Don’t be intimidated by the list of ingredients. This isn’t fancy Elven baking chemistry. Like most Shire foods, this is good, solid stuff that can handle a lot of improvisation depending on what you happen to have in your pantry. All you really need is some butter, sugar, flour, eggs, a cup of whatever fruits you like best, a couple teaspoons of your favorite holiday spices, and a bottle of beer. Think of the ingredient list more as a set of guidelines than a mandate.
You see, Porter Cake was the Victorian working class answer to fashionable city folk’s fruit cake. Instead of wasting a good brandy by pouring it over your pudding, a working class cook simply pulled a pint good, dark, malty beer. Instead of fresh or candied fruits, she’d throw in a cup of whatever dried fruits her family liked best.
While this is delicious hot and fresh out of the oven, it’s so much better after the flavors have had a couple days to play nicely together. Wrap it up in foil or, if you’re feeling extra Hobbity, wrap it in cheesecloth and leave it in a breadbox for a couple of days. The alcohol acts as a preservative, helping keep the cake fresh for up to a week. Good luck making it last that long.
¾ cup room temperature butter
1 cup sugar
1 orange, juice and zest
¼ cup candied citrus peel (orange, lemon, or a mix)
¼ cup cherries
¼ cup currants
¼ cup sultanas/golden raisins
¼ cup raisins
1 ¼ cups Guinness or other Porter beer
1 tsp baking powder
2 ½ cups flour
1 tsp cinnamon
½ tsp allspice
½ tsp nutmeg
¼ cup thin sliced almonds
⅓ cup sugar
2 tbsp molasses
If you know you’re making a cake tomorrow, soak your assorted dried fruit in half a cup of porter overnight to help plump it back up. Don’t stress if you either don’t have time or prefer not to waste half a cup of beer. Your cake will be fine if you just toss the fruit right in the batter.
When you’re ready to make the cake, start by creaming together your room temperature butter, sugar, and eggs. Add the juice and zest of one orange. You may be thinking this is a good time to add some vanilla. That’s not on the ingredient list because Tolkien was pretty hardcore about keeping new world foods out of the Shire – and honestly, it wasn’t anywhere near as ubiquitous in Victorian cooking outside his sleepy village as it is today.
In another bowl, mix your flour, baking powder, and two teaspoons of holiday spices. I used cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, and a pinch of cloves, but if you’re not a stickler for historical accuracy, you can also try either 2 teaspoons of pumpkin pie spice or 1 teaspoon of cinnamon and 1 teaspoon of garam masala. Use what you have on hand. A good country cook wouldn’t send out for something special just to make this easy cake.
Roll your moist fruit in the flour mix. If you can get a nice coating of flour on it, that will help keep the fruit from sinking to the bottom of the cake while it bakes.
Once your fruit is all floured up, introduce the flour mix to the butter mix. Take them on a nice little dance around your bowl until they’re all mixed up. Once they’re happily confused, pour on a little beer. Nah, heck, you want these ingredients to party. Pour in all the beer. Keep mixing until the foam dies down.
Lube up a couple of 9 inch cake pans. I went square with mine for easy packability, but you’re just as welcome to use round pans. (If you prefer, you can bake this in two 1-pound loaf pans instead. It’s fine either way.) Be generous with the butter. This isn’t health food. Pour your batter into the buttery pans and give them a nice shake to help smooth out the crust.
To make the topping, mix your sugar and molasses until it looks just like brown sugar. (If you’re in the United States, you can just use ½ cup brown sugar instead.) Sprinkle the sugar evenly over your cakes. Now sprinkle the thin, flaked almond slices on top of the sugar. Use your fingers to gently press the almonds into the batter. This will help prevent them from escaping when you slice the cake.
Bake at 325F for 45-50 minutes, or until the crust is a dark, crunchy brown and a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean.
You’ll end up with an incredibly moist, dense cake that has as much in common with a modern fruitcake as a slow baked Sunday chicken does with drive-through nuggets. It’s time travel for your tastebuds.
Need more Hobbity goodness in your life?
Preview even more recipes from An Unexpected Cookbook: The Unofficial Book of Hobbit Cookery, available now!
Sample recipes from all seven chapters of An Unexpected Cookbook:
Breakfast – Poached Pears Stuffed with Frumenty
Second Breakfast – Beef and Mushroom Stuffed Hand Pies
Elevenses – Shire Seed Cake
Luncheon – Stewed Hare with Root Vegetables and Dumplings
Afternoon Tea – Shortbread
Supper – Stuffed Roasted Mushrooms
Dinner – Boxty on the Griddle with Bacon
Need more? Get your own copy of An Unexpected Cookbook: The Unofficial Book of Hobbit Cookery from Amazon.com.