[Guinness chocolate cake, with Guinness, March 2008.]
Otherwise known as “amateur night” by certain parties, St. Patrick’s Day to me is soda bread, Altan, Joyce’s Ulysses, which I attempt to battle through every few years or so (it never quite works; I think I need an explanatory text alongside), and — of course — Guinness.
Ages ago I came across a recipe from Nigella’s old column in the New York Times (“At My Table,” which, incidentally, I loved the name of) for a deep, dark chocolate cake made extraordinary by one special ingredient: a cup of Guinness stout. I made this for, I think, a birthday quite a long time ago as well as for a going-away, but it’s been years since I’ve even bought a Guinness, much less baked with it.
But today is the American celebration of St. Patrick, one of Ireland’s patron saints, and because Guinness is so very Irish (I know; I passed the brewery in Dublin though we decided to sample Jameson instead), I couldn’t help but bake this cake in small commemoration. If only I could send a slice across the country to the true Guinness-lover; unfortunately, I’m afraid this will have to do.
Ireland — as I’ve written about before — has a certain hold on my heart, even though I was there so briefly. Sometimes I like to think it’s because a few relatives originated there; that heritage, filtered down through the generations, has made me dreamily miss its green hills and grey, churning sea though in reality I’ve hardy explored the country at all. Either way, I’m often plotting and planning to go back, even if only mentally.
It’s tempting to romanticize Ireland — The emerald mountains! Slipping into a pub for a pint! Reels upon rousing reels played long into the night! Slices of thick soda bread spread with sweet butter! Roaring fires made from peat moss! — but the truth is far more complicated. For every soothing Altan song about horses and misty mornings, there is Christy Moore’s biting commentary about displacement, and early U2’s politcal manifestos set to music. There is the lingering aftermath of the Troubles. There are the roads described as “a purposeless fragment of highway built to make the starving work for their welfare shilling.” There is — as Nuala O’Faolain wrote — “Ireland’s tragic history of emigration and depopulation.”
But Ireland, oh, Ireland, you are beautiful nonetheless — perhaps even more so because of your past, and I cannot help but appreciate you for it. Even in my two short days wandering your Dublin streets I was captivated; there was a bitter wind off the water that made me wish, in July, I’d brought more than just a sweater, and the sun only came out here and there, but I couldn’t complain because there I was, at last. To me, oh lovely country, you are late-night pints and sitting in a park outside the writer’s museum, a bus ride down winding roads with flashing views of an iron-grey sea, tree branches that brushed the windows as we passed by. You are rain and sun and Gaelic street signs and whiskey. You are are complex, and endlessly fascinating; and how little I know of you, after all.
[Cake batter, March 2008.]
One of the best things about making this recipe — and which I’d forgotten, having left it for so long — is that it’s very quick and easy to assemble. There’s no need for an electric mixer; like some of my favorite vegan recipes, all that’s required is a whisk to put together the batter (you might want to use a mixer for the frosting, however, though I didn’t) and within only about 10 minutes the cake is slipped into the oven. Taste-wise, it’s a beer-and-chocolate-lover’s dream: the overwhelming flavor is of rich chocolate with just a hint of stout from the cup of Guinness. Topped with a smooth cream cheese frosting, the slight bitterness from the beer is hardly noticeable and the cake’s dense, moist crumb is ever so slightly addictive. The end result is a portrait of a pint transformed into a cake. If only I’d been able to imprint a four-leaf clover on top!
One need not celebrate St. Patrick’s Day (or be Irish, or Irish-American) to enjoy a slice of this cake — indeed, this is the first time I’ve made it for the holiday, and it works just fine as birthday or everyday cake. I would argue that one doesn’t even need to like beer (but who doesn’t love Guinness, hm? Remember, it’s for health!) to enjoy it. But if you can’t wrap your culinary palate around a marriage of beer and chocolate, there’s always a Jameson chocolate tarte or, to go a non-alcoholic route, soda bread, with butter and jam.
If you do decide to indulge, this cake is best enjoyed with an Irish coffee, a cold glass of its namesake brew, or a strong, hot cup of tea.
Chocolate Guinness Cake, adapted from Nigella Lawson
I thought it appropriate that I broke out my Nigella measuring cups for the first time to make this recipe; I’d been eyeing them for quite a long time, and when they happened to be on sale at Anthropologie, I snapped them up.
For the cake:
Butter for pan
1 cup Guinness stout
10 tablespoons (1 stick plus 2 tablespoons) unsalted butter
6 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa
2 cups sugar
6 tablespoons sour cream
2 large eggs
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
For the topping:
1 1/4 cups confectioners’ sugar
8 ounces cream cheese at room temperature
1/2 cup heavy cream
1. For the cake: heat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9-inch springform pan and line with parchment paper. In a large saucepan, combine Guinness and butter. Place over medium-low heat until butter melts, then remove from heat. Add cocoa and superfine sugar, and whisk to blend.
2. In a small bowl, combine sour cream, eggs and vanilla; mix well. Add to Guinness mixture. Add flour and baking soda, and whisk again until smooth. Pour into buttered pan, and bake until risen and firm, 45 minutes to one hour. Place pan on a wire rack and cool completely in pan.
3. For the topping: Using a food processor or by hand, mix confectioners’ sugar to break up lumps. Add cream cheese and blend until smooth. Add heavy cream, and mix until smooth and spreadable.
4. Remove cake from pan and place on a platter or cake stand. Ice top of cake only, so that it resembles a frothy pint of Guinness.
Yield: One 9-inch cake (12 servings).