366 days of birthday cakes.
Guinness cake with whisky ganache was a natural for St. Patrick’s Day, and carrot the obvious choice for National Carrot Day Cake on February 7th, but coming up with a different cake for each of the 366 days of this Leap Year has been an exciting challenge for Oscar Bonelli, Executive Pastry Chef at the iconic Omni Homestead resort in Hot Springs, Virginia. Set on 2,000 acres in the scenic Appalachian Mountains, the 483-room hotel is marking its sestercentennial with a cornucopia of culinary festivities, and the cakes are popular crowd-pleasers. On a busy weekend, Bonelli estimates, “we are serving 800 or 900 slices in an hour.”
Planning began back in November when Bonelli started making a list, taking into consideration holidays, the seasons, and special occasions. “I’m Italian,” he explains, “this was all new to me, I did not know you have a national day for cakes, etc.” Raised in Bolzano, Italy, where his father and great-grandmother were pastry chefs, Bonelli was trained at prestigious pastry schools in his native land, and later at the French Pastry School in Chicago. He had been based in Miami for over a decade, until recently relocating to the Virginia resort. “It is an honor to work here and be part of the history of the Homestead,” says Bonelli, citing illustrious predecessors like Roland Mesnier, who left to become White House pastry chef, and his successor, Michel Finel, a contender at the world pastry competition during his over 40-year stint at the Homestead.
Mesnier will be back at the hotel to share recollections along with other notable chefs, including food historian and Emmy-winning TV host, Walter Staib, for a monthly speaker series. Another feature of the celebration is the Saturday evening Homestead 250th Anniversary Menu, paying tribute to the legacy of a former Executive Chef, Albert Scnarwyler, author of Dining at the Homestead.
The ceremonial cake party takes place every afternoon in the hotel’s grand hall. Bonelli figured out that the most efficient procedure was to make a multi-tiered presentation cake and a backup of full sheet cakes. The presentation cake is topped with a candle that is blown out by a designated guest, and the General Manager makes a short speech about what happened that day back in history at the hotel. Then the pre-plated slices, already decorated, are served at different stations around the hall. “We have eight to 10 different types of sponges that we combine with different fillings,” Bonelli notes, “using 50/50 pastry cream/buttercream; I like it better so they are not too greasy and over-sweet, and everything is made freshly every day.” The selection varies between classic cakes, like Red Velvet, and creations such as white cake with apricot marmalade milk chocolate, strawberry cake with lime mint vanilla, yellow cake with banana peanut butter, and chocolate blackout cake with caramel corn apple ganache. “Our guests love it,” says Bonelli, “and the feedback is great.”
In the pastry kitchen, with a staff ranging from about nine to 19, depending on the season, Bonelli also prepares a multitude of desserts for the Homestead’s various dining outlets. Many patrons come back year after year, he points out, and look forward to classics including Baked Alaska, Cherries Jubilee, Opera Cake, and Chambord Cake, a favorite on the weekly Anniversary Menu; but there are contemporary adaptations as well, like popcorn chocolate mousse with salted peanuts.
The Homestead has been intertwining tradition and timeliness since 1766, when Captain Thomas Bullett, a veteran of the French and Indian War, built an 18-room hotel on a 300-acre land grant that included seven natural mineral springs. Thomas Jefferson, one of almost two dozen presidents to enjoy Southern hospitality at the Homestead, visited in August, 1818, soaking in the warm springs to alleviate his rheumatism. There is no record of what Jefferson ate, but as America’s first gourmet, he would have been happy to raise a toast and celebrate with a slice of cake.