Food writer Nicola Miller called for some expert help on beer when she was developing a new cake recipe and discovered expertise for a woman in a male-dominated industry can come at a cost
I think I like wintry cakes more than summery ones. Heavy with fruit and heady with the caramel scent of brown sugar, they help me embrace the chill of winter instead of giving into my default state, which is to whine about it.
As I was developing this recipe for plum porter and prune cake I knew I needed some expert advice on beer and its use in food so I went to Melissa Cole, the award-winning beer and food writer, and author of several books including The Beer Kitchen: the art & science of cooking and pairing with beer. Her book treats beer in the same way as wine, by naming very specific kinds to use in each recipe. This is an approach that quite a few of us have been slow to adopt and it inspired Melissa to write her book. “I got seriously annoyed when I was reading a food magazine and there was this fabulous-looking recipe for a steak and ale pie and when I turned to it, it just said ‘one bottle of beer’ in the ingredients,” she told me.
“The main thing with beer you have to be far more careful with than wine is that it has deliberate bittering compounds in it that, when reduced, can produce an extremely unpleasant finish to a dish – and there are lots of other nuances as well, but if I had one main piece of advice it would be to check the bitterness in your beer before you decide how to cook with it.”
I am embarrassed to say that I had not fully considered this.
I wanted to use an extremely fruity plum porter in my cake and during testing my recipe I tried out versions from St Peter’s Brewery and Titanic. They were both lovely, but the flavour of the cake wasn’t quite. . . there. I asked Melissa what we should look for in a good plum porter and she advised me to seek out a brand that isn’t too confected. “You want that rich fruit flavour without any artifice about it,” and recommended a plum porter from Elgoods Brewery. When I popped the cap, I knew instantly this was the one. It will really sing in a cake, she said, and she is right. And even better, my local Co-op sells it.
So is there any difference between a porter and a stout, I asked (because I find it all a bit confusing).
“Stout is short for ‘stout porter’. Historically, it just meant a stronger version of the porter already on offer. Over the years, that has morphed somewhat, and I think it’s fair to say that most people expect a creamier option with a stout and a dryer, more refreshing option for a porter, but it’s not always the case.” Her ‘go-to’ brands are Fuller’s London Porter, which is “particularly delicious paired with a butterscotch ice cream topped with chocolate-covered honeycomb chunks, and Magic Rock Common Grounds Coffee Porter, which is great to use in brine for a steak to be put in before searing to give an indoor barbecue edge”.
It was important to me to seek advice from a woman working in the beer industry and I wanted to know what it is like being a female professional in an industry that has historically been very male-dominated.
Her answer is shocking, although things are improving – slowly.
“It has, at times, been frankly awful. I’ve experienced tonnes of in-person verbal abuse, minor sexual assaults and even had men try to start fights with me on a couple of ‘memorable’ occasions. However, it has significantly improved over the past five years, as more and more women enter the industry and more and more men have become aware of the issues facing women in beer.”
I’ve witnessed some of the abuse flung at Melissa on Twitter. She has worked tirelessly to “open up the world of beer to women”, and this has rankled with some gatekeepers. She was the first high-profile female beer writer in the UK and the first name that sprung to mind when I began to research beer. “I have had dozens of women tell me that without seeing me on the telly, reading my articles and books or hearing me on the radio, they wouldn’t have given beer a second thought, and that makes everything worthwhile.
“Honestly, if I achieve nothing else in my career, I’ll always be immensely proud of that and of the women who have stepped up and been vocal as well; we are stronger together. Sadly, there’s still a very real element of ‘beer be so white and straight’ so I am also actively trying to extend my platform to be an ally to wider members of our wonderfully diverse country, because I am adamant that the more diversity we have in any community, the more we are enriched by it.
“As the old saying goes ‘if you can’t see, you can’t be,’” she adds. I am one of the women who feel more confident about cooking with and shopping for beer in what is still a very male environment, and this is because of the work of women like Melissa Cole.
PRUNE AND PLUM PORTER CAKE
The fabulous thing about this cake is not only its flavour, but the fact that it is prepared in just one saucepan before going into its tin to bake. It’s great as a Christmas cake, too, although I wouldn’t want to confine myself to eating it just once a year.
175g salted butter, plus extra for greasing
450g soft dried prunes
Grated zest and juice of 1 large orange
175g light muscovado sugar
200ml plum porter (Use Elgoods if you can find it)
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
3 large eggs, beaten
300g plain flour
2.5 tsp mixed spice
½ tsp allspice
Grease a deep 20cm round cake tin and line the base.
Put the butter, prunes, orange zest and juice, sugar, and plum porter in a large, deep saucepan. Bring this mixture slowly to the boil, stirring until the butter has dissolved, then turn the heat down and simmer for ten minutes. Keep an eye on the pan as you don’t want the mixture to burn. Remove from the heat and leave to cool to room temperature.
Heat the oven to 150C/fan 130C/gas mark 2 while the cake mixture is cooling.
Stir in the bicarbonate of soda. The mixture will foam up until it resembles the head on a pint of Guinness. Stir to incorporate the baking soda.
Now, whisk in the beaten eggs then add the flour and spice mixture and fold this in until well incorporated. Pour the batter into the tin and bake for one-and-a-half hours. Keep an eye on it though as ovens vary.
Remove the cake from the oven and allow it to Cool in its tin for 20 minutes before turning the cake out on to a wire rack.
Follow Nicola on Twitter: @Nicmillerstale
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