Let's begin by thanking Nigella Lawson for this excellent, overdue phrase, shall we? I mean, we quantify so very many things: height, time, temps, votes, mph, rpm, hits, likes, eyeballs. It's more than high time we size up "the basic unit of celebration". Lawson is also to credit/blame for the estimable chocolate cake, to follow. But, more on that shortly.
I am so smitten with this notion of celebration, meted and measured. Of calibrating celebration, isolating its essential atoms, of identifying celebration's most granular elements. The bits and bytes of joy, I guess.
We tend, by which of course I mean I tend, to seek Victories, I think. To nail Big Wins. To seek Solutions. To solve Big Problems. To ACHIEVE GREATNESS!! Indeed, experts advise that if we're to Accomplish Big Things, we're best served to leave small banal tasks off of our to do lists, and list instead Important Goals. That when our list reads "shower, eat, move", it's hard to remember to Save the World. I get this. I agree with this even, mostly, sometimes. This also gets my goat.
Because this doesn't accurately capture, I think, the revolutionary value in tinned beans, at the ready.
Our beans are stored in what is, in the loosest possible sense, our "pantry". In fact, it's a closet two rooms from the kitchen, into which I jammed stuff in the early weeks of unpacking. By "jammed", I mean crammed and rammed. And by "stuff", I mean all the things: dried Chinese mushrooms, random silverware, candles, frisbees, too-small shoes, light bulbs, bundt pans, springforms (sides only; bottoms deeply MIA), a big jar of dried milk, those beans. We don't drink dried milk. I don't know why we own dried milk. I especially don't know why we moved dried milk. But move it we did, and unpack it we did, and walk by it we did. For five months. Five.
It was ugly, and messy, and inefficient, and just barely functional, and THANKHEAVENS, had doors that closed. And, it got us through.
And although every time I walked by—it sits by our main door, so: two dozen avert-your-eyes times, daily—it slayed me a little to know I was, once again, standing firm in square-shouldered denial.
But just a little. The littlest little. Because, geez. Pantry, people. Hardly world peace. Hardly a priority. Hardly worth the time it would take.
Then last week, at long long last, I set it to rights.
I emptied the whole thing onto every surface: counters, floors, couches, chairs. Children, had they been home. I also emptied the cupboard adjacent, because one thing leads to another, or no good deed goes unpunished. Can't quite keep straight which. I started in the morning. I worked all afternoon. I planned to be done before the bus came.
The table was still six layers deep by dinner.
We ordered pizza.
No one complained.
(Actually, this sequence pretty much captures my 2016 to date. Only sometimes, we substitute toast.)
Two days later, the table was (mostly) cleared, the stuff (largely) re-stuffed, but in more sensible, strategic ways. And today, I can find not only the chickpeas but also the soy sauce, tuna, and tomato paste. The lightbulbs have a more permanent home. And the dried milk? Oy. Pretty sure it's still in there, lurking in some deep dark corner. Can't win 'em all.
There are, however, no more shoes in the roasting pan. By such milestones, I measure my days.
But here's the rub: properly, a pantry put to rights is, at most, a mile-pebble. A millimeter-pebble, more likely. Certainly not a milestone, not in all caps, not in common parlance, anyway. And I get this. Agree with this, even. Mostly. Sometimes. But not always.
Because these minuscule feats, in these mundane arenas, have a weird, exaggerated impact on our days. My days, anyway. Disproportionate joy, in spades.
Because, Proper Noun Goals notwithstanding, boy, do beans on tap make my days better. When you can't find the beans, and dinner's delayed, and math untended, and tempers frayed, and harsh words traded, and tempers dinged, the tone tilts. Imperceptibly. Indisputably. Invariably in all the wrong ways. And you can and do bend like bamboo, and don your flexible thinking cap, and if you're lucky, laugh it off, and if you're not, pivot and adapt, and grasp at grace, or at least at forbearance, or at the very least, at the phone, for pizza, because: no beans.
And these hiccups and hurdles, they have their own merits, goading us toward grit, toward resilience. To get better at adapting instead of clinging, at rolling with instead of digging in. And we did! And we do!! And even as a non-change agent—as one who faaaaaaar prefers constants to variables, stasis to movement, Sargent to Hirst—even I appreciate this about change. All the disorder and disruption is, I genuinely believe, a great gift to our brains. Keeps them nimble. Sharp. Agile. When everything's just so, with a place for everything and everything placed, we relax, and soften, and get a little flabby in the supposed-to-be-bold-and-brawny bits. The initial discomfort, the prickly unfamiliar, is no more than muscles strengthening, slowly, steadily, mightily. Such good stuff, this.
You just want to find the damn beans.
And if a tangle of tins, sorted, isn't world peace, it is in any case a tiny triumph. An atom of order. A small, solid, tangible kernel of something that well-and-truly works. This, for me, is the basic unit of celebration.
At this point, I should disclose there are no beans involved in today's recipe. Sorry. No sneaky fiber-boosted baked goods, here. I should also point out that I sort of sound-bited Nigella on this one, her actual words being "a chocolate cake is the basic unit of celebration." So she claims. Her pantry's no doubt in good standing.
Still, she has a point. I'm not normally especially keen on chocolate cake. Or chocolate, in general. (I know. I don't know what's wrong with me, either.) But in the recipe that follows, Nigella nails the nearly-impossible: a chocolate cake which even I admit is as good as an orderly dry goods cupboard. Miracle-worker, that one.
The cake in question is one Chocolate Guinness Cake, long-touted, hardly news. But somehow, I'd missed it until this past year, and in case you did, too, I'm here to rid your eyes of scales. Because Nigella's Chocolate Guinness Cake is the sort of cake which, upon making, instantly takes up residence in one's kitchen canon.
