IT’S ALMOST ST. PATRICK’S DAY, SO IT IS TIME FOR ME, AGAIN, TO OFFER YOU THIS GUINNESS STOUT CHOCOLATE LAYER CAKE THAT PULLS OUT ALL THE STOPS.
IN CASE YOU CELEBRATE THIS HOLIDAY BY COOKING FOR OTHERS AND HAVE BEEN LOOKING FOR AN IRISH-ISH DESSERT THAT IS A KNOCK-YOUR-SOCKS-OFF WOW, THIS MAY WELL BE IT. IT IS (SHE SAID MODESTLY) ONE OF THE THREE BEST CHOCOLATE DESSERTS I EVER CAME UP WITH, IN A LIFETIME OF DEVELOPING CHOCOLATE DESSERTS.
BUT THE STORY BEHIND THE CAKE — WHICH CONCERNS MY ONE-OF-A-KIND FATHER, WHO, WITH NO FACTUAL BASIS WHATSOEVER, BELIEVED THAT THE IRISH WERE ONE OF THE LOST TRIBES OF ISRAEL — MAY BE EVEN BETTER.
(Jump directly to recipe or read the full story, followed by recipe, below).
The actress Fionnula Flanagan was telling us about a dinner party she had hosted. At which my father had been present, four days before his unexpected death.
“Well, you know how he was,” she said. “I served a chocolate cake, and he loved it. ‘Well, then, Maurice,’ I said to him, ‘Why don’t you just take the rest of it with you, then?’ ‘Oh, Fionnula, no! I couldn’t!’ he said. ‘Really? The whole thing?’ ‘Of course the whole thing,’ I said. You’d think I’d given him diamonds. ”
My husband and I exchanged looks. Across the surreality, at least one minor mystery was solved: that empty wooden cake box, the name of its high-end bakery painted in gold-leaf atop it — – what, we had wondered, was it doing sitting near the front door of my father’s Los Angeles apartment? Where had it come from?
Larger mysteries remained, as they always do with an unexpected death. We tried to unravel them, though we’d not yet fully let in the basics: my 76-year-old father’s heart had abruptly stopped beating. His sudden death had upended normality. Ned and I flying in from the middle of the country, arranging his memorial, clearing out his apartment. The week we did all that we somehow ended up (I have no memory of how), as house-guests of kind Fionnula, whom we’d never met before this turn of events.
Besides being my much-loved father, Maurice Zolotow was a show- business biographer. We recognized in Fionulla’s description of him precisely the Maurice we knew: the life of the party as always, at what turned out to be the last party of his life. So large were his enthusiasms, so deep his engagement, so numberless both his own stories and his interest in other people’s stories, so bracing his laugh, so eccentric his theories (at least some of them), that he gave off a kind of crackle. His exuberance was, perhaps, just this side of crazy, but whether you were his friend, colleague, subject, or daughter, you could not help but be charmed and intoxicated.
I could, and someday probably will, write a full-length memoir about Maurice (who, among other things, was Marilyn Monroe’s first biographer). But for the purposes of this story and recipe (my Guinness Stout Chocolate Layer Cake), you need only know the following about my father.
1. That he adored the Irish, especially Irish writers, especially James Joyce.
2. That, on no factual basis whatsoever, he considered the Irish one of the lost tribes of Israel.
3. That he loved eating, and, until it got the better of him and he finally quit, drinking.
4. That after he quit drinking, he developed a ferocious sweet-tooth, and grew voraciously fond of chocolate.
And, for the purposes of this story, you need only know the following about me.
1. That I write in 6 different genres, one of them being culinary, and that I sometimes invent or develop recipes.
2. That from the early 80’s through the late 90’s, I co-owned and ran a country inn, Dairy Hollow House, which for six years included a restaurant, in an Ozark mountain resort community in Eureka Springs, Arkansas.
Overlay these two sets of facts, and you can well imagine that my father loved coming to visit us in Arkansas, staying at the inn and eating at its restaurant.
His favorite dessert was a densely chocolate-y voluptuous bread pudding, served dolloped with softly whipped, barely sweetened cream and a squiggle of raspberry sauce. The night I first brought it out to him from the kitchen, he removed his glasses, so he could examine it closely. Then he dove his spoon into it and sailed it into his mouth. His eyes closed in bliss as he rolled its velvety custard on his tongue. He swallowed. He opened his eyes, said, “Wow,” and took a second bite. After that, glasses still off, he gazed up at me from the banquette, his pale blue eyes large. “Cres,” he said sincerely, “On a scale of one to ten, I give this five thousand.”
When Ned and I got back from Los Angeles after my father’s memorial, we returned to our then-lives as innkeeper/restaurateurs. I renamed the dessert he had loved “Chocolate Bread Pudding Maurice.” The abstract squiggle of raspberry became an “MZ”, piped on quickly, valentine red on the white plate, the scoop of bread pudding, whipped cream, a few fresh berries, a sprig of mint, across from the “MZ.” As the waiters would peel in and out of the kitchen, they’d call their dessert orders. “I need a Maurice!” “Three Maurices!” Sometimes hearing his name in this new-old context made me cry, sometimes smile.
During this same period, I listened to 28 cassette tapes of various AA talks my father had given. He spoke about how drinking was associated, in his early years, with the mythology of writing; about Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, and inevitably, Joyce. “On my first trip to Ireland, I couldn’t wait to have a Guinness. That was what James Joyce drank,” he said in one of the tapes.
