Five years ago on St. Patrick’s Day, I was in Dublin. There were parades, green everywhere and of course, lots of Guinness. I don’t really like Guinness — it’s too heavy for me — but since I was in Ireland, I thought I should do as the Irish do …
Day 1 of my tour of the city included a trip to the Guinness Factory, where they demonstrate how the beer is made, let you pull draughts of Guinness (I have a certificate for pulling a perfect pint!) and offer tastings and samples of different versions of the beer.
Along with the beer tastings, they offered small bites of dishes made with Guinness, the first time I had ever tasted something cooked with the beer. And while I don’t remember much about the beers that I tried, I do remember they served this bread with Guinness-smoked salmon, cream cheese and dill. I don’t even like smoked salmon but the bread was so good that I had thirds and fourths and still think about it from time to time. (I may have to bust out the conversion chart and make it for myself soon.)
As I would later find out, Guinness is used a lot in cooking, usually either as a braising liquid for beef or lamb or as an accompaniment to chocolate in desserts — its malty, slightly bitter sweetness is especially useful for desserts.
Guinness itself is the most popular brand of stout, a type of dark beer made with roasted malt or barley.* Stouts are related to porters, and when Guinness brewed its first beer in 1778, it was labeled a porter. So that’s why this is called “Porter Cake” even though its made with a stout beer.
The cake must be a very Irish thing, as there weren’t many recipes for it online and most of them were straight from Ireland. Apparently it’s traditional to eat it on St. Patrick’s Day, but also around Christmas time? (It resembles the much more elaborate English Christmas Cake, which is made at least a month in advance and is routinely soaked in brandy. WHOA.) My initial exposure to Porter Cake came from Epicurious, and from there, fell into a rabbit hole of porter cake recipe-viewing, finally deciding that nothing quite fit what I was going for and so I’d have to kind of make something on my own.
There seemed to be two types of methods for making the cake: one was to mix the dry ingredients, then add the dried fruit, etc. The other, which kept popping up on many of the super Irish sites (so I decided was more “traditional”), calls for heating the butter, sugar and beer in a saucepan and then cooking the dried fruit in there for a few minutes. This nutty, slightly bitter caramel will blow. your. mind. Seriously. I couldn’t stop eating the fruit right out of the pot, which is why my tongue will now be burnt for all eternity.
Once baked, this cake is traditionally wrapped in wax paper and stored in an airtight tin for a few days, allowing the flavors to really meld before it’s served. So what I’m saying is if you make it now, it’ll be ready for your St. Patrick’s Day revelry! (That’s what I’m here for, always looking out for you … )
As a non-lover of dried fruit, fruit cakes, and Guinness, I wasn’t sure how much I would ultimately like this. But this is nutty and zesty and caramel-y, with faint undertones of bitterness from the Guinness. There’s not a lot of sugar in here (mostly from the dried fruit), so the cake is not at all cloying. It is the ideal eat-with-coffee cake, perhaps an Irish coffee if you’re lucky.
Irish Porter Cake
Adapted from many sources, but especially this one
I halved the original recipe, since it makes a staggering amount of cake. Also, many recipes finish the cake by dousing a bit of Guinness (or whichever beer you used) on the baked cake. I didn’t do this because I didn’t want the cake to be too boozy, but FYI.
Also, most of the recipes I found call for a blend of regular and golden raisins, plus “mixed peel,” which is a blend of different candied peels that is apparently very common in the UK. I hate raisins and couldn’t find mixed peel, so I used a mix of chopped apricots, chopped dates and cranberries and upped the citrus zest a bit. Also, nuts aren’t common, but I love nuts in baked goods, so I threw in some walnuts.
– 1 stick unsalted butter, cut into cubes
– 6 tablespoons sugar
– 6 ounces Guinness (or any stout or porter) + 2 tablespoons (optional)
– zest of 1 orange
– zest of half a lemon
– 1 cup dried fruit (cut into small pieces, if necessary)
– 1-1/2 cups all-purpose flour*
– 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
– 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
– 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
– 2 eggs
– 1/2 cup chopped walnuts (optional)
*I’m the idiot who didn’t realize she was out of AP flour until she was halfway through the recipe, and also decided to start baking this at 11 p.m. So I used all whole-wheat flour. The optimum balance might be 1 cup AP + 1/2 cup whole wheat, but even with all whole wheat this is delicious.
1) Preheat the oven to 350F. Butter a 3-quart baking dish and set aside.
2) In a small saucepan, heat the butter and sugar on low. Once the butter has fully melted and the sugar begins to caramelize, stir in the Guinness, orange and lemon zest and dried fruit. Bring to a boil, stirring frequently, then reduce the heat and cook for 3 minutes. Remove from the heat and let cool.
3) In a large bowl, mix the flour, baking powder and cinnamon. Once the fruit mixture has cooled, fold it into the flour mixture. In a separate small bowl, beat the eggs with the vanilla. Add the eggs to the batter and stir until everything is well mixed. Fold in the nuts, then transfer the batter to the prepared baking dish.
4) Bake for 45-50 minutes, turning halfway. It’s done when a tester inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean. (If the top browns very quickly, cover the dish with tin foil.) If you’d like, drizzle 2 tablespoons of Guinness over top of the cake once it has cooled slightly. Once the cake has cooled, wrap tightly in wax paper (or tin foil) and store for a few days before serving.