St. Patrick’s Day used to be a Holy Day of Obligation in Ireland, where people went to church in the morning and all of the pubs were closed. (Don’t worry! This is not going to be a history lesson. The cake recipe is coming, keep reading!) The only reason I know this is because I’ve heard my favorite author, the late Frank McCourt, and author of ‘Angela’s Ashes‘, talk about the St. Patrick’s Day as he knew it growing up in Ireland. I remember one entertaining interview where he talks about it in 1999. Of course, I’m sure Frank McCourt wasn’t bothered by the lack of pub being open on St. Patrick’s Day. He was probably bothered by having to get up early in the morning and go to church, as most kids would be….and it probably wasn’t memorable for the food since his family had so little of it. These days for us in America, our biggest concern on St. Patrick’s Day is whether we remembered to wear green….and what to bake. Like me.
For over two weeks now I thought about what I would bake for today, as there are gazillions of “St. Patrick’s Day” recipes online. Mostly just the norm disguised in frosting laden with green food coloring. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Bailey’s cupcakes with green buttercream probably does taste good. However, I really wanted to make a traditional Irish recipe for today to taste something that I could of legitimately eaten, had I lived in Ireland back in the day when they baked with the most basic ingredients that they had on hand. Grocery stores today (in the US) sprinkle the tops of cupcakes with green sugar, put a leprechaun made of frosting onto cakes, and pipe out sayings like,”Kiss Me I’m Irish” on a giant cookie….but to me, eating one of those on St. Patrick’s Day would be like going to India and eating at McDonalds.
So, recently I did go to the library and picked up this book rightfully named,’The Little Irish Baking Book‘ by Ruth Isabel Ross from County Wicklow, Ireland. I tried googling her, but there isn’t much information on her at all…so all that I know of her is the black and white photo in the back of the book of her, an adorable old lady wearing a checkered apron and smiling while looking at something other than the camera. The book is just a couple inches bigger than the size of my hand (I have small hands), and it’s very straight-forward and simple, as are the recipes. Opening this book, I felt like I was invited into her home and getting to take a peek at her secret recipes…but I was a bit surprised at just how basic these were. One recipe for Portarlington Golden Biscuits (biscuits meaning cookies), had “self-raising white flour”, “bread (baking) soda”, “margarine”, “golden (Karo) syrup”, and a mere 3 tablespoons of sugar.
For every name of a recipe, there’s small text underneath telling a little bit about it. Some are short little descriptions or tips, others are more like small stories. One memorable follow-up to a title of a recipe was for something called the ‘Classic Sally Lunn’–
“Legend says that Sally Lunn sold her wonderful teacakes in the streets of Bath, England in the late 1700’s. Now her teacake is known in Britain and America, as well as Ireland. I have a recipe for a Sally Lunn yeast cake from a manuscript dating in 1829 and found in the rafters of an old house in County Dublin. Sally Lunn teacake was always a treat. It was sliced horizontally and spread thickly with butter. Then the halves were put together again and teacake was sliced downwards. The butter melted deliciously. To keep it hot, it was placed by an open fire on a trivet, usually a brass one.” Reading stories like this makes the book that much more charming and personal, it’s hard not to want to bake every single thing in this book.
I decided to make the Irish Whiskey Cake, not because I love Irish Whiskey. In fact, I really don’t like whiskey in general, especially Jameson. I appreciate it, especially after this, but I now conclude that I only liked Jameson baked into a cake. 🙂 This Irish Whiskey Cake was like a tiny trip to Ireland, and it was far more delicious than I honestly expected it to be.
Since I don’t drink whiskey, my boyfriend and I went to the liquor store and just bought a nip of Jameson. The recipe called for 2 1/2 tablespoons, and it only took up a little more than half of the nip. The aroma of the whiskey as I stirred it into the batter was intense! I got hints of the whiskey and the sultanas (golden raisins) wafting out of the oven as it baked, but other than the Jameson and the sultanas, the only other flavor in this was the sugar. Then you top it with icing made of the juice of one orange and 1 1/2 cups of powdered sugar, and it just makes it that much better. I poured it over the top while it was still warm, so the cake absorbed some of it like a sponge, but didn’t make the cake soggy. Since there was so much icing, I went around the cake about 3 times pouring it, and then finally just kept the leftovers on the counter and drizzled it on the individual slice I made for myself.
This cake might not be the prettiest cake in the world….ok, so it’s definitely not the prettiest cake in the world….even with some powdered sugar on top, but do not discriminate based on it’s looks. As tempting as it is to make it prettier for it’s close-up, I decided to leave it as it was, because it was too delicious to mess with.
The first bite of this, you get the subtle taste of the Jameson (which gives the cake an incredibly unique flavor all on it’s own), the buttery flavor of the cake and the sweetness from the tender and juicy golden raisins. I love the sugary crust that formed from the icing, and it makes the rest of the cake even more moist as it soaks into it. The cake is on the dense side and moist side but not oily. It is something that you can have just one slice (or two) of, and feel satisfied, without the overwhelming flavors and heaviness of a lot of cakes. And while it’s sweet, you don’t feel like a jar of sugar after you’ve eaten it. Since I got impatient taking it out of the ring pan, it did end up having a few holes in the top, but that’s ok as they just soaked up the icing even more. Also, when I moved it over to my cake holder, it was still warm and fragile and it split down the middle…which is also ok, because it will just be eaten up very soon.
