Baking with Beer

My daughter celebrates her birthday on Thursday, but she has asked for a Zuppa Inglese (the Italian version of England’s trifle) instead of a cake: layers of savoiardi and crema pasticceria and lots and lots of whipped cream on top. More on that creation some time this weekend, post-celebration.

Faced with nothing to bake (the savoiardi – traditional crispy lady fingers – come in a package imported from Italy) but longing for an excuse to do so, I decided to bake mini chocolate stout cakes on Saint Patrick’s Day. This isn’t a holiday we make too much fuss over, but a Guinness baking experiment seemed appropriate and also a worthwhile use of my time. Although I have braised with beers and stouts, I had never baked with any of them. While it makes sense that the liquid’s carbonation would boost a cake’s leaveners and yield a light and springy texture, recipes for stout cake usually only appear in the week leading up to March 17, causing me to wonder if these cakes are actually delicious or simply a one-off holiday gimmick. Now I know.

It’s no gimmick; chocolate stout cake is delicious. The carbonation does, in fact, provide a lift. The cake itself is moist but not dense, its crumb is not tight but instead light and airy. A stout’s tasting notes of bitter chocolate and roasted coffee beans and chicory complement, enrich, and even elevate plain baking cocoa. Complex, interesting, but also traditionally satisfying, I don’t think you can find a better basic chocolate cake than this one. I plan to use it for all my chocolate layer cakes from now on.

I’d like to experiment with making the cake using different stouts too. Guinness may be the most widely known and available, but I think Young’s Double Chocolate Stout from Britain, with its additional flavors of malt and vanilla, would turn out a delicious, distinctive cake. And now that Night Shift Brewing is up and running in the Boston environs, I see a cake made with some of their Taza Chocolate Stout coming out of my oven in the not too distant future. If you have your own favorite local brewery, try baking the cake using that brewery’s stout.

This recipe comes from the Barrington Brewery in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. I have adapted it only to make a smaller amount of batter for the home cook. The recipe make 16 small (2-inch diameter) cakes, or 2 (8-inch) layers.

Chocolate Stout Cake with Chocolate Glaze

  • 1 cup stout
  • 2 sticks unsalted butter
  • 3/4 cup unsweetened, Dutch-process cocoa powder
  • 2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1-1/2 tsp. baking soda
  • 3/4 tsp. salt
  • 2 large eggs, at room temperature
  • 2/3 cup sour cream (I used reduced fat)
  • 1 cup whipping cream (optional)
  • 1/2 pound bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped (optional)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour (2) 8-inch round cake pans, or (16) 2-inch diameter metal cake molds or ramekins (I used an assorment of charlotte and brioche molds) . Line the bottoms of any of these baking pans with a circle of parchment cut to fit. Brush the parchment with butter. These steps, including the parchment and extra butter, are essential. The cakes will stick to improperly prepared pans.

Place the stout and the butter in a large, heavy saucepan.

Bring the mixture to a simmer over medium heat. When simmering, whisk in the cocoa powder and continue whisking until the mixture is smooth. Set aside to cool slightly.

Sift together the flour, sugar, baking soda and salt into a large bowl.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat together the eggs and sour cream to blend. (Alternately, you may use a second large bowl and a hand mixer instead of the stand mixer.)

Add the slightly cooled stout-cocoa mixture to the egg mixture and beat on medium-low speed just to combine. Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber scraper. Add the flour mixture to this and beat on very low speed just until the flour has been incorporated. Remove the bowl from the stand, and give the batter a few turns by hand with the rubber scraper to make sure the batter has been evenly combined.

Divide the batter evenly between the two prepared layer pans. If using smaller baking molds, place these first on a large baking sheet and fill each about halfway and no more than two-thirds full with batter.

Bakes cakes at 350 degrees for 25 to 35 minutes, depending on size and accuracy of your oven, or until a cake tester inserted in the center of each cake or layer comes out clean. Begin testing smaller cakes and 8-inch layers at 25 minutes. When done, transfer cakes to cooling racks.

Let cool for 10 minutes before inverting onto racks to cool completely before glazing, if desired, or frosting with your favorite icing.

For the optional glaze, bring the cream to simmer in a heavy medium saucepan. Remove from the heat and add to it the chopped chocolate. Whisk the chocolate and cream together until the glaze is smooth. While still warm, spoon the glaze over the tops of the small cakes or layers, nudging the glaze a little with the back of the spoon to let the glaze run over the sides. Serve the small cakes immediately. Alternately, let the glaze set a bit on the larger layers before stacking them together and cutting into the layer cake.

©2012 Jane A. Ward