Since I left home for school in Glasgow, my grandmother has baked Guinness cake with far more frequency, tempting me back to London for visits. Perfected through the decades, her recipe based on the pitch-black Irish stout guarantees the most comforting, tender cake you will ever try.
Thick and sweet yet uniquely balanced, Guinness cake is the perfect alternative dessert for your festive feasts. A chocolate round is layered with a thick cream cheese frosting to create an effortlessly wintery scene. This comes together with optional sugar decorations or simple piping work atop the snowy field.
This is a recipe my family has been making for decades and that others have loved for many more. Guinness stout, brewed in Dublin since 1759, is a divisive drink that haunts draft lines in bars and supermarket shelves around the globe. The taste, simply put, is an acquired one. If you like a malty soup-like farmers’ brew with enough substance to substitute for a meal, this stout is for you! But Guinness lovers and haters alike will fall for this decadent, moreish treat for the holidays.
My grandmother, Sue, and I built a tradition of baking a Guinness cake for every major holiday. As Sue’s sous-chef and biggest fan, I helped stir the Guinness and butter mixture on the stove or made the frosting. I have such warm Christmas Eve memories with my extended family: watching TV, moving furniture to play games, and then my grandmother, my aunts, and I making dinner together in their steamy kitchen.
Now, having settled in Scotland, so far from my family, I’ve found in the idea of “homecoming” a new meaning, especially in this particular holiday season. For the past few years, with the pandemic, gathering everyone to celebrate has been neither sensible nor possible for us. Instead, I have spent the past two Christmases with my chosen family: my best friends.
I have found that home is wherever you feel safe. I feel at home in my grandmother’s kitchen. I feel at home in my great-grandmother’s chair by the bay window, where we sit and do crosswords together. I feel at home in my bedroom in Glasgow with my cat at my feet. And more recently, I feel at home with my partner. This year, I will spend Christmas Day with my found family before boarding an afternoon train to London.
At my grandmother’s house, we’ll eat Christmas dinner in a traditional Eastern European style, inspired by my Hungarian great-aunt. We will pull Christmas crackers before dinner to remember my great-granddad, as they were his favorite part of the meal. At the table will reside a vegan main course because my sister and I don’t eat meat. For dessert, there will be Christmas cake, trifle (my great-grandma’s favorite and a staple for British celebrations), and a fabulous Guinness cake.
Food should be shared and feel like home. When I told my partner about this story, we realized that Guinness cake was both of our favorite desserts. I found it more than fitting to rope them into recipe-testing this cake with me, and they kindly agreed to model our result. Baking with people you love feels like building something together. It helps when they agree that your Guinness cake is, in fact, the best they’ve ever tried!
Sue’s Guinness Cake
Time: 45 minutes for preparation + 45 minutes for baking
1 cup + 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 cup Guinness (or other stout)
2 cups white sugar
¾ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
2 large eggs
⅔ cup sour cream
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
2 cups plain flour
2 ½ teaspoons baking or bicarbonate of soda
For the frosting:
10 ½ ounces cream cheese
1 ¾ cup icing (confectioners’) sugar
2 ½ teaspoons cornstarch
¾ cup heavy or whipping cream
Sugar paste/ fondant festive figures
Holly leaf sprinkles
Preheat the oven to 180°C/ 350°F and coat a 8.5” loose-bottomed tin with butter, margarine, or oil. Line the bottom and sides with parchment paper. We recommend one large circular piece, cut approximately 12” in diameter, with 3” darts cut straight down along the outside, allowing you to origami a parchment tin liner.
Into a large saucepan, over a low heat, stir together the Guinness and a spoonful of butter at a time, allowing each tablespoonful to melt before adding the next. When the butter and stout are combined, whisk in the cocoa powder and sugar.
In a small bowl, beat together the sour cream, eggs, and vanilla. You want to get enough air into the mixture for the final product to be dense yet tender.
Pour this mixture into the saucepan and turn off the heat to avoid a scrambled egg cake. Lastly, whisk in the flour and baking soda until the mixture is thick and glossy.
Stout is an alcoholic beverage, making for a gorgeously tangy cake base; the bake temperature burns off almost all of the alcohol, so it is safe for the little ones. If, however, you do not partake in drinking, you can substitute a non-alcoholic stout.
Pour the batter into your pre-lined tin and bake for 45 minutes to an hour. When a toothpick comes out clean from the center of the cake, it is ready. Let it cool completely in the tin on a cooling rack. It should be damp, so cooling in its tin firms the shape.
While you wait for the cake to cool, make the frosting. Beat the cream cheese until smooth, then sift in powdered sugar and cornstarch. Mix well. In a separate bowl, whip the cream until stiff enough to hold peaks, and add it to the cream cheese a spoonful at the time, folding it until all the ingredients are combined.
Deck the halls: Add the creamy frosting to the top of the cake, piling it on in soft swoops to resemble the foamy head on a pint of Guinness. For this festive edition, I recommend sugar decorations, or non-edible adornments, but I think the cake stands alone.
Chloe Gardner is a writing intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and a graduate art historian writing about their family history, European cultures, and love of baked goods. A Londoner born in Seattle, Chloe now lives in Glasgow, Scotland, a long way from home.