St. Patrick's Day deserves Irish food, and Irish food deserves Irish beer.
Not to be poured into a glass next to your plate, although that is a good idea, too. I'm thinking more of what is becoming a slow-moving but notable trend: cooking with beer.
Beer is an ideal ingredient in food: It has more flavor than water, pairs well with both meat and vegetables and packs a lot of complexity in every drop. The only downside is that it tends to be bitter, but there are ways around that -- often involving the judicious use of just a bit of sugar -- if you want to use beer to bring out the fullest potential of your favorite dishes, savory and sweet.
Ireland, of course, is one of the great beer-brewing nations of the world. Cooking Irish food with Irish beer is -- well, it's magically delicious.
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When you think of Irish beer, you probably first think of Guinness; it may well be the single product most identified with the Emerald Isle. It has been around since 1759 (impressive, though Germany's Weihenstephan has been made since 1040), and its taste, color and even the way it feels in the mouth are instantly recognized around the world.
Even the head -- the foam that rises to the top when you pour it -- is unique. It has such a strong structure that, theoretically, you can place a bottle cap on the top and it won't sink into the glass. And if a bartender draws a shamrock into the head as he pours it, you should (again, theoretically) still be able to see it when you have finished your pint.
I have tried both of these experiments. They both worked.
There are other stouts, and even other stouts from Ireland, but if you are going to be cooking with it, you might as well go with Guinness. It's Guinness. It's iconic. It's special.
For my first St. Paddy's Day dish, I made a classic: Beef and Guinness Stew. This stew is perhaps the ultimate expression of Guinness; it brings it to its pinnacle. It is Guinness' finest moment.
As the beef slowly simmers in the beer, their flavors blend and meld. The beef takes on an unusual richness, while the Guinness loses its beery qualities. Very few other ingredients go into the pot -- just a couple of onions, a carrot or two, a clove of garlic, thyme and tomato paste.
The idea of using beer to make a stew has been around for a long time; it is the secret to the famous Belgian dish called carbonnade flamande. But that is a relatively complicated dish, or at least it has a wider variety of ingredients to play off the floral qualities of Belgian beer. With Beef and Guinness Stew, the Guinness does most of the work by itself to create the hearty flavor.
Any Irish stew, of course, should be served with boiled potatoes or the Irish version of mashed potatoes called champ. And to sop up the leftover liquid, why not use homemade bread -- especially bread that is made with Irish beer?
Lazy Irish Beer Bread is so ludicrously fast and easy it does not deserve to be called bread. Bread should take some effort, at least. If you've kneaded it, you know you've made bread. And even no-knead bread has to sit out for hours to allow it to rise.
Lazy Irish Beer Bread has none of that. You can make it, start to finish, in an hour, and that counts preheating your oven (if your oven is quick to preheat). And most enticing of all, it is made from just three ingredients: self-rising flour, sugar and Irish beer or any beer of your choosing. I chose Harp, because it is a lager with a smooth and fairly mild taste. I did not want a bread with too powerful a flavor.
The result was surprisingly good. I've made better breads in my life, but none that have been remotely as easy as this. The effort-to-flavor ratio on this one is off the charts.
Of course, I went back to Guinness for dessert. Guinness finds its way into a surprising number of desserts, including ice cream and cake.
Mr. Guinness' Cake originated in an advertisement for Guinness some years ago. According to Darina Allen, author of "Irish Traditional Cooking," the ad read, "Over the past couple of centuries, our beer has acquired a modest reputation, but our cake is still little known. This seems a pity, for one enthusiast has described it as like eating dreams."
And so it is, if you dream of eating fruitcake. I happen to like fruitcake, and this is better than any ordinary fruitcake. My colleagues agreed, and surely they don't all like fruitcake. The cake was reduced to crumbs almost immediately after I put it out to be sampled. And it had not even been allowed to rest as long as it was supposed to.
According to the recipe, the cake was supposed to sit untouched for a week before eating. Fruitcakes are often meant to age for a week, a month, or even a year to allow the best possible flavor to develop and for the alcohol to suffuse the entire cake. This one was gobbled up the morning after it was baked.
Keeping it a week longer would only make it taste more like Guinness.
If chocolate is more your style, Guinness can be paired with chocolate for a very rich-tasting cake. The cake gets its dark coloring from the stout and dark cocoa powder. If you don't have the dark cocoa, you can use the lighter version for a lighter-colored cake.
What's different about this cake is how the batter is made. Instead of creaming the butter and sugar together, the butter is melted with the Guinness and cocoa powder. The mixture is cooled before mixing with the other ingredients. By melting the butter, it now acts like oil in the cake and produces a soft crumb.
