Thursday, March 22, 2012

Guinness Gingerbread Cake

I am serious about celebrating birthdays, not only my own but those of my loved ones, and I truly believe that a birthday should involve great cake. When a friend’s birthday is on the horizon, I usually pounce on the opportunity to try out a new recipe on my long list of Things To Bake. I can’t usually justify whipping up a multi-layered cake for myself, but I somehow made an exception to that rule this week, for I found myself making this Guinness Gingerbread Cake not once but three times in the past week. It was that good. 

Sylvia had a big birthday last weekend, and I volunteered my cake-baking services for her celebration. Most of my friends request some form of chocolate creation, but Sylvia’s favorite cake is a spicy gingerbread one. Some of the best gingerbread recipes I’ve made involve dark beer to intensify the flavor, and it’s convenient that her birthday falls right near St. Patrick’s Day since I always have plenty of Guinness on hand. 

I once made Claudia Fleming’s Oatmeal Stout Gingerbread Cake for Sylvia’s birthday several years ago, a dessert our friends had all enjoyed at Gramercy Tavern once upon a time. It was a rich Bundt cake, dark with molasses and heavily spiced with two kinds of ginger. But I wanted to do something different this year, having recently came across this Gingerbread Beer Cake in my new book, Sky High Cakes, and I couldn’t wait to try it out.

This a much fluffier cake than the Gramercy recipe, definitely belonging in the “sky high” book as the cake layers are practically lighter-than-air. Though the texture may be on the delicate side, the flavor is anything but shy. The batter is flavored by a veritable riot of spices: the requisite ground ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves that you would expect, but cardamom and dry mustard have been invited to this party. (Yes, that’s right, dry mustard! Don’t worry that it will interfere flavor-wise, for it simply adds a complex note and a little extra heat.)

The original recipe called for a chocolate icing, but the birthday girl requested cream cheese frosting, which always seems like a good idea to me. Since my cake-decorating skills leave a bit to be desired, I always go for simplicity when finishing a cake. I tried to ice the top as smoothly as possible, and then I used my icing spatula to create vertical lines around the sides of the cake. I like the way it looks.

At the beginning of this post, I mentioned I’d made this cake three times. Why three times when it was only for one birthday? Ummm, let’s see.... Since it was an important birthday as well as being a new cake for me, I needed to make sure that the recipe worked as written, so I baked a trial layer. After discovering that it was a total winner, definitely worthy of honoring a dear friend's milestone birthday, I proceeded to make a second large multi-layered cake for Sylvia’s celebration. However, in my excitement of baking the actual birthday cake, I completely neglected to document a single step of the process, and there wasn’t a crumb left at the end of the birthday party.

That brings me to the third Guinness Gingerbread Cake of the week, which is the one you see photographed here. You would think that I’d be gingerbread-ed out by now after my baking adventures this past week. But truthfully, I’m thinking of the one bottle of Guinness left in my fridge, trying to justify baking even just one more layer of this gorgeous cake. Whose birthday is next?

One Year Ago: Asparagus Soup
Three Years Ago: Radish Canapes with Avocado

Adapted slightly from Sky-High Cakes by Alisa Huntsman and Peter Wynne
Using cake flour creates a cake with a tender soft crumb. The author suggests using a dark porter in the batter, but I have to go with my beloved Guinness for this. And instead of a chocolate icing, I’ve substituted my favorite vanilla cream cheese frosting instead. It is less sweet than most cream cheese icings, and I think it allows the gingerbread spices to truly shine. If you don’t have three 8-inch pans, you can bake this in two 9-inch pans instead, though you will have to increase the baking time by a few minutes.

For the cake:
2-¼ cups cake flour
2 cups sugar
4 teaspoons unsweetened cocoa powder
4-½ teaspoons ground ginger
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
1-½ teaspoons ground nutmeg
1-½ teaspoons powdered dry mustard
 ¾ teaspoon ground cloves
½ teaspoon ground cardamom
2-¼ teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
¾ cup dark beer (I prefer Guinness stout)
½ cup unsulphured molasses
6 tablespoons buttermilk or plain yogurt
1-½ teaspoons vanilla extract
1-½ sticks (6 ounces) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
3 large eggs

For the frosting:
2 sticks (8 ounces) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
12 ounces (1-½ 8-ounce packages) cream cheese, softened to room temperature
3 cups powdered sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla

Bake the cake:
Preheat the oven to 350°. Grease the bottom and sides of three 8-inch pans with butter. Line the bottom of each pan with a round of parchment paper cut to fit, and butter the paper as well.

Combine the flour, sugar, cocoa, ginger, all the spices, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a large mixing bowl. Use an electric mixer on very low speed to blend the ingredients, about 30 seconds.

In a medium bowl, use a whisk to blend the beer, molasses, buttermilk (or yogurt) and vanilla together. Add two-thirds of this beer mixture along with the softened butter to the spiced flour mixture. Beat with the mixer on low speed till the ingredients are blended, then raise the speed to medium and beat well for 3 minutes until the mixture is light and aerated.

Add the eggs to the remaining beer mixture and whisk well to combine. Add this liquid to the cake batter in 2 or 3 additions, scraping down the bowl with each addition and beating well on medium speed. Divide the batter evenly between the three pans.

Bake the cake layers for 25 to 30 minutes until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean. Allow the layers to cool in their pans for 10 minutes, then turn out onto a cooling rack. Remove the parchment paper rounds and let cool completely before frosting, at least 1 hour.

Make the frosting:
Combine the softened butter and cream cheese in a large mixing bowl. Use an electric mixer to beat till well combined. Sift 1 cup of powdered sugar at a time into the bowl, beating on low speed till incorporated, scraping down the bowl after each addition. Add the vanilla and beat till light and fluffy.

Finish the cake:
If the cake layers have domed while baking, use a serrated knife to level them off and create an even surface. Add a dab of frosting to the bottom of your serving plate to anchor the bottom cake layer to the plate. Top with 2/3 cup frosting, spreading evenly to the edge of the cake. Repeat with second layer, placing flat side up. Add the final layer and frost the top and sides of the cake with the remaining frosting. Makes one triple layer 8-inch cake, serving 12 to 16.

Quick tip: I like to do a “crumb coat” to seal in moisture as well as preventing the cake crumbs from getting in the frosting and marring the finish of the final cake. (Think of it like priming a wall before painting: the crumb-coat will create a smooth surface on which you can then finish decorating your cake.) Spread a very thin layer of frosting over the top and sides of your cake, and don’t worry if crumbs are visible here. Place the cake in the fridge for at least 30 minutes or until the frosting has set. Then proceed to add a thicker layer of frosting and decorate as desired.

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