For the cake: Preheat the oven to 350°F. Mist the inside of the Bundt pan (10-cup capacity) with nonstick spray.

Combine the cake mix, Jell-O, oil, eggs, and wine in a large bowl. Beat with an electric mixer set to medium speed until the batter is smooth and well-combined, about 5 minutes. Pour into the prepared pan.

Bake until a tester inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean, 50 to 60 minutes. Meanwhile, make the glaze.

For the glaze: Bring the butter and wine to a gentle simmer in a medium saucepan over medium heat, stirring until the butter melts. Do not let the mixture boil. Remove from the heat and whisk in 1 cup of the confectioners’ sugar. Set aside.

Place the cake pan on a wire rack. Use a thin skewer to poke holes all over the cake. Spoon half of the glaze over the cake, letting it seep down into the holes. Cool the cake for 30 minutes, then turn it out onto a serving plate, carefully turn it upright, and let it cool to room temperature.

Stir in enough more confectioners’ sugar into the glaze to thicken it to the consistency of icing. Let it cool while the cake cools. Drizzle the thickened glaze over the cake.


Worldwide, where there are grapes, wine soon follows.

Homemade wine is a North Carolina craft and a cottage industry of long standing. It’s a commercial enterprise, as well. These days, North Carolina ranks among the top 10 grape- and wine-producing states. A drive down to the coast takes us past wineries that produce sweet, deeply fruity muscadine wine with pride. The billboards lure us to exit, sip, and buy a few bottles. The grapes are notably nutritious, bursting with antioxidants. So we imbibe, of course, for our health. It’s the only responsible thing to do.

Smart bakers also pour a little fruit of the vine into the popular muscadine cake. This cake is very moist, intensely sweet, and more purple than you might expect. Some people compare a muscadine cake to a giant, glazed cake doughnut. It will surely satisfy the famous Southern sweet tooth.


Blue Ridge Mountains

Dried Apple Stack Cake
The hallmark of cooking in the Mountain South is resourcefulness, making utterly delicious dishes from modest ingredients. Consider the stack cake: many thin layers of sorghum-sweetened cake married together by thick, fragrant filling made from dried apples. There is no cake — perhaps no recipe — more rooted in Appalachian mountain culture.

Mountains and Foothills

Black Walnut Pound Cake 
The meek might never taste a black walnut. The outer husks of these tree nuts are a mighty fortress, resembling a petrified tennis ball. Black walnuts must be pounded into submission, by mallets or more. Once open, not everyone appreciates the bitter flavor of black walnuts. Those who do, however, do so passionately.

Piedmont

Cheerwine Pound Cake
There is no historical marker for the first time and place that some creative home cook poured soda pop into cake batter, but the idea took hold fast, especially as these products flourished after World War II. Almost all community cookbooks include a recipe or two for a cola cake.

Cheerwine pound cake has a delicate golden crust and a moist, dense crumb. It needs no frosting, only a sprinkling of confectioners’ sugar, like fairy dust. It keeps well for days, if it lasts that long.

Outer Banks

Fig Preserves Cake
As far as fruit is concerned, the Outer Banks is a punishing place: sandy, salty, stormy, and sizzling hot in summer.

For some reason, fig trees accept that challenge. A dozen or more different varieties of figs, many of them native, grow along the Outer Banks. Figs are so popular on Ocracoke Island that they practically star in the island’s annual Ocrafolk Festival.

This story was published on

Sheri Castle hails from Watauga County, but came down off the mountain to go to Carolina and now lives in Fearrington Village. She is a writer, recipe developer, cooking teacher, and popular public speaker. She is fueled by mountains, excellent bourbon, farmers’ markets, and searching for the right word. Sheri believes that stories happen only to those who can tell them. Check her out at shericastle.com.

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