My Kind of Birthday Cake

A little fairy came by recently, questioning me about my taste in birthday cakes. Did I have a favorite, by chance? A secret admirer wanted to know and was interested in placing an order, but not until he got a sense of my cake crumb preferences and peeves.

"Nothing fancy or fussy," I said. "No candy do-dads, frosting roses, buttercream, pudding centers, jams, jellies, dacquoise, and most importantly, nothing too sweet."

Chocolate Guinness cake. (Kim O'Donnel)

Frantically, he made some notes, and then looked at me, his eyebrow knitted.

"Well, is there anything about a birthday cake that you DO like?" he asked. "You've shared your peeves but none of your preferences."

I closed my eyes for a minute, envisioning the perfect birthday cake. I like simple, homey cakes, sometimes in a bundt shape or in a single springform layer. Red velvet comes to mind. Coffee cake. Rum cake. Gingerbread.

"You know what, fairy," I said. "Maybe I should make my own birthday cake. I know you're trying to be helpful, but really, I think I'll be happier if...

"You control everything?"

"That's one way of looking at it," I said, sheepishly.

Thoroughly annoyed, he tsked tsked me and then poofed into the air. A weird dream indeed.
Whatever was going on in my make-believe world has a ring of truth to it: I'm insistent on simple, homey birthday cakes -- even when I make them for others -- and I'm a control freak who'd rather bake my own.

For the past few years, I've been partial to the Very Good Chocolate Cake from "The Gift of Southern Cooking," a lusciously moist layer cake cloaked in an intensely chocolate icing that will make your teeth chatter. But I must admit, icing a two-layer cake is a struggle for this arts-and-crafts-challenged gal, and even though the results are stellar, I'm usually ready for a nap in the hammock after all the cake construction.

For this birthday girl, the ideal cake is one layer, with one simple coat of frosting that frees me from coloring within the lines. And lo and behold, I recently found a new contender that is blowing all the other crumbs off the cake display.

The latest cake to win me over comes from Nigella Lawson's "Feast." It is a single-layered chocolate cake made, strangely enough, with a healthy portion of Guinness stout. Yes, there's beer in my cake batter, and it's positively weird and wonderful, with gingery-spicy notes that make beautiful music with the chocolate.

It is a damp cake and dark brown-black in color, similar to a gingerbread or a Caribbean black cake. Stranger still, the beer batter is made on top of the stove with a whisk rather than with an electric mixer, and then simply poured into a lined springform pan. The one-pot trick cuts down on prep time as well, taking just about 15 minutes to assemble ingredients and warm up batter.

In her effort to mimic a pint of Guinness, Lawson cleverly suggests a fluffy cream cheese icing, intended to resemble the head of the beer.
The results are neither too sweet nor too rich, the cake holding steady and moist, the icing just enough to finish the job and make everything pretty (but not polished).

If you don't mind a little beer in your cake and chocolate with your suds, this will be the best pint on a plate ya ever had.

P.S. Just found out that Food Network diva Giada De Laurentiis is also a birthday girl today. Anyone else we should be fete-ing? Chime in and join me for a piece of cake.

Chocolate Guinness Cake
From "Feast" by Nigella Lawson

1 cup Guinness stout (not the whole can)
1 stick unsalted butter (I substituted Earth Balance shortening seamlessly), sliced
¾ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
2 cups granulated sugar (superfine, if possible)
¾ cup sour cream (I substituted plain yogurt without a hitch)
2 eggs
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 ½ teaspoons baking soda

8 ounce cream cheese
1 cup confectioners' sugar
½ cup heavy cream

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9-inch springform pan and line bottom with parchment paper.

Pour Guinness into a large saucepan, add butter and heat until melted. Whisk in cocoa powder and sugar. In a small bowl, beat sour cream with eggs and vanilla and then pour into brown, buttery, beery mixture and finally whisk in flour and baking soda.

Pour cake batter into greased and line pan and bake for 45 minutes to an hour (Check at 45 minutes for doneness, poking a skewer in center.). Leave to cool completely in the pan on a cooling rack, as it is quite a damp cake.

When cake is cold, gently peel off parchment paper and transfer to a platter or cake stand.

Place cream cheese and confectioners' sugar in a mixing bowl, and whip with an electric beater, until smooth (You may also do this with a food processor.).

Add cream and beat again until you have a spreadable consistency.

Ice top of cake, starting at middle and fanning out, so that it resembles the frothy top of the famous pint.

Yields about 12 slices.

By Kim ODonnel |  August 22, 2007; 10:53 AM ET Chocolate , Desserts
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This sounds delightful and happy birthday! I am in charge of making a chocolate cake for a baby shower this weekend and thus I have a question about the Very Good Chocolate Cake (as Guinness cooked out or not probably won't work for my occasion) - Could I make the other cake in a single 9x13 inch pan? This shape is necessary for the decorating, but I'm not sure if/how the result might be impacted? Thanks!

