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by Tyler Morrison
To me, St. Patrick’s Day is literally the elephant in the room. It isn’t really a holiday I’ve had any interest in since my early 20’s, but every year it comes around, sits its big fat butt on my calendar, and then doesn’t move until after March. This year, I am officially protesting the holiday by completely ignoring the event altogether, and I’m not going to write about anything related to the color green, clovers, or any part of Irish culture whatsoever. So, instead, here’s a few thoughts about beer.
The mouth of a perfectly contented man is filled with beer, according to an ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic inscription. Many of us would agree that after a hard set of tennis or an afternoon cutting grass, there is little in this world more satisfying than a cold, bubbly pint. Doubly agreeable is lifting a mug while eating food cooked with beer.
In fact, ancient Egyptian and Sumerian physicians considered cooking with beer a healthy practice.
I don't recall when I first cooked with beer, but I do recall what I cooked: chili. For years, this was the only thing I cooked using beer, but eventually I began to experiment with other dishes. I figured, I regularly cook with wine, so why not beer? I started adding it to other soups and stews, including beer in my barbecue sauce and braising corned beef brisket in it.
Although Germans do sometimes cook with beer (biersuppe - beer soup - is a famous example), Irish and Belgian cuisines are more famous for using beer as an ingredient.
Beer itself is easy to make: Boil a mixture of grain, water and perhaps hops. Let it cool. Filter out the grain and add (or capture) yeast. Store it until it quits bubbling. Drink. That's basically it. Like with bread, you are creating a microfarm for the yeast, and the yeast does all the work. You just do the heavy lifting (5 gallons of beer weighs nearly 42 pounds). In addition to what I can only assume are the vast and numerous cardiovascular benefits of repeated 16 oz. pint curls, beer does actually contain a compound called Xanthohumol in the hops commonly used in brewing beer. It has been seen to play a major role in the chemoprevention of cancer, including prostate cancer.
Beer brings three things to food. The hops add bitterness, which is offset with the sweetness of the malted grain and complemented by the flavor of the yeast. Dark beers also provide a distinct roasted flavor.
The effervescence in beer makes it an excellent addition to batters used for frying, producing a lighter crust. And some of the lightest biscuits I've ever eaten were made using beer. Because of the hops, reducing beer too much can result in an unpleasantly bitter dish. So, if you're using beer in a slow-cooking braise, use a milder beer and dilute it with stock or water if necessary. Pale ales and nut brown ales are a good choice, but in general, avoid India pale ales, as they tend to have a high hops content.
Because of the bitterness, beer pairs well with sweet vegetables such as carrots, corn and caramelized onions. And just as wine is often found in marinades, beer, too, is a great choice. I think it's a particularly good addition to marinades for game such as venison. And as the recipe for Guinness Stout Cake shows, beer even has a place in desserts.
So pour a bit of brew in a pot, pie or cake. Drink the rest of it. Think about your ancestors and the long heritage of those wee, little beasties who eat sugar and starch, and produce wonderful flavors: yeast.
I've been hearing and reading about Guinness chocolate cake for years. Beer and chocolate may strike you as an odd combination, but this isn't just any beer, it's Guinness stout, a thick beverage made from roasted barley that adds a smoky note that just happens to complement chocolate perfectly. There are lots of very similar recipes for this deservedly popular cake. I adapted one published by King Arthur Flour, but substituted cream cheese icing.
1 cup Guinness (or other stout)
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter
3/4 cup unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa powder*
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
3/4 teaspoon salt
2 large eggs
2/3 cup sour cream
8 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
1 cup confectioners' sugar
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9-inch springform pan, place a round of parchment paper on the bottom and butter it, then flour the pan.
Place the stout and butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat and bring to a simmer. Whisk in cocoa powder until mixture is smooth.
Thoroughly combine flour, sugar, baking soda and salt in large bowl. In another bowl, beat together the eggs and sour cream until well-blended. Add stout-chocolate mixture to egg mixture and beat just to combine. Add flour mixture and beat briefly on slow speed.
Finish mixing by folding batter with a spatula until completely combined. Pour batter in the springform pan and bake cake until a toothpick inserted into center of cakes comes out clean, about 40 minutes. Place cake on a rack and cool for 10 minutes, then remove the sides of the pan and cool completely.
Beat together the cream cheese and sugar. Add cream and vanilla and mix. Spread icing on top of cake to echo the appearance of a glass of Guinness and its head of foam.
*Dutch-process cocoa is acid neutral. If you use something like Hershey's cocoa (which is acid) the cake may not rise properly. If you do use Hershey’s instead, add 1 teaspoon of baking soda to the flour mixture.
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