The first introduction to beer cookery that I had was somewhat unconventional; it came while I was camping. Sauteing steaks in a cast iron skillet over an open fire and wanting to de-glaze the pan, I used the only liquid I had at the time...the beer I was drinking. The outcome was delicious. Achieving this, friends and I tried the same method again, only substituting vodka -- the high alcohol content and open flame almost blew us up. I decided then that cooking with beer was a lot more fun -- and safe -- than cooking with vodka.Beer as a beverage can be so satisfying and flavorful that it is often overlooked as a cooking liquid and baking ingredient. While wine is most often thought of as the optimum fermented cooking liquid, beer, too, has its place. And like wine, beer has been used in this manner since the beginning of civilization.Interestingly, beer and bread -- both of which are based on natural fermentation -- originated simultaneously in the Southern Levant more than 10,000 years ago. As with bread, the first beer, however crude, was most probably an accident. Leavened bread originated when a primitive dough or gruel was left to stand for too long and natural yeast cells found their way into the mix. And some culinary historians claim the same happened with beer, that it was most likely a bowl of barley and water that began to ferment or some excess liquid containing yeast ran off a dough. Thus it's no coincidence that in ancient civilizations bread and beer were usually made in the same area; in Ancient Egypt slaves were paid a salary of salt, bread, beer and garlic. (I wonder if they received a holiday bonus.)With this knowledge it surprises me that beer is not thought of as a food as well as a drink. The famed Parisian boulanger, Lionel Poilne, whose bakeshop uses a sourdough starter that has been in his family for three generations, often refers to his bread as "solid beer." Now there's a subject to silently contemplate.There is one gentleman in particular that I know who abides by the claim that beer is a form of food, and that one can actually sustain on the fermented liquid alone. He did prove this fact, consciously or unconsciously, for a while. Though he did become somewhat pallid in complexion, he also survived the rigorous treatment of ingesting only beer. He has since been consuming a more normal diet, so I am told.As with any cooking liquid that contains alcohol, cooking with beer takes some thought and experience. Beer naturally has a slightly bitter flavor -- it comes from the hops -- and if too much is used in any recipe it could easily overpower the entire dish. Food cooked properly with beer will contain only mild nuances of the beverage, if too much beer is added or it becomes too concentrated the result will carry an unpleasant bitter flavor. Thus said, beer makes a perfect braising liquid for beef or pork, where the strong flavors of the meat mingle with, and can stand up to, that of the of beer.The area of cooking where beer is truly suited is baking; the natural yeast flavor in the liquid pairs well with baked goods. And while it may sound odd to incorporate beer into a recipe such as chocolate cake, the sweetness of the sugar and slight bitterness in the chocolate marry well with the flavor of beer.To assimilate beer into some of your favorite recipes begin by replacing just a portion of the liquid in the recipe with beer, lest you end up with a bitter concoction. And remember to save some beer to sip while you relax and ponder what's cooking.Chocolate Beer CakeYield: 1 (12-inch) cake3/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon unsalted butter2-3/4 cups all-purpose flour2 teaspoons baking powder1/2 teaspoon baking soda3/4 teaspoon salt4 ounces semi-sweet chocolate chips4 eggs, separated1-1/2 cups sugarPreheat an oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit and prepare the cake pan by greasing it lightly with a tablespoon of butter and dusting it with 1/4 cup of the flour. Tip the pan in all directions to coat it with the flour, then tap out any extra flour.In a medium bowl, combine the remaining 2-1/2 cups of flour with the baking powder, baking soda and the salt. Melt the chocolate by stirring it in a small bowl over a simmering pot of water.In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine the egg whites and 2 tablespoons of the sugar and whip on high until stiff peaks form. In a separate bowl on the electric mixer, combine the remaining 3/4-cup of butter with the remaining sugar and beat on high speed until thoroughly creamed and light in texture. Add the egg yolks and whip for another couple of minutes, or until light and airy. Lower the speed and add the melted chocolate, mix until combined. While the mixer is still running, gradually add the flour mixture to the creamed butter and sugar. Mix until thoroughly combined.Remove the bowl from the mixer, and using a rubber spatula, carefully fold the egg whites into the batter until just combined. Gently pour the batter into the prepared cake pan and smooth the surface with the spatula.Bake the cake in the middle rack of the oven for approximately 40 minutes, or until a wooden skewer inserted into the center of the cake pulls out clean. Remove the cake from the oven and turn out onto a sugared board or counter. Allow to cool before eating or frosting.Chocolate-Lager SauceYield: 2-3/4 cups1 cup lager14 ounces semi-sweet chocolate chipsPlace the lager in a small saucepot over medium-high heat and bring to a simmer; place the chocolate chips in a small bowl and set aside. When the beer simmers, pour it over the chocolate. Stir the chocolate sauce with a wooden spoon until the chocolate is completely melted. Allow the sauce to cool to room temperature before using. This sauce is an ideal accompaniment when drizzled over chocolate beer cake and served with vanilla ice cream.Rye Beer BreadYield: 2 loaves1-1/2 cups warm beer4 ounces warm water2 teaspoons salt1/2 cup dark molasses2 packages active yeast3 tablespoons vegetable shortening3-1/2 cups all-purpose flour3 cups rye flourIn a medium bowl combine the beer, water, salt, molasses, yeast and vegetable shortening; stir this mixture and allow it to rest for 25 minutes or until the yeast becomes active and frothy.Add the flours to the bowl and, using a wooden spoon, stir until it forms a solid mass. Turn the dough out onto a work surface and knead it for 10 minutes, it should become smooth and firm. Place the dough in a clean bowl that is large enough to allow it to rise and set the bowl in a warm draft free area for 1 hour, or until the dough has doubled in bulk.Preheat an oven to 375F. After the dough has risen turn it out onto a work surface. Cut the dough into two equal pieces and shape them into round or oval loaves; place the loaves on a baking tray. Loosely cover the dough with plastic wrap or a damp cloth and let it rise for 30-60 minutes.After the loaves have risen brush them with an egg that has been diluted with a couple of tablespoons of water and bake them for approximately 40 minutes, or until a wooden skewer inserted into the bread comes out clean and they sound hollow when tapped on. Remove the bread from the oven place it on a wire cooling rack and allow it to cool for a 30 minutes before slicing.