My relationship with soda (or "pop" for my mid-western readers) has been nothing if not tumultuous. We get together, we break up, we say things we don't mean (you're just too sugary, I'm sorry), we meet up secretly in the kitchen at midnight in between the refrigerator doors while everyone else is asleep, we go weeks without seeing each other only to find the cravings kick in and the distance becomes unbearable. Of all the empty cans and bottles that have since been recycled, root beer has always been my number one. Sure, I slinked around behind its back with other nameless lemon-lime sodas, but I'd always come back. Always.
Growing up, my mother would always insist that I drink a full glass of milk before we were allowed have even a sip of soda. It was miserable, trying to glug down that (now lukewarm because I refused it for hours) plastic cup of dairy, only to see the two-liter of A&W peering at me across the room, taunting me with it's fizzy bubbles and golden plastic wrapper. Come to think of it, what I really wanted was a root beer float, a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream sloshed into a glass and doused with bubbling root beer. That fat, foamy head that forms at the top is pure nirvana, weightless on the tongue but tingly against your nose, if ever there has been soda-fountain perfect, that was it.
My cousin Danielle and I used to get the old fashioned bottles of root beer and pretend like we were tipsy even though we were just refilling them with water (please don't call child services, we happen to have a handful of rowdy uncles) because we were only allowed to have one bottle each. I was a loyal fan of root beer in its purest form, despite the endless options of impostors, like that phony tasting root beer candy, shaped like chubby little barrels only to turn into fire once it hits your tongue. Come to think of it, my friend Amber makes a vanilla frosting with splinters of root beer candy crushed into it, which may not be so bad once that candy is kept under the control of a good buttercream.
But one year, 2004 to be exact, I did the unthinkable. As a New Year's Resolution, I vowed to give up soda for an entire year with plans to celebrate my self-control the following new year with a root beer float. At the time, I hardly even drank soda, save for my occasional root beer every few weeks, but the moment I vowed to swear it off, it was everywhere. I couldn't pass a vending machine without a craving hitting me full force, it seemed every student in the dining hall had a sparkling glass of carbonated glory and my cup of milk, back from childhood to haunt me, suddenly seemed boring and bland no matter how much I reminded myself of the health factor. I wanted a soda. I wanted a root beer.
After three weeks of mental rehab, the cravings subsided, I developed a strong appreciation for sweet tea, and I gradually became less impressed with soda in general, even my beloved root beer. The year went by and I eagerly anticipated the new year which would bring new everything, but more importantly, it would bring a root beer float to my lips. It was hype! hype! hype! right up to January first and then...I didn't even want it. Not even a sip. You must be absolutely devastated, I know I was. Even to this day I still don't drink soda, I have had a swallow or two on occasion when water wasn't available, but it tastes so sweet, so sugary, so thick on my palate I can't hardly stand it. After years of water and iced tea, a teaspoon of real soda feels more like a teaspoon of pancake syrup.
However, I'd be lying if I told you I didn't miss that flavor of root beer. I can deal without the back-throat burn of the bubbles, I'll pass on the twenty five minutes worth of hiccups I'll have for even thinking about drinking it, and my jean size is now a reasonable number without the extra calories. But oh my, how I still crave the unmistakable flavor of it: vanilla, cinnamon, clove, molasses, birch, cane sugar, and ginger. Praise the Risen Lord, I came across this recipe. I knew it was there, and I avoided it for quite some time, doubting that it would come anywhere close to the real flavor of root beer. Plus, this didn't count as drinking soda since it was in cake form, and it seemed to be a far cry from those weird boxed-cake-add-diet-soda concoctions that have become popular over the years, so I tied on my yellow apron and set to work.
After all the mixing and stirring and baking and frosting, I pushed a slice onto my plate and into my mouth and you know what? It tasted nothing like root beer. Two cups of it in the batter and a quarter cup in the frosting and it didn't taste a thing like it. What it does taste like is the most chocolaty, rich, moist chocolate cake I've ever eaten, slicked with a layer of fudge frosting right across the top. But that's not what we're after here, is it? I made a dark chocolate version the first day, and a milk chocolate version the second day, with round two slightly altered for more root beer flavor.
The original recipe didn't impart hardly any root beer flavor to the cake, although it is quite delicious the way it is. To boost the root beer flavor on my second try, I added one and a half teaspoons of root beer concentrate and whizbang - it was perfect. At first bite, you taste chocolate, then after a second chew, the root beer flavor washes over your mouth and after you swallow, a little bit of a fizzy feeling warms the back of your throat. With a scoop of vanilla ice cream, you, too, can say you've completely given up drinking soda.
This cake only gets better with age, and nearly a week later, I still have a nub of cake left and it's deliciously sticky and fragrant with root beer; however, I'd be surprised if yours lasts quite that long.
Root Beer Bundt Cake
Adapted from Baked
2 cups root beer (do not use diet root beer)
1 cup dark unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 1/4 cups granulated sugar
1/2 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/4 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
2 large eggs
1 1/2 teaspoons root beer concentrate
2 ounces dark chocolate (60% cacao), melted and cooled slightly
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
1 teaspoons salt
1/4 cup root beer
2/3 cup dark unsweetened cocoa powder
2 1/2 cups confectioners' sugar
For the root beer bundt cake:
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. Generously spray the inside of a 10-inch bundt pan with nonstick cooking spray; alternatively, butter it, dust with flour, and knock out the excess flour.
In a small saucepan, heat the root beer, cocoa powder, and butter over medium heat until the butter is melted. Add the sugars and whisk until dissolved. Remove from the heat and let cool slightly, about 5 minutes.
In a large bowl, whisk the flour, baking soda, and salt together.
In a small bowl, whisk the eggs until just beaten, then whisk them into the cooled cocoa mixture until combined. Gently fold the flour mixture into the cocoa mixture. The batter will be slightly lumpy--do not overbeat, as it could cause the cake to be tough. Mix in the root beer concentrate.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 35 to 40 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through the baking time, until a small sharp knife inserted into the cake comes out clean. Transfer the pan to a wire rack to cool completely. Gently loosen the sides of the cake from the pan and turn it out onto the rack.
For the root beer fudge frosting:
Put all the ingredients in a food processor. Pulse in short bursts until the frosting is shiny and smooth.
Use a spatula to spread the fudge frosting over the crown of the Bundt in a thick layer. Let the frosting set before serving, about 20 minutes. For the full on root beer float experience, serve with vanilla ice cream on the side.