What Is Madeira Cake And What Does It Taste Like?

The Washington Post invites you to take a bite of Madeira cake, and imagine you're in Downton Abbey, perhaps gossiping over the tragic sinking of the Titanic in 1912. Don't worry — it won't crumble enough to "mar a beautiful dress," observes the newspaper. Though incredibly popular in the 19th and 20th centuries, Madeira cake can trace its roots much farther back than Edwardian England.  

To appreciate the nuances of the cake, we dove into the intrigue behind Madeira wine. According to legend reported by Wine Cooler Direct, the Portuguese wine was a happy mistake which quickly turned into a fad for the rich and famous. As traders carried the dessert wine on ships from Portugal to England in the late-15th century, rough seas induced aeration, heating, and aging which imbued the wine with its intoxicating roasted nut, stewed fruits, caramel, and toffee flavor profiles (via Wine Folley). By the late 1400s, the wine was so popular in England that King Edward IV's brother is rumored to have been drowned in a barrel of it for plotting to take the throne, according to The Crown Chronicles

The more modern, Downton Abbey version of Madeira wine, however, is a product of Napoleon Bonaparte's anger. Wine Cooler Direct states that during the 18th century, Napoleon tried to interrupt English and Portuguese trade routes to get France back in control of the global wine market. To ensure they would survive longer journeys avoiding the French naval blockades, Portuguese traders began adding brandy to their wines. The resulting fortified wine soon became the drink of choice among the UK's upper classes. By the early 1800s, "Madeira cake" became the snack of choice to accompany a glass of the fortified wine (via Nigella). 

What exactly is Madeira cake?

Madeira wine's complex, deep flavors often carry hints of burnt sugar, caramel, walnut oil, hazelnuts, and orange peel (via Wine Folly). Madeira cake, on the other hand, is almost the definition of simplicity. On diet? This cake is definitely not for you. Eggs and butter are, by and far, its most important ingredients. The Kitchn says to think of a Madeira cake as the Victoria sponge cake's cousin. It has similar flavor profiles, but is a bit denser and firmer. Recipes for it call for a bit more flour than your typical Victoria Sponge, but a Madeira is nonetheless lighter than a typical pound cake (via The Washington Post)

If you're on a quest to make the perfect Madeira cake (to perhaps have alongside a glass of Madeira wine while reminiscing over how lucky we are that the brandy proved to be an improvement to the drink) don't forget the lemon or lime zest. The Kitchn states that the citrus flavoring of Madeira cake is essential to it, pairing perfectly with the richer, sweeter flavor profiles of Madeira wine. Be sure to also dust your pan with sugar for added texture, that way you'll get a slight crunch every time you break through the cake's exterior with each melt-in-your-mouth bite.