Cakes and ale and ducks

Cakes and ale is an under-rated combination, despite it being a well-known expression in English*. Barley wine is best: I once had a slice of fruit cake with a bottle of the Traquair House Ale (seven per cent ABV) at the tearoom in the grounds of Traquair House itself, when I was travelling through the lowlands of Scotland with the woman She Who Must Be Obeyed likes to refer to as “your first ex-wife”, and very fine it was: the residual sweetness, and fruitiness of the strong ale, combined with its slight bitterness, matched well with the cake.

Ale IN cake is just as good an idea – I’ve been experimenting with a recipe for malt loaf from The Guardian that includes malt extract and strong dark ale, but I haven’t yet got the degree of solid stickiness I’m looking for in the final product. However, here’s a recipe for something I know works well, and is amazingly delicious – Guinness Cake.

The recipe originally appeared in a Guinness advertisement in the 1970s, when bottled Guinness in the UK was still bottle-conditioned, and it relies on the yeast in the bottle to “raise” the cake.

Bottle-conditioned Guinness disappeared in 1986, killed off, effectively, by central heating. Guinness in bottles had been designed to mature at a “room temperature” of 57F to 63F, but the arrival of central heating in pubs and homes in Britain (and Ireland) from the 1960s onwards meant average “room temperatures” became 10 degrees or so higher than that, upsetting the brewer’s calculations on how fast the yeast in the bottle would work to mature the beer, and leading to too many over-lively or actively “off” bottles of stout. (Before central heating. sometimes the opposite problem occurred – in the bitter winter of 1962/63, when thick snow covered Britain for weeks, and milk bottles left outside froze solid, pushing their little foil caps up an inch proud of the top of the bottle as the iced milk expanded, the cold meant bottled Guinness refused to mature, leaving pubs across the country pouring out completely flat glasses of stout.)

Since the death of bottle-conditioned Guinness, however, there are now, a number of new bottle-conditioned stouts available, such as the one from the Titanic brewery, that would make excellent substitutes for cake cooks. Guinness cake is a marvellous, rich, moist, heavy fruit cake with a fantastic “nose”, a bit like a cross between Christmas cake and bread pudding, not at all bitter, but pouring a quarter of a pint of stout over it once it has cooled, and the subsequent “maturation” period is absolutely essential …

Guinness cake (or Stout cake)

  • 275ml of bottle-conditioned stout, including yeast
  • 8 ounces butter (or margarine)
  • 8 ounces soft brown sugar
  • 10 ounces plain flour
  • 2 teaspoons mixed spice
  • 4 eggs, lightly beaten
  • 8 ounces raisins
  • 8 ounces sultanas
  • 4 ounces chopped walnuts
  • 4 ounces mixed peel

Cream the butter and sugar thoroughly, stir in the flour and mixed spice slowly and add the lightly beaten eggs a little at a time. Mix in the chopped nuts, peel and fruit and slowly stir in four tablespoonfuls of stout until the mixture is a soft dropping consistency (that is, it drops slowly off your wooden spoon).

Put the mixture into a greased cake tin and bake for one hour in a low oven, 170C/325F, gas mark 3, and then for an hour and a half in a very low oven,150C/300F, gas mark 2. The cake will not rise much, and it may need even longer to cook – check its readiness by inserting a knife, and when the knife comes out crumby rather than sticky the cake is done.

Remove the cake from the oven when it is cooked and allow it to cool. Once it is cool, remove it from the tin, turn it upside down onto a plate and pierce the bottom a number of times with a skewer. Then slowly pour the rest of the stout over the cake, allowing it to soak in. Wrap the cake in foil, or put it in an airtight container, and keep it in a cool cupboard for at least two weeks, preferably three or more. Then eat … together with a glass or so of the same stout …

* “Cakes and ale” is, of course, like a great many familiar English expressions, from William Shakespeare, specifically Twelfth Night. Sir Toby Belch is up late drinking and singing with pals at the house of his niece, the Countess Olivia, and when her steward, the prissy and Puritanical Malvolio, comes in to tell him to keep the noise down, please, it’s midnight, Sir Toby sneers at him:
“Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?”

Sir Toby is probably referring to buns rather than what we would call cakes today, and the ale that would have been drunk with them was still, in 1600 when Twelfth Night was written, unhopped. However, the idea of cakes and ale together is a lot older than Shakespeare. There is a passage in one of the collections put together as the Egyptian Book of the Dead, dating from around 1000 to 900BC, that goes:

“Homage to you o ye lords of food … Grant that I may come to the Great God daily, and grant that I may attain to the offerings, that is to say, to the cakes and ale, and oxen, and ducks, and bread, which are offered unto his ka

Ka, of course, refers here to a spirit, and not the dinky Ford two-door motor vehicle. I’m very fond of duck, but I’ve never eaten it with cake and ale. However, it sounds like an excellent line-up to accompany, say, Meantime’s excellent Goldings-crammed IPA … someone get me a mallard …

0 thoughts on “Cakes and ale and ducks

  1. One edition of Barclay Perkin’s Anchor magazine has a recipe for christmas cake made with their Old Ale. I can send it to you, if you’re interested. I can even send you a bottle of the beer, as I’ve had a version brewed for me (based on the 1936 recipe). That’s when the brewer finally gets around to bottling it.

  2. Hah! Good spot, Séan … Sorry about that,I’ll correct this at the earliest opportunityI’ve corrected that now – eight ounces butter, four ouncs chopped walnuts …

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