Porter cake is a favourite St Patrick's Day treat in Ireland and Irish communities abroad. The dark beer that is the cake's main ingredient was first brewed in eighteenth-century London, and got its name because of its popularity with porters working on the city streets and Thames river-boats. Its connection with Ireland was established in 1776, when it was first brewed there, and cemented two years later, when Arthur Guinness (1725 – 1803) produced the first Guinness dry stout from his brewery at St James's Gate, Dublin. Other breweries, such as Beamish and Crawford's of Cork, the oldest established brewery in Ireland, would follow suit.
Irish stout, with its black colour and distinctive creamy head, is popular all over the world. It even claimed a place in Ireland's rich literary and cultural heritage when, as part of his 1939 novel At Swim-Two-Birds, the Irish writer Flann O'Brien published a poem called 'The Working Man's Friend', in celebration of porter's supposed restorative qualities:
When things go wrong and will not come right,
Though you do the best you can,
When life looks black as the hour of night -
A pint of plain is your only man.
This recipe offers a way to enjoy the rich flavour of porter without subsequently enduring the effects of heavy drinking. The cake can be eaten fresh from the oven, but, for best results, bake it about a week before St Patrick's Day, and store it in an airtight tin. Regarding the type of porter to be used, my Cork roots lead me to recommend Murphy's Irish Stout, brewed at Lady's Well in the city since 1856; I shall, of course, leave the final decision to the cook's conscience. The ingredients are as follows:
5 ounces / 1¼ sticks of margarine
5 ounces / ¾ cup of brown sugar
8 fluid ounces / 1 cup porter (Irish stout)
1 lb / 2½ cups sultanas
3 ounces / ¾ cup of candied peel
14 ounces / 2¾ cups plain flour
½ teaspoon bread soda or bicarbonate of soda
1 teaspoon mixed spice
Preheat the oven to 180ºC, or 160ºC for a fan oven, 350ËF or Gas Mark 4, and grease and line a 9-inch cake tin. Put the margarine, brown sugar and porter into a saucepan, and melt them together over a moderate heat, stirring the mixture until the sugar has dissolved. Bring the mixture to the boil, add the sultanas and mixed peel, and simmer for 5 minutes. Leave it to cool.
Sieve the flour, bread soda and cinnamon into a bowl. Break the eggs into a small bowl, checking each time that no eggshell fragments have found their way into the mixture. Beat the two eggs together with an egg whisk or fork, until they are completely combined.
Make a well in the flour mixture, and then add the beaten-egg mixture and the saucepan mixture to this. Mix everything together quickly, and thoroughly. When the mixture drops off the end of the mixing spoon as it is lifted, it is ready to be turned into the prepared cake tin.
Bake the cake for 1½ - 2 hours. When you take out the tin, place it on a wire rack and run a sharp knife or skewer into the top of the cake. If it comes out with no traces of mixture, the cake is cooked and can be left to cool. Enjoy, and, wherever you are, have a happy St Patrick's Day!