Chocolate Guinness cakes have been tumbling out of bundt pans this week. The cake borders on overkill, a riff on many chocolate tube pan cakes showcased this week in celebration of St. Patrick’s Day. Nowhere is the excess of this holiday more evident than in baked goods all shamrocked and sugared green. We’ve traveled quite the distance from Irish potato candy and clover cookies to weighty, dark chocolate cakes fueled with molasses and stout. Was there a turning point when we transitioned from simple, almost dowdy, Irish desserts to our current list of ‘Must Bakes’ for St. Patrick’s Day? I find myself turning to the doyenne of British desserts, Nigella Lawson.
Long before Nigella penned her 2004 holiday compendium Feast: Food that Celebrates Life, Guinness was more apt to belly up to a smoky bar in a pint glass than to hang around the kitchen in a 9” springform pan. Traditional Irish desserts, particularly puddings and cakes, were often chock-full of dried fruit and fortified (translation: doused liberally) with porter, or what is known today as stout. Early home bakers in Ireland did not have the luxury of a self-cleaning Viking oven. More often than not, baked goods were tucked into a three-legged pot with a tight fitting lid, then set upon coals or suspended over a coal burning fire. Cakes had to be good keepers, living out their days in an airtight cake tin, awaiting the guillotine of a serrated knife. The beverage served alongside these sweets was a cuppa strong tea.
Why did we turn from sultana-studded fruitcake doused in dark beer to Nigella’s sultry chocolate stout cake cloaked in cream cheese frosting? I suspect because we were hungry for it and restaurateurs, particularly pub owners, were more than happy to boost the check tab with expanded dessert offerings.
We started small, adding splashes of whiskey to bread puddings, spiking brownies with too much mint extract and white chocolate ganache. Cheesecakes and cream pies green with envy, boarded the St. Patrick’s dessert bus. Like any food and drink fueled holiday, we seem to forget that the origins of these holidays were religious. St. Patrick’s Day is no exception. What began as a celebration commemorating St. Patrick, one of Ireland’s patron saints, has strayed significantly from holy day to pub crawl day.
History reminds us that until the 1970s, pubs in Ireland were closed on St. Patrick’s Day. The day was considered a religious day, not a day of revelry. Times changed dramatically in the 1990s, when the Irish government, opting to promote tourism and boost the economy, began sponsoring festival events in conjunction with St. Patrick’s Day.
On our side of the pond, St. Patrick’s Day is a massive celebration of Irish and Irish American culture. You needn’t be Irish to participate, and for those lacking inspiration, a quick visit to Party City will provide all that you need, with more Leprechaun hats than you can shake a shillelagh at. Fortified with a pitcher of green beer, you’re ready to hop aboard suburban mass transit. Enroute to the city, drink in all that the tri-state area has to offer in means of inebriation and debauchery; conveniently it’s all around you.
For those preferring a celebration of the chocolate and stout variety, there are plenty of Guinness chocolate cake recipes circulating the web. Nigella’s ‘traditional’ St. Patrick’s Day dessert is available, and as evident by the images accompanying the recipe, both the cake and the baker are gorgeous. But most of us don’t resemble Nigella when we’re toiling in the kitchen. Some of us have smudges of molasses on our face and handprints of cocoa on our formerly white aprons. We pick up an icing spatula that has barely brushed against a bottle of Ameri-gel green food coloring, and we’re suddenly covered in indelible shamrock green. We don’t wear lipstick and our curls are wedged beneath bandanas. The fluorescent lighting overhead doesn’t bring out the warmth in our complexions and we are not attired in fabulous, casual wear, Nigella. Hoisting sheet trays of bundt pans filled with 48 oz. of chocolate batter is as grueling as a one-on-one with Shaun T.
So forgive me if on this holiday, I take a pass on the chocolate and the Guinness. Ditto the diminutive sugar shamrocks and the tri-color Irish flag swirls of buttercream. I prefer to pair my Guinness with a generous wedge of gingerbread and a hit of lemon, a little meringue. Cue the Chieftains.
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