The night he arrived in Dublin, he said, he’d left his hotel, gone to the nearest pub, and eagerly ordered one. “It was bitter,” he said on the tape, his voice crackling with life and enthusiasim, though he himself had vanished from this world. “And warm. At room temperature. I said to the bartender, ‘It’s bitter!’ and he said, ‘Sure, and it’s supposed to be.’ ”
Maurice spoke about how he thought at first he’d been too good for AA. “At one meeting I mentioned James Joyce. Someone came up to me after the meeting and said, ‘Yeah, Jimmy Joyce, I know him, lives in the Valley, works a good program!’ Can you imagine? I was such a terrible snob… yet though this same program I thought I was so superior to, I met someone who introduced me to Fionulla Flanagan, the actress. Who played Nellie Bly in Joyce’s Women! So that shows you what I knew.”
Time flew by, as in the old black-and- white movie convention of calendar pages blowing away. My father died (20 years sober) in 1991. In 1998, we closed the inn and restaurant. In 2000, Ned, my husband, also died unexpectedly.
I continued to live and love, cook and eat, with an an ever-growing sense of appreciating the moment you had and the people you were with. I do so to this day.
In 2009, working on an article about St. Patrick’s Day and wanting to think outside the corned-beef- and-cabbage, green-food coloring box, thinking also of Maurice and his love of both the Irish and chocolate, I began contemplating a chocolate cake, in which the bitterness that is part of chocolate’s unique seduction, was heightened by the use of Guinness in the batter. After several tries, and the addition of currants (a fruit much loved and used in Irish baking), I came up with this one, easily one of the best chocolate desserts, dense yet delicate, moist, melting, I have ever developed or made, and over which everyone I’ve ever served it to has swooned.
Oh, how I wish I could serve it to Maurice! (For him, I would have boiled the Guinness first, to evaporate off the alcohol.) But I can do so only in my dreams. Though I know, through the bread pudding and that empty wooden cake-box, how much he would have appreciated it. And I like thinking about that, for imagination’s table is always set and anyone can sit down and partake. This — story, and context, and those who have gone before us and are no more except in memory, and those we do not know yet — this part of the depth I mean when I talk about what I call “deep feast.”
“Fionulla,” I told her back in 1991, “We found the box from that cake you sent him home with. There wasn’t a crumb left.”
Guinness Stout Chocolate Layer Cake
1/3 cup Guinness Stout (measured after foam has subsided)
1/3 cup dark brown sugar
3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder, non-dutched
1 teaspoon vanilla
2/3 cup Guinness Stout (measured after foam has subsided)
2/3 cup dried currants
1/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons, unsweetened cocoa powder, non-dutched
2 ounces semisweet chocolate, cut into small pieces
¾ cup buttermilk
1 ¾ cups plus 2 tablespoons sugar
2 cups plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose unbleached white flour
2/3 cup butter, softened
1 ½ teaspoons vanilla
1 ½ teaspoons baking soda
1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
½ cup currant jelly, warmed
1 ½ cups heavy cream
6 ounces bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
4 ½ tablespoons powdered sugar
4 ½ tablespoons cocoa
1 ½ teaspoons vanilla
1 cup chopped walnuts, toasted
1. To prepare Drizzling Syrup, combine all syrup ingredients in a small, heavy saucepan, whisking until smooth. Heat over medium heat, until sugar dissolves and syrup is smooth. Set aside.
2. To prepare cake, pour stout over currants; cover and soak until plump.
3. Drain currants, reserving stout. Add stout to a small saucepan. Whisk in 1/3 cup cocoa and bring to a simmer. Remove from heat; add semisweet chocolate, stirring until chocolate melts. Cool slightly. Stir in buttermilk.
4. Preheat oven to 350F.
5. Combine 2 tablespoons cocoa, 2 tablespoons sugar and 2 tablespoons flour. Coat two 8- or 9-inch square or round cake pans with cooking spray; dust with cocoa mixture.
6. Beat butter with a mixer at medium speed until smooth. Gradually beat in 1 3/4 cups sugar until well blended. Beat in eggs one at a time. Beat in vanilla.
7. Combine 2 cups flour with baking soda, baking powder and salt. Add flour mixture to butter mixture alternately with chocolate mixture, stirring until blended. Do not overbeat. (Batter may look curdled.) Stir in soaked currants.
8. Divide batter between pans. Bake 25 to 30 minutes, until a wooden pick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool in pans on a wire rack 10 minutes; invert cakes onto racks.
9. Poke tops of cake layers with a skewer or toothpick. Spoon Drizzling Syrup over tops. Place one layer on a platter. Spread warmed jelly over the cake layer on the platter. Chill 30 minutes.
10. To make the icing, bring cream to a boil. Place chocolate in a heatproof bowl, pour boiling cream over it, and whisk until chocolate melts and is thoroughly combined. Cover tightly and chill. Chill beaters from a hand-held mixture at the same time.
11. Up to 3 hours before serving the cake, whip chocolate mixture with a hand-held mixer. When soft peaks form, sift in confectioners’ sugar and cocoa and add vanilla and salt. Continue whipping until combined.
12. Spread about a quarter of the Bittersweet Icing over the jelly-covered layer. Place second cake layer on top.
13. Ice top and sides of the cake with the remaining icing. Press nuts into sides of cake.
Crescent’s Guinness Stout Chocolate Layer Cake has been featured in Relish Magazine as well as Rouse’s Everyday. In 2018, she performed this story for the pilot broadcast of Mouthful, a Moth-type radio show focused on food-centric stories told before a live audience. The members of whom sometimes get to taste items from the stories. As was the case this time. Below, after the show: host Jackie Gordon and Crescent hold the cake, labeled (for this occasion) “What’s Your Food Story?” Photograph, by Mark Graff.
And below that: a picture of Maurice interviewing director Billy Wilder. Photographer unknown.
The photograph above, at the top of this article, is by Mark Boughton.