Guiness Cakelettes

February 21, 2008

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This was a project with many inspirations.  I had been thinking about doing one of the chocolate cakes from Nigella Lawson’s Feast for a while now.  I mean, how can you not love a cookbook that has an entire chunk in the middle devoted to chocolate cakes of various descriptions?  It’s always the section I ended up in when I flipped through the book.  I’ve been keeping up with Kate’s adventures in Ireland over at Accidental Hedonist and pining to be over in Ireland again myself, happily ensconced at a tiny pub with a creamy Guiness in front of me.  Plus it was someone’s birthday at work and I had volunteered to make a cake.  I felt like a chocolate Guiness cake was meant to be.

Apparently not.  Let me get this out in the open right from the start – my first attempt at this cake was a complete failure.  Dashing around trying to bake (and even more intimidatingly, ice) a cake before work was a bad place to start.  I was trying to get the cake in the oven so it could cool in time to ice it, and, in the rush, added two and a half tablespoons of baking soda, rather than two and a half teaspoons.   Trying to mix the flour and baking soda into the rest of the ingredients, the whole thing started foaming, which I assumed was just the Guiness at work.  As the batter threatened to come up out of the pan I was mixing in, I began to worry that I was overmixing and would toughen the cake.  I decided to go with a pancake batter theory that any lumps of flour would take care of themselves and dumped the whole thing into the springform pan I had so carefully greased and shoved it in the oven. 

Twenty minutes later, I smelled the peculiar odor of burning Guiness as the cake crept up and over the edge of the cake pan and began to burn to the sides of the pan.  “Nevermind that,” I said to myself, “I’ll just turn it out of the pan when it’s done and it will be fine.”  When the cake had finally set in the middle, I pulled it out and put it outside on the back porch (in the twenty-degree weather) to cool quickly.  Despite the burned-on cake on the outsides of the pan, the springform came off perfectly and I set to making my icing.  It was only as I was icing the cake that I filched a crumb from the bottom, thinking to myself – “That tastes a bit odd, maybe it’s the Guiness” – before realizing my mistake with the baking soda.  I cursed my inability to read and follow recipes as I finished the icing, then stepped back.  It did look good and maybe it wouldn’t taste so bad after all, I justified.  I had promised to bring in a cake and there was no time (or sugar in the house) to start again. 

So I took it in, warning the lucky birthday recipient after he blew out the candles that I was unable to vouch for the cake’s edibility.  The cake was cut as my coworkers gathered around in a tight huddle to taste what was truly an awful cake.  The baking soda made it taste like brushing your teeth with Arm and Hammer, while little lumps of flour, far from having taken care of themselves, floated like little starch bombs throughout.  One of the girls asked me what kind of nuts I had used, still trying to be polite.  “Nuts?” I replied, before realizing she had mistaken the flour lumps for nuts, giving me the benefit of the doubt.  Once it had been determined that the cake was to be headed for the trash (though some of the icing was eaten off the top first), everyone shared stories of their own worst kitchen mishaps, which of course made me feel much better.  What else are friends for?

Nonetheless, I felt the Guiness cake had to be redeemed, so two days and a trip to the grocery store later, I started the whole process over again.  I refined the process to eliminate flour lumps, excess baking soda, and sour cream (which I had forgotten to buy at the store, but thankful again for my store of powdered buttermilk, a cook’s best friend, simply substituted to no ill effect).  I couldn’t face up to the whole cake again so soon, so I decided to take the cupcake route.  And give myself plenty of time. 

This time the results were solid.  The cupcakes had a deep chocolate taste, moist texture, and no faux nut flour bombs. The Guiness was subtle, more of an extra hint of bitter that really complimented the chocolate, than a flavor of its own. The cream cheese icing, which includes heavy cream to, ironically, make it lighter, was creamy and not too sweet.  Not quite the same as sitting over a pint in a proper Irish pub, but satisfying still.  

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Guiness Cakelettes

     adapted from Nigella Lawson’s Feast, makes 24ish cupcakes

preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  set out cupcake pans with liners/bake cups.

  • 1 cup Guiness
  • 1 stick plus 2 tablespoons unsalted butter

place the guiness and butter in a large saucepan; place over medium heat until butter is melted.  remove from heat.

  • 3/4 cup water
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract

whisk together in a large mixing bowl.

  • 3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa
  • 2 cups sugar

add to mixing bowl and whisk to incorporate.  add the guiness butter and incorporate.

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 3 tablespoons powdered buttermilk

sift into the mixing bowl, stirring to prevent lumps from forming.  mix until throughly combined.  pour into cake pan and bake 20-25 minutes.  Check the centers of cupcakes with a toothpick.  When toothpick comes out clean, remove from oven and place on a rack to cool completely before frosting.

