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Notes from the Test Kitchen: Recipe testing

July 13, 2008 | 10:00 am

40794880 Behold the beer cake! Spiced with cinnamon and nutmeg, fragrant with lemon zest and vanilla, utterly moist with almost a cup of dark Imperial Stout, it's a creation with components as rich as parts of the original recipe were vague.

The recipe is one of four included in last Wednesday's cookbook review of Tessa Kiros' "Piri Piri Starfish." Writer Vani Rangachar notes the friendly conversational tone Kiros takes throughout her book, and the recipes are no exception. In her headnote, Kiros casually mentions that the beer cake is "Lisa from Angola's recipe."

As with all recipes that appear in The Times, this one came to the Test Kitchen for review and was one of six we tested from the book.  We test each recipe we publish, even those published before. A previously published recipe is labeled "adapted" if we make changes.

The beer cake recipe went through several revisions. First we clarified/translated terms from British to American usage (baking soda for "bicarbonate of soda"), and ingredient measurements were changed from weight to volume to conform with Times style. Then we made the cake several times to be sure of the method. The recipe does not follow standard rules for mixing cake batter. Butter, sugar and eggs are added in logical order, but then the liquids are added completely to the batter before any dry ingredients are incorporated (rather than alternately adding a little of each until both are combined in a uniform batter). The batter looks "broken," a point acknowledged by Kiros, though she notes it at the end of the step after the dry ingredients are incorporated, which we found puzzling.

Reviewer Vani, Test Kitchen director Donna Deane and I each made the cake separately with varying results. We compared notes, discussing how to adjust the recipe to create an incorporated batter with sufficient volume, while staying true to Kiros' recipe. We kept Kiros' method the same, adding all liquid ingredients before dry; however, we moved Kiros' warning about the batter separating to an earlier point (just after the liquids are added), and divided the step into two, adding additional clarification. 

We made the cake again, and it lasted just long enough to shoot before we devoured it.  The final recipe was published and you'll find it here.

— Noelle Carter

Photos by Mark Boster and Noelle Carter