Beets are another vegetable that hang around for the length of CSA season.
You may use your beets in salads or soups. You may pickle your beets, shred your beets, roast your beets. But I’d wager that you probably haven’t yet used your beets in chocolate cake. It’s time for that to change.
For seeing the potential in this unlikely combination, we have Nigel Slater to thank. Slater is a British cook and food writer, and he is one of my favorite discoveries of the past few years. He’s written eight cookbooks over the years as well as a weekly column in the Observer magazine. He is, perhaps, a particular genius with fruits and vegetables, though he is most decidedly not a vegetarian. Two of his most recent books published in the US are Tender and Ripe. (In the UK, they were published as Tender, Volumes I and II.) Tender, subtitled, “A Cook and his Vegetable Patch,” is, understandably, about vegetables, and Ripe about fruit. They are truly lovely books.
I’ve spent a lot of time perusing both of them. (They are books to read as well as cook from.) And one recipe I kept returning to was his “Extremely Moist Chocolate-Beet Cake.” (I am, I must admit, partial to his recipe titles. One of the first things I made from Ripe was “Deeply Appley Apple Crumble,” which was, in fact, both deeply appley and delicious.”) About the beets in his chocolate cake, Slater says their flavor is “elusive,” and he uses them for their ability to add moisture to a (deeply chocolatey) chocolate cake. I couldn’t help but be intrigued. I read a lot online about the potential for using beets in Red Velvet Cake instead of lots of red food dye, but I have to say with the relatively modest amount of beets in this cake, you could not pass it off as red velvet. You could, if you had