This cake comes together easily, so make it today to serve on St. Patrick's Day. The frosting is a classic chocolate buttercream using melted chocolate chips. If you like, add 4 to 6 teaspoons of Guinness to the frosting for a tasty twist.
Beef and Guinness Stew
2 pounds lean stewing beef
3 tablespoons oil, divided
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
Salt and pepper
2 large onions, coarsely chopped
1 large garlic clove, crushed (optional)
2 tablespoons tomato paste, dissolved in 4 tablespoons water
11/4 cups (10 ounces) Guinness
3/4 cup carrots, cut into chunks
Sprig of thyme
Serves six to eight.
Trim the meat of any fat or gristle, cut into 2-inch cubes and toss them in a bowl with 1 tablespoon oil. In a large bowl, season the flour with salt, pepper and a pinch or two of cayenne pepper. Toss the meat in this mixture.
Heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil in a wide skillet on high heat. Brown the meat on all sides. Add the onions, crushed garlic and tomato paste to the pan, cover, and cook gently for about 5 minutes.
Transfer the contents of the pan to a Dutch oven, and pour some of the Guinness into the skillet. Bring to a boil and stir to dissolve the caramelized meat juices in the pan. Pour onto the meat with the remaining Guinness; add the carrots and thyme. Stir, taste and add a little more salt if necessary.
Cover and simmer very gently until the meat is tender, 2 to 3 hours. The stew may be cooked on top of the stove or in the oven at 300 degrees. Remove thyme, taste and correct the seasoning.
Sprinkle with chopped parsley and serve with boiled or mashed potatoes.
Lazy Irish Beer Bread
2 1/2 cups self-rising flour (see note)
12 ounces beer, room temperature (we used Harp)
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
Serves eight to 10.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Coat inside of a loaf pan with butter or nonstick spray.
Hand mix all ingredients only until well-mixed. Do not use a beater or mixer.
Pour batter into loaf pan. Bake 45 minutes.
Note: This recipe will only work with self-rising flour. Do not use all-purpose flour.
Mr. Guinness' Cake
1 cup (2 sticks) butter
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons soft brown sugar
4 eggs, lightly beaten
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 level teaspoons pumpkin pie spice
1 2/3 cups raisins
1 2/3 cups golden raisins
2/3 cup mixed candied fruit (see note)
3/4 to 1 cup chopped walnuts
8 to 12 tablespoons Guinness, divided
Serves eight to 12.
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees and grease a 7-inch (or 8-inch or 9-inch) round cake pan. Cut out a round piece of parchment paper, place in the bottom and grease it, too.
Cream the butter and sugar together until light. Gradually beat in the eggs. Sift the flour and pumpkin pie spice together, then fold into the mixture. Add the raisins, golden raisins, candied fruit and walnuts. Stir 4 tablespoons of the Guinness into the mixture and mix to a soft dropping consistency.
Pour batter into the prepared pan and bake for 1 hour. Reduce heat to 300 degrees and continue baking 1 1/2 hours more. Let cool.
Remove from cake pan. Turn cake over and prick base of cake all over with a skewer. Spoon the remaining 4 to 8 tablespoons of Guinness over the base of the cake. Wrap in waxed paper and keep cake for 1 week before eating.
Note: Candied fruit is what goes inside fruitcakes. It can be hard to find when it is not the holiday season. You can substitute dried cherries or dried blueberries, dried pineapple (which is what we used), chopped dates, dried cranberries or more raisins.
Guinness Stout Chocolate Cake
FOR THE CAKE:
1/4 cup cocoa powder
1/2 pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter
1 cup Guinness stout
2/3 cup dark cocoa powder
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups sugar
11/4 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 cup sour cream
FOR THE CHOCOLATE FROSTING:
1 cup (2 sticks) butter, softened
3 cups confectioners' sugar
2 tablespoons milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup semisweet chocolate chips, melted
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease two 8-inch springform pans and dust the pans with the1/4 cup of cocoa powder.
In a heavy saucepan, heat the butter, Guinness and dark cocoa powder until the butter is melted and the mixture is smooth. Remove the pan from the heat and let the mixture cool.
In a large bowl, sift together the salt, flour, sugar and baking soda.
Add the Guinness-cocoa mixture and beat for 1 minute on medium speed.
Add the eggs and sour cream and beat for 2 minutes on medium speed.
Evenly divide the batter into the prepared pans and bake for 25 to 30 minutes or until an inserted knife comes out clean.
While the cake is baking, make the frosting. In a medium bowl, beat together the butter, confectioners' sugar, milk and vanilla. Stir in the melted chocolate chips and mix until smooth.
Remove the cakes from the oven and cool 10 minutes, remove the pans' sides and cool the cake completely before frosting. Use a serrated knife to even the tops, if necessary, and frost.