  • 1 1/4 cups powdered sugar

place into the bowl  of a food processor and pulse to remove any clumps. 

  • 8 ounces cream cheese
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream

cut the cream cheese into large chunks.  toss into the food processor and blend, slowly adding heavy cream and checking consistency.  frost cupcakes. 

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I adore shopping at asian groceries because of the element of suprise, those moments of “what is this?” and “how could I use up this?”.  I always end up with something I haven’t had the chance to cook with before.  Usually I end these trips at home curled up with Asian Ingredients by Bruce Cost, which provides clear explanations, pictures, and recipes of many things I can’t even begin to pronounce.  Wheeling my cart around the produce section, I came across kumquats.  Charmed by the idea of tiny citrus and having no idea what to do with them, I took them home with me. 

This time though I thought of Chez Panisse Fruits, a cookbook I always flip through with good intentions, happily browsing the stylized relief prints and reading the essays before giving up because I live 300 miles from the nearest Meyer lemon.  I rushed home with my kumquats, sure that Alice Waters would approve and I would finally cook something from this beautiful cookbook! 

I was right – Alice had some great ideas for me, from a spring onion kumquat relish to candied kumquat slices.  Apparently, kumquats are the only citrus in that the skin is sweet and the flesh is tart, which sounded perfect for marmalade to me.  The thin skins also mean you don’t have to go through the blanching step that other citrus marmalades require.

Thankfully, I hadn’t bought all that many kumquats, so I didn’t have to feel bad about not actually canning anything, just making a jar to keep in the fridge.  The recipe only calls for two ingredients: kumquats and sugar, though I added some lemon juice for brightness, and couldn’t be any easier.  The results were stunning, a sweet-tart marmalade with an unusual flavor…

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Kumquat Marmalade

     adapted from Chez Panisse Fruits, makes a couple of cups

  • 1/2 pound kumquats
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 tablespoons fresh-squeezed lemon juice

cut off the stem end of the fruit, then split each lengthwise.  slice each half into 1/8-inch moons, removing and discarding the seeds as you slice.  place the kumquats into a small saucepan and just cover with water.  add sugar and bring to a boil over high heat for 15 minutes, skimming off any foam that comes to the top.  reduce heat and continue simmering until the marmalade thickens to the consistency you like.  add the lemon juice and stir. let cool, then put in a pretty jar and refrigerate.

The marmalade came out so well that I decided I needed something to eat it on and with a quickness.  For me, that means biscuits, probably my favorite quickbread.  I used to be intimidated by biscuit-making and, trust me, I had made my share of hockey pucks to prove why.  Two things have revolutionized biscuits for me: powdered buttermilk and a really good recipe.  I stand by them both and I now make darn good biscuits to prove it.  Ones that are pretty enough for a photo shoot, if they last that long…

I discovered the powdered buttermilk when I was packing foods up for my dad to take on a long hiking trip and I haven’t looked back since.  I occasionally buy buttermilk for projects like buttermilk-marinated fried chicken, but it never seemed like I had any around when I needed it for baked goods.  If I did buy it for biscuits, I would use half a cup and then the rest would slowly, despite my best intentions, go bad in the fridge.  Now I can whip up a batch of buttermilk biscuits without running to the store.  Completely worth it, I promise.  Go buy some, toss it in the back of your fridge, and you will be amazed how often it comes in handy. 

The recipe comes from The New Best Recipe from the editors of Cook’s Illustrated, a cookbook I turn to regularly for baking, and produces the best biscuits I have ever made.  Using the food processor, it takes me six minutes flat to get these biscuits in the oven and another ten to bake, which makes them possible for everyday, rather than just special occasions or Sundays.

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Buttermilk Biscuits

     adapted from The New Best Recipe, makes 8 biscuits

adjust an oven rack to the middle position and preheat the oven to 450 degrees. line an ungreased baking sheet with a piece of parchment (optional).

  • 1 cup (5 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup (4 ounces) plain cake flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 3 tablespoons powdered buttermilk

place into the bowl of a food processor, blitz ten seconds to mix dry ingredients.

  • 8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into 1/4 inch cubes

sprinkle the butter cubes evenly over the dry ingredients.  process in twelve 1-second pulses. add

  • 3/4 cup water

process until dough gathers into moist clumps, about eight 1-second pulses.  transfer the dough to a lightly floured surface and gather it into a loose ball, being careful not to overmix.  cut the ball into quarters, then split each quarter into eighths.  with floured hands, shape a rough ball of each piece and place on the baking sheet, about a half-inch to an inch apart.  bake for ten minutes, check and put in for a minute or two more if needed to achieve golden biscuit perfection.