From making this, I learned that simple does not mean boring. It just means less complicated and possibly more delicious that way. What is meant to be tasted will be tasted. I also learned not to be afraid to not mess with tradition, as I was more than pleasantly surprised. I’m happy that this St. Patrick’s Day, I got to taste a little authentic slice of Ireland. Happy St. Patrick’s Day to all! I really hope you try this recipe!
Irish Whiskey Cake – from ‘The Little Irish Baking Book’
Directions as written directly from the book (notes next to the ** astericks for changes I made)
Light but moist, this cake is especially attractive if made in a ring tin.
- 175 g/ 6 oz/ 1 1/2 sticks margarine (Flora is best for creaming) ** I used regular unsalted butter, softened
- 175 g/ 6 oz/ 3/4 cup caster (superfine) sugar **Regular granulated white sugar
- 175 g/ 6 oz/ 1 1/2 cups white flour **All-purpose flour
- 175 g/ 6 oz/ 1 cup sultanas (dried green grapes) **Golden raisins
- 3 eggs, beaten
- 2 tbs/ 2 1/2 US tablespoons Irish Whiskey **Jameson
- 1/2 level tsp baking powder
- 175 g/ 6 oz/1 1/2 cups icing (confectioners’) sugar
- juice of 1 orange
- a little candied peel **I left this out
Cream the margarine (butter) and sugar in a large bowl. Add the sifted flour and the sultanas gradually. Add the eggs and mix well.
Add the whiskey. Add the baking powder, folding it in gently. Mix carefully to a dropping consistency.
Put into greased ring tin or greased and lined loaf tin. Bake at 180 degrees C/ 350 degrees F/ gas 4 for 1 hour. In a ring tin, this will bake for 30 minutes at 200 degrees C/ 400 degrees F/ gas 6.
Make the icing from the icing/confectioners’ sugar dissolved in the orange juice. Spread this over the cake and scatter a little candied peel over the icing.
**1. I sifted the flour with the baking powder in a separate bowl, and then added to the creamed butter and sugar mixture with a mixer on medium speed.
2. Then I mixed in the whiskey, and folden in the sultanas.
This batter was very thick, so I had to spread it around with a spatula to get it even into the ring pan. It was also much less batter than I normally use in that pan (it’s usually for the batter of two 9″ round cakes or layer cakes) but it still cooked just fine.
And I’ll say goodbye with a little history lesson (ok, it was coming eventually) from History.com’s “This Day in History” here:
On this day in 461 A.D., Saint Patrick, Christian missionary, bishop and apostle of Ireland, dies at Saul, Downpatrick, Ireland.
Much of what is known about Patrick’s legendary life comes from the Confessio, a book he wrote during his last years. Born in Great Britain, probably in Scotland, to a well-to-do Christian family of Roman citizenship, Patrick was captured and enslaved at age 16 by Irish marauders. For the next six years, he worked as a herder in Ireland, turning to a deepening religious faith for comfort. Following the counsel of a voice he heard in a dream one night, he escaped and found passage on a ship to Britain, where he was eventually reunited with his family.
According to the Confessio, in Britain Patrick had another dream, in which an individual named Victoricus gave him a letter, entitled “The Voice of the Irish.” As he read it, Patrick seemed to hear the voices of Irishmen pleading him to return to their country and walk among them once more. After studying for the priesthood, Patrick was ordained a bishop. He arrived in Ireland in 433 and began preaching the Gospel, converting many thousands of Irish and building churches around the country. After 40 years of living in poverty, teaching, traveling and working tirelessly, Patrick died on March 17, 461 in Saul, where he had built his first church.
Since that time, countless legends have grown up around Patrick. Made the patron saint of Ireland, he is said to have baptized hundreds of people on a single day, and to have used a three-leaf clover–the famous shamrock–to describe the Holy Trinity. In art, he is often portrayed trampling on snakes, in accordance with the belief that he drove those reptiles out of Ireland. For thousands of years, the Irish have observed the day of Saint Patrick’s death as a religious holiday, attending church in the morning and celebrating with food and drink in the afternoon. The first St. Patrick’s Day parade, though, took place not in Ireland, but the United States, when Irish soldiers serving in the English military marched through New York City in 1762. As the years went on, the parades became a show of unity and strength for persecuted Irish-American immigrants, and then a popular celebration of Irish-American heritage. The party went global in 1995, when the Irish government began a large-scale campaign to market St. Patrick’s Day as a way of driving tourism and showcasing Ireland’s many charms to the rest of the world. Today, March 17 is a day of international celebration, as millions of people around the globe put on their best green clothing to drink beer, watch parades and toast the luck of the Irish.