With a few landmarks and search terms, a couple of clicks and zooms, you can travel nearly anywhere in the world, thanks to the Internet and Al Gore.
When subzero temperatures encourage a bit of escapism, I’m grateful for a change of scenery via the laptop to greener pastures and more temperate climates. Sorting through old papers and notebooks, I came across a postcard from one such place. A good friend and mentor had written from Kinvara, a small village on Galway Bay, some twenty years ago. Of the quiet hours he spent during his visit watching the sun descend on the water and enjoying the still evenings, he wrote, “There may be no such thing as happiness, but this is close to it.”
Through the magic of Google Maps, I found the likely spots where he enjoyed a “massive” Irish breakfast one morning and that memorable sundown another day. The old stone and colorful facades of the pubs and shops seemed to call me inside; the small boats moored in a low tide begged for stories of those who steer them out to deeper water. I could even place myself at nearly two dozen vantage points around Dunguaire Castle, (and if that’s not something worth your while, you’ve probably wandered into the wrong column and should turn the page straight away).
Another Irish pleasure discovered via the world wide web is Bealtaine Cottage, located near the village of Keadue. A few times each week, Colette O’Neill uploads a new video to her YouTube channel, chronicling the work she’s undertaken over the last 15 years to turn the fairly derelict cottage she purchased and the languishing three acres surrounding it into a paradise through planting hundreds of trees and shrubs, inviting the birds and wildlife back onto the land. Her musings on permaculture and the environment, on saying goodbye to consumerism and embracing old Celtic ways resonate with me, all with the bonus of a gentle lilt and the view from her veranda or a walkabout through the lush greenery. A visit to Bealtaine Cottage provides a welcome respite from dark or frigid hours and a way to connect with a world not so forgotten across the sea.
Last St Patrick’s Day, I ate green pancakes at a roadside café, wearing, if memory serves, sunglasses and a light sweater while sitting at a little table on the sidewalk, looking across a narrow park to the Pacific Ocean. Back home today, I’m struggling to keep the wood stove fed and can’t quite make out where the gray sky meets the grayer horizon. I’m beholden to dumb luck and the Gods of the Internet for the recipe that follows. My knowledge of Irish cooking is not merely limited but minuscule, and I stumbled upon Porter Cake while seeking a suitable treat in which to use a bag of large, rather beautiful mixed raisins. You’ll find a number of variations on-line. This recipe is lighter and simpler – substituting lager, eliminating citrus -- though glammed up with the Hard Sauce my mother used to serve on Christmas plum puddings. Not that the cake needs it, but the rich embellishment adds an unexpected and festive wow factor.
Lager Cake with Cognac Hard Sauce
- 16 ounces lager, more if desired to moisten cake
- 2 sticks (8 ounces) butter, slivered
- 1 1/2 cups sugar
- 2 to 3 tablespoons molasses
- 1 pound (about 3 cups) large mixed raisins
- Vanilla extract, optional
- 3 1/2 cups unbleached flour
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 2 to 3 teaspoons pumpkin spice, or mix of cinnamon and nutmeg
- Pinch of salt
- 3 large eggs, slightly beaten
- For the hard sauce:
- 8 ounces butter, at room temperature
- 1 scant cup confectioner’s sugar
- 2 or more tablespoons cognac
- Heavy cream, optional
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9-inch spring form pan and line sides and bottom with parchment paper, or use a springform pan fitted with a ring insert. Butter the paper also and set aside.
In a medium saucepan, heat 16 ounces of lager – go for a dark lager for bolder flavor — to boiling. Stir in the slivered butter and sugar, and stir constantly until dissolved. Remove from heat and stir in the molasses. Add raisins, stir, and set aside to cool, stirring frequently.
Combine flour, baking powder, spices, and salt in a large bowl. When lager mixture is cool, stir in 1 to 2 teaspoons vanilla extract (not found in Porter cake recipes, but a nice addition if using a pale or amber lager), then add to flour mixture and stir until combined. Fold in the beaten eggs until well blended.
Pour or spoon into the prepared pan and slightly smooth the top. Bake in preheated 350-degree oven for approximately an hour to up to an hour and twenty minutes, depending on the pan, until a skewer inserted near the center comes out clean. Cover cake loosely with aluminum foil toward the end of baking if the cake becomes too dark for your liking, though darkening is expected and not undesirable.
When fully baked, remove from oven and, if desired, moisten cake by drizzling with an ounce or two of additional lager. Allow to cool before removing from pan and storing in air-tight container. (Due to the high butter and sugar content, I store in the refrigerator.) Better the next day – easier to slice and flavors will develop. If desired, serve slices with a swipe, dollop, or drizzle of hard sauce.
Proportions for the hard sauce are approximate. Adjust according to taste and desired consistency. To prepare, with a hand mixer, beat softened butter in a small bowl until light and fluffy. Beat in the scant cup of sugar. Add 2 tablespoons of cognac and combine well. Adjust the thickness — and kick — of the sauce by adding an additional 1 to 2 tablespoons cognac, heavy cream to lighten, or a mix of both.