Posted by: alexandriamom | August 22, 2007 11:36 AM

Happy birthday, Kim! It's my sister's birthday, too ... She's far away in California. I've been thinking of her every time I write the date today. Now I will think of you, too. Thanks for your blog - it's a ray of sunshine in my day. :)

Posted by: Central Mass | August 22, 2007 12:55 PM

Alexandriamom, Are you thinking a rectangular pan? I think it might be okay. Haven't done it but I'm feeling good about it, as it's a fairly low-maintenance batter. As you know, I've subsituted apple sauce and other things, so what the heck. Please keep me apprised!

Posted by: Kim O'Donnel | August 22, 2007 1:41 PM

Happy Birthday Kim! You are the best.

I hope you have a wonderful time in the Pacific Northwest. I wish you lots of fabulous food and a great time with good friends. Thanks so much for all you do.

Posted by: Silver Spring | August 22, 2007 3:08 PM

Happy Birthday, Kim. This cake sounds great. I'm going to have to have a bake-off with my usual Chocolate Stout Cake made at the Barrington Brewery in MA (recipe found on epicurious). I'll let you know how it goes.

Posted by: wtf | August 22, 2007 4:09 PM

Happy birthday to me, happy birthday to me....toady's my birthday! I took myself to Red Robin and chowed down on a yummy mushroom burger. I'm not much of a cake person, but the boiled potatoe I had for supper was pretty good.

Posted by: 43 today | August 22, 2007 8:27 PM

"1 cup Guinness stout (not the whole can)"
A can? Forget the can.
Beer tastes so much better from a bottle. You and your birthday cake deserve better.

Posted by: skye | August 22, 2007 9:01 PM

We could debate can vs bottle (there are a few good micros now putting out beer in cans, for which I am grateful for places where I can't bring glass), but Guiness in bottle vs can are two fairly different products. Much of it is mouthfeel, but there are other differences.

Anyhow, I'm betting that this cake would be excellent with a Russian Imperial Stout with it's heavily roasted, and alcolholic winey flavors. North Coast's Old Rasputin, and Brooklyn Brewing Co's Black Chocolate Stout are two good varieties. I've used them both in place of coffee in Tiramisu before, with great success.

I'll be trying this recipe the next time I make cake (once a year?).

Posted by: Arlington, VA S | August 23, 2007 9:52 AM

Happy belated birthday.

Posted by: Little Red | August 23, 2007 12:05 PM

Well well! Yesterday was my birthday too, yeah. I can't wait to try the Guinness cake. It's got to be better than yellow cake with coconut white icing in two quotidian layers. Best to Kim and Giada, my fellow August 22nders.

Posted by: Bucinka | August 23, 2007 8:41 PM

I made this cake for a birthday a few months ago (for someone who loves Guiness) and it was a huge hit! I love this cake, so glad that it was your birthday cake, Kim!

Posted by: Jasmine | August 24, 2007 5:08 PM

Happy berfday! I'm stealing this recipe for Mr. Sass, whose birthday was actually last week, but never mind that. He looooves guinness -- did you ever try the Ben and Jerry's Guinness ice cream? It. was. amazing.

Posted by: sass in arlington | August 24, 2007 8:45 PM

Happy belated! I have made this cake numerous times -- and for a birthday, no less! -- to rave reviews. Plus, it does look so pretty. Hope you had a great day.

Posted by: nicole | August 28, 2007 3:26 PM

This cake is the best! My husband's birthday is on Christmas Day, and I've gone through a raft of chocolate cake recipes--elaborate tortes before we had kids, bundt cakes,tall layer cakes, etc. Found this a couple of years ago and it is perfect--simple to make amidst the holiday hubbub, delicious, and fondly anticipated by all--even my young teenager.

Posted by: elizabeth | August 31, 2007 8:29 AM

Many thanks for continuing to share the 'What's Cooking,' etc. The recipe for Chocolate Guiness Cake sounds delicious and I will try it out on the family for the holidays! I forwarded it to a niece in Germany and another in Alaska!!!! Again, Many Thanks you for ALL your Online Features.

Posted by: | September 1, 2007 2:45 AM

Good site! I'll stay reading! Keep improving!

Posted by: George | November 10, 2007 9:45 AM

I know it might seem to defeat the purpose, but if I wanted to substitute something non-alcoholic for the beer, is there somethign you'd recommend that would still give a hearty flavor? I love the idea and it sounds great.

Posted by: Dry in Alexandria | December 18, 2007 7:09 PM

Dry, have you explored any of the nonalcoholic beers out there? I don't know off hand if there is a non-alc dark beer. In some ways, I think you'd be better off just making Nigella's chocolate gingerbread instead. Send me an e-mail: and we'll figure something out.

Posted by: Kim O'Donnel | December 19, 2007 6:36 AM

For a fancier alternative to presentation, you can cook individual Guinness cakes in pint glasses and use the frosting as the "head" on the pint. They look just like the real thing (the cake texture even gives the appearance of carbonation in the glass.)

Posted by: Keith | October 14, 2008 12:55 PM

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