Jared Rouben’s two favorite foods to pair with beer are freshly shucked oysters and cake. So when the time came for the culinary-minded brewmaster of two-year-old Moody Tongue Brewing to open the long-awaited tasting room at his Pilsen brewery, he decided these would be the only two food items he would serve.
When it opens later this month, the airy, 2,200-square-foot tasting room will seat 75 to 90, anchored by a 25-seat marble bar, which will pour beer from 12 taps.
“I’d eat oysters and cake every day if I could,” he says. “They’re also the perfect pairings for beer—indulgent without overwhelming the palate.”
Getting quality oysters would be the easy part, in a time when Kumamotos from Japan are a mere phone call away. Getting his team of multitasking brewers up to speed on shucking them wasn’t too hard either. “I’m up to 15 a minute,” one bragged at the brewery a few weeks ago.
It was the second matter—of the 7-inch-high cake boasting 12 alternating layers of German chocolate and espresso cheesecake—that would prove the more daunting challenge. At the time, Rouben wasn’t sure what form this “unicorn of cakes” would take, but he did have the perfect pastry chef in mind for the job: longtime friend and former culinary school classmate Shannon Morrison.
Rouben and Morrison’s friendship is fittingly rooted in beer and pastry. The two met as freshmen at the Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park in 2005, where Rouben was studying culinary arts and Morrison baking and pastry. Together with a few other students they created the CIA’s first-ever beer club, which still operates today. There they muddled through their first pairings with sausage, cheese, and bread, but it was Morrison who nudged group toward pairing beer with sweets.
“She said, I’d like to explore more of what I do,” Rouben recalls. “So whether it was cheesecake, chocolate mousse, sorbet, or cake, I started to see how well dessert actually paired with beer.”
Morrison was in the backyard with her dog one day last fall—on a fortuitously timed hiatus from her nine-year wholesale baking career—when she got the call from Rouben, asking her to be Moody Tongue’s pastry chef.
“Jared said, ‘I’m thinking about cake for the tasting room; would you be interested?’” Morrison says. “When I asked what he had in mind flavorwise, he said, ‘No thoughts, just make the best cake you can think of, and make it huge.’”
When imagining a cake that could stand up to but not overwhelm Rouben’s staple of culinary-inspired beers—such as the lightly smoked Applewood Gold, a lager; the Meyer lemon-scented Steeped Emperor’s Lemon, a saison; and Sliced Nectarine IPA—Morrison instantly thought of chocolate.
“I love beer and chocolate,” she says. “Nothing beats a beer and a Snickers bar. It’s that sweet and salty thing.”
The first cake she baked for Rouben wasn’t too different from the final version—multiple alternating layers of chocolate cake and espresso cheesecake, interlaced with German chocolate filling and glazed with a thick layer of ganache.
“I’m not sure why, but the first thing Shannon did was put the individual components of the cake in front of me,” he says. “For me, it was so important because that’s how I view beer and food. Start with the raw ingredients, then build the flavors.”
Three versions later, they had settled on the final product: a 12-layer behemoth that takes two days to make, with each slice weighing in at roughly one and a half pounds.
The bottom layer is espresso cheesecake outlined with a sweet-salty crust of crushed graham crackers, chocolate Chex cereal and pretzels. A thin slick of chocolate buttercream separates the next layer, a rich dark chocolate-coffee cake. It’s followed by German chocolate filling with toasted pecans and coconut, then more cake, more chocolate buttercream, and more cake before it starts all over again and then gets covered in chocolate mirror glaze.
There’s an obvious, Marie Antoinette-esque decadence to offering this kind of cake. Rouben admits he was channeling old-school Chicago dining experiences that end in the massive slabs of cake that make the rest of the dining room turn their heads. But the main reason for choosing this cake, believe it or not, was its lightness—owing to the moist, airy cheesecake; the crunch of pecans, coconut, and the sweet-salty crust; and the zing of espresso.
And like the oysters, the cake’s luscious mouthfeel is largely what makes it an ideal—if surprising—pairing for the aforementioned four beers, which will be on tap with additional specialty and limited-release beers when the tasting room opens later this month.
A forkful of cake heightens the mirrored nutty, chocolate flavors of Moody’s Caramelized Chocolate Churro Baltic Porter. The lemony, effervescent saison cleanses the palate between indulgent bites, while the IPA’s hoppiness cuts through the cake’s richness, bringing the subtle nectarine flavor into focus. The kicker? That Applewood Gold, whose hint of smoke plays off the cake’s sweetness, not unlike a smoky, brown sugar-rubbed BBQ pork shoulder.
“That’s the mic-drop pairing,” Rouben says. “Because you’re mixing sweet and smoky.”
Getting every layer in a single bite is no easy feat. Morrison likes to attack from the top, working her way all the way down to the crust. Four bites in, the teetering slice is threatening to fall over like a Jenga tower, but Morrison seems pleased at the prospect.
“I think when this big slab gets put down in front of people, they’ll knock it over and go to town,” she says.