In COOKIN’ THE BOOKS, the first in my new culinary mystery series, Letitia “Tish ” Tarragon has just moved to the small town of Hobson Glen, Virginia, where she’s invested her life savings in a new business venture, Cookin’ the Books Cafe and Catering. Shortly after arriving, Tish’s hunky landlord, Schuyler Thompson, informs Tish that he’s recommended her to cater the annual library fundraiser, Hobson Glen’s social event of the year. Binnie Broderick, the library director, is a difficult woman to please, but Tish eventually comes up with a winning, albeit pun-laden, banquet menu featuring The Prime Rib of Miss Jean Brodie (standing rib roast with Stilton gravy) and For Whom the Vegan Stuffed Bell Pepper Tolls, among others.

But it’s Tish’s new assistant and baker, Celestine Rufus, who steals the show with her chocolatey Finnegan’s Cakes:

Tish followed Celestine to the silver Honda Odyssey and opened the back hatch. The rear seats had been flattened to the down position and tray upon tray of white-iced cupcakes filled the storage area. The smell that filled the vehicle was heavenly.

‘Are these what I think they are?’ Tish asked.

Finnegan’s Cake. Three hundred and twenty of them in miniature. Soon to be three hundred and nineteen,’ Celestine grabbed a cupcake from the nearest tray and passed it to Tish.

Tish peeled back the paper liner and eagerly sunk her teeth into the gold-glittered confection. The cake was moist, light, and filled with spicy chocolate flavor. The icing was rich and creamy with a slightly boozy finish that balanced the sweetness of the cake perfectly. ‘Oh. My. Goodness. What’s in these?’

‘The cake is cocoa powder, Irish stout, sour cream and the usual cake suspects. The frosting is your classic buttercream mixed with a couple of shots of Irish cream liqueur. And the gold on top represents what the leprechaun might be hiding.’

‘Good Lord, woman. These are so good they should be illegal.’

‘Thanks. I figure between the whiskey, the stout, and the cocktails Julian’s whipping up, the party should be plenty happy. Maybe we should throw some extras Binnie’s way – might improve her personality.’

Unfortunately, Binnie Broderick is murdered before the Finnegan’s Cakes can be served, but have no fear! Tish and the gang put them to good use as they try to track down Binnie’s killer.

My version of Celestine’s Finnegan’s Cakes still features an extremely moist chocolate cake and a creamy frosting, but instead of baking them as cupcakes, I opted to bake one large cake as I have just one muffin pan and I didn’t feel like swapping trays. However, do feel free to bake the recipe as Celestine did, as this is a BIG cake and a fairly rich one too! Filling the muffin liners approximately 3/4 full will yield two dozen cupcakes that require 18 to 20 minutes of baking time. Also, once cooled, the cupcakes can be frozen up to six months and defrosted as needed.

My other modification to the recipe is that I replaced the buttercream frosting with cream cheese. I like the way the tartness of the cream cheese accentuates the richness of the chocolate and the slightly molasses hint of the Guinness. As Celestine does, I add a splash of Irish Cream to the cream cheese frosting, but feel free to use whiskey, or just cut the alcohol altogether and use vanilla if you so desire. Whatever you decide, just make sure to pile the icing high just on the top of the cake so it resembles the head on a pint of stout.

Although this cake makes the perfect ending to a St. Patrick’s Day dinner, I wouldn’t be surprised if it became your favourite year-round chocolate cake.

Happy baking and “Lá fhéile Pádraig sona dhuit!”

Finnegan’s Cake

  • 1 cup/250 ml guinness
  • 2 sticks/250g unsalted butter, cubed
  • ¾ cup/75g unsweetened cocoa
  • 2 cups/400g granulated or caster sugar
  • ⅔ cup/150g sour cream
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
  • 2 cups/275g all-purpose flour
  • 2½ teaspoons baking soda/bicarbonate of soda

Preheat the oven to 350F/180C. Prepare a deep, springform baking pan approx 8 inches/10 cm wide by spreading with a light layer of butter and placing a piece of parchment/greaseproof paper at the bottom. Set aside.

In a large saucepan or stockpot (the largest you have as you need room to mix), heat the Guinness over low heat and add the butter. Heat until butter is just melted.

Wisk in cocoa powder and sugar until well combined. In a separate bowl, beat the eggs with the vanilla and sour cream. Whisk into the saucepan. Sprinkle in the soda and whisk in the flour a bit at a time and stir until smooth and well combined.

Pour batter into the prepared pan and bake for 40- 45 minutes, until a skewer inserted in the middle of the cake comes out clean.

IMPORTANT: As tempting as it is to dive into the warm cake, let it cool completely before attempting to release the springform pan. This is a sticky, fudgy cake with a squidgy centre reminiscent of those soaked in syrup and it will cling to the pan and split if not sufficiently cooled. I left mine to cool on a rack overnight.


  • 12 ounces/340 grams cream cheese room temperature
  • 6 tablespoons/84 g unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 1 cup/120 grams powdered sugar
  • pinch of salt
  • 1 tablespoon Irish cream, whiskey, or vanilla extract

In a large mixing bowl, cream together the cream cheese and butter. Add the salt and liquid flavouring. Gradually add the powdered sugar, a quarter at a time, making sure to beat throughly after each addition. Spread over top of cooled cake.