The batter taps into all the winning, time-tested, best chocolate cake plays: sour cream for tang, cocoa for texture, lots of liquid for an impeccable come-hither, custard-like crumb. I know these tools well from our beloved go-to chocolate cupcakes and chocolate bread. (Both also, and not coincidentally, Nigella. She knows from chocolate.) Really, we could stop right there. But where Nigella's chocolate bread calls for a cup of boiling water, her cake swaps in a cup of boiling Guinness. This, my friends, is brilliant.
The Guinness—which I'd about as soon drink, straight, as battery acid (I don't do beer, either)—is utterly magic, in the batter. Burbled with butter until the latter melts, and the alcohol burns off, it leaves behind all kinds of wonderful, bitter, malty, interesting notes to ping off chocolate's monotone. Lawson's a lush with the vanilla, here, which I adore, its heady perfume the perfect yin to chocolate's yang. And because I am me, I add a whiff of coffee and a good flick of salt, both of which I find make chocolate more true to itself.
All of this, by the way, happens in one large saucepan, over approximately eight minutes. Half of that, cooling time. It's a one-bowl (er, pan) cake, the sort of thing that goes from bright idea to done in an hour, with only a pot and pan to clean up. Oh, and a mixing bowl, if you do the frosting.
Do the frosting.
The frosting is everything.
To read the original, the frosting seems more afterthought than anything, rustically dolloped across the top "to resemble a frothy pint of Guinness". Cute.
Cute, and devastatingly awesome.
See, said frosting is cream cheese frosting, which I think we can all agree is The Best Frosting. I'm not in the habit of frosting chocolate cakes with The Best Frosting. Maybe because I can't bring myself to add a full bottle of food coloring to cake. (Red Velvet being the classic mash-up). Maybe because our chocolate cakes are usually layer cakes, and layer cakes do better with buttercream or whipped cream. Probably, I'm just grossly negligent.
Certainly, I have been so wrong, for so long. But no longer.
Because the tang and swoop of cream cheese against the complex bitter-but-still-plenty-sweet chocolate is, how shall we say, every great adjective under the sun? And, because the cake's just one humble layer, and the frosting admirably contained on the top, it's nothing we feel the need to reserve for birthdays and holidays.
Indeed, as my teenager noted last Friday, while inhaling a fresh slab and pounding milk shots, "This makes a great Everyday Cake." I agreed, wholeheartedly. I also thought this was a complete thought. But, he continued: "As in, you should really make one every day." And while I (sadly) lack the 15-year-old male metabolism to endorse that second sentiment? I kind of don't disagree. I mean, tidied tins are nothing compared to the feat of another high school day, complete.
Here's to a week of ordinary victories and small celebrations, my friends.
Chocolate Guinness Cake + Foppish Cream Cheese Frosting
adapted from Nigella Lawson, New York Times
As written, Nigella's cake is practically perfect, and I've made it to spec often. Over time I've tweaked the above and below to suit my tastes, namely: added salt and a whiff of coffee to the cake base, both of which amplify the chocolate. And I've adjusted the frosting to give it just a bit more body and volume. The original is extremely soft, which I like, but can veer toward borderline drippy, which I don't. We've swapped in some butter for cream, and upped the powdered sugar ever so slightly. Consider the frosting a template, and tweak butter and sugar to suit your tastes.
In terms of technique, note that if you begin with a large saucepan, you can stir the entire cake in the pan, making this a one-bowl wonder. (The original uses a second for the wet ingredients. I never do. You'll see my lazy work-arounds in the notes. They are totally not legit. I use them every time.)
1 cup Guinness stout (1-12 oz. bottle will leave you with a spill extra)
10 Tbs. (1 stick + 2 Tbs.) salted butter
1 tsp. kosher salt
2 tsp. instant espresso
3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa
2 cups granulated sugar
3/4 cup sour cream
2 large eggs
1 Tbs. vanilla extract
2 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour
2 1/2 tsp. baking soda
8 oz. full-fat cream cheese
6 Tbs. salted butter (balance of cube used for cake)
2-2 1/2 cups powdered sugar, to taste
1 tsp. kosher salt
1-2 Tbs. cream or buttermilk, as needed (optional)
Preheat oven to 350°. Line the bottom of a 9" cake pan (or springform pan) with parchment. Butter or oil sides and inside edges of pan well.
In a large saucepan, over medium, heat stout and butter, until butter melts and stout burbles. Add salt and espresso, off the heat, and stir well to dissolve. Add sugar and cocoa, and stir again to dissolve. Let cool 5 minutes. Add sour cream, vanilla and eggs, beat eggs well with a fork in a little vortex across the top, then beat into the whole, to thoroughly combine. Add flour and baking soda, again stir the two together lightly across the top, then whisk into the chocolate sludge to combine.
Pour batter into prepared cake pan. Bake 45-60 minutes, until a knife inserted in the center delivers a damp, contained crumb. I always bake this in a standard 9" cake pan, and find it takes 50 minutes in my oven. Let cake cool 10 minutes, then run a knife around the edge. Place a cooling rack atop the cake pan, then flip, inverting the cake onto the rack. Let cool at least one hour, or until no warmth remains.
To make the frosting:
Beat cream cheese and butter together until combined and slapping the sides, around 1 minute. Scrape sides, add salt, and 1 cup powdered sugar. Beginning on low, beat together, increasing speed to medium, 2 minutes. Scrape sides, add remaining 1 cup powdered sugar, and beat again, 2-3 minutes. At this juncture, taste, and test for body. You can add more powdered sugar for more volume, or a splash of liquid for less. Or both. Your call. Each path is a good one.
When cake is entirely cool, plop frosting on top, spread haphazardly across the top, and dig in. Cold milk highly recommended.
Cake keeps beautifully for 3 days. Probably longer. We just can't say.