I grew up in another age – in the 1950s and 60s. In those far off times, married women in Ireland rarely had paid employment; they cared for their homes and families full time. They worked hard but very often they also had leisure time not available to modern women, time which enabled them to call frequently on one another. I am also talking about the days before television, which put paid to a lot of casual dropping in on neighbours and friends, particularly in the countryside. These visitations, for I suppose that is what we may call them, often took place in the afternoon, but also in the evening, after small children had been put to bed. There was a bit of chat and then, inevitably, it was time for tea. This was the occasion when cake was produced and, in the house I grew up in, that cake had to be homemade. But even if visitors did not come knocking at the door, my Mother always took time off from her household work in mid-afternoon and treated herself to tea and a slice of cake. All this, of course, meant that cake-baking was one of the weekly chores. Many different cakes came out of the oven and there was great swapping of recipes and chatter about which woman made the best sponge cake, fruit cake etc.
These homemade cakes were also a measure of a woman’s worth as a cook and housekeeper, skills that I fancy were more important in the last generation than they are today. In the past, it is likewise the case that there were very few bakeries or fancy patisseries producing quality products, and homemade was thus often the order of the day, whether one liked it or not. Nowadays, cake shops abound and the modern housewife, more often than not holding down a fulltime job outside the home, is hard-pressed to find time to bake cakes for her family on any regular basis. Times change,
I have often told you before that I do not have a sweet tooth. However, I can’t say the same for my children, or indeed for the many members of my extended family who come to visit. For all of them, I try to keep some homemade cake in the freezer to be produced, if I am given warning of their arrival. Until recently, my mainstay was a chocolate cake following a recipe of Tasmin Day-Lewis. I thought, and still think, it was delicious (See recipe in May 2009 issue of Mutation) but not so my contrary daughters, who both went to the trouble of advising me that they no longer liked it. Faced with this unreasonable rebellion, I had to go looking for alternatives and after a little experimenting, came up with porter cake.
This was not a cake of my youth, even though it is traditionally Irish. Indeed, I don’t think I ever tasted porter cake until a kind friend, who came to stay earlier in the year, brought me one. I loved it and after a scour through my recipe books – I have a library of them – I was making my own within weeks. What follows is an amalgam of different recipes.
450g plain flour
1 tablespoon mixed spice
325g brown sugar
1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
100g glacé cherries, halved
100g mixed peel, chopped
zest of 1 lemon, finely copped
23cm round cake tin about 9 cm deep
Preheat the oven to 160°C or gas mark 3.
Grease the tin in the normal way and line the bottom with greaseproof paper.
Brush with a little melted butter. Place the flour, spice and bicarbonate of soda in a large bowl and stir.
Rub in the butter until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. Add the mixed peel, fruit, lemon zest, sugar and beaten eggs. Gradually work in the stout before pouring the mixture into the cake tin.
Bake for 1 hour and then cover with tin foil and bake for a further 1½ hours at 150°C or gas mark 2. The cake should be a deep brown colour and firm to the touch when cooked.
Leave to cool in the tin before turning out and removing the paper.
The cake needs to mature for 3-4 days before cutting. It will keep for weeks in an airtight tin.