So, if I had to name the one dish everyone loves, that I always get requests for, and that I've passed along to more people than anything, it would definitely be:
Now, I'm a decent cook. I delight in multi-day recipes and serious desserts, can whip up a 30-pound turkey and am the designated gravy-meister at my house. I pore over cookbooks and this year's variations like everybody else and can debate brining and what to do if, against Cook's Illustrated's explicit instructions, you absolutely insist on stuffing your turkey (bring it to some absurd temperature in the microwave first, of course.) And I'm not saying wine cake is what you want to make for your FCI entrance exam, or even for snootie foodies. But in all other cases, Wine Cake is a sort of O-positive of desserts.
My grandmother was the worst cook you'll ever meet - her cooking was a combination of passive-aggression and performance art and rotten ingredients and to be avoided whenever possible. The one exception was Wine Cake, which goes to show that it's fool-proof. Wine Cake is the traditional birthday cake on that side of the family, a tradition I've continued. It's one of those objectively revolting, 1950s-style recipes that makes no bones about its chemical antecedents and becomes more unfashionable every year. In a bid for respectability, I once worked out an all-natural version, but it just made me miss the original. Friends of mine have brought Wine Cake to feuding families and CIA picnics and block parties, and it's always a hit. Anyone can make it. So, without further ado, I give you:
Sherry Wine Cake
1 box yellow cake mix (I like Moist Deluxe, but grandma always used generic, so.)
1 lg. regular vanilla pudding (or just use 2 small)
1 c. oil
3/4 c. sherry wine (cheap, please)
Preheat oven to 350
Mix everything. Bake in a buttered-and-floured bundt pan for about 50 minutes, until the proverbial tester comes out clean.
1 cup powdered (confectioner's) sugar
1/2 cup sherry, or less. The point is, you want a quite liquid glaze.
Now, here is the crucial part. Without unmolding the hot cake, poke the exposed top - really the bottom! - all over, and I do mean all over, with a skewer, a chopstick, or a fork. Now, drizzle a goodly amount of glaze over the holes. It'll absorb.
Let it sit for another couple of minutes, just so it doesn't all run out. Then, unmold onto a rack. Or the serving dish, I guess, if you don't mind icing all over. If you do use the rack, do yourself a favor and put some waxed paper underneath. Now, repeat the pricking and pouring routine all over the rest of the cake. Soak it well! Now, let it cool.
After the cake is cool, I like to glaze again, this time with a thicker icing (just dump more sugar into the dregs of the glaze.) Drizzle this thicker, white icing over the cooled, glazed cake. Let firm up.
Et voila! Trust me, vile as this may sound, it's scrumptious in a mid-century sort of way. Do not dismiss it without trying it, like those most irritating of all Epicurious commenters. People will hate themselves for it, but they won't be able to stop eating it, or making it, or trying to figure out what makes it so moist. If you are a no-fun ascetic, I suppose you need not glaze quite so heavily; I must admit, my grandmother was not quite so enthusiastic in this department. But in my opinion, it's the 1/2" of sugary lusciousness - so rich and damp a cake, as Captain Hook would have it - that makes this so good. It is customary, in my family, to stick a fat pink candle in the hole. This may be omitted.
And if you just can't stomach it, here's another wonderful dessert. This one respectable. So, give: what's your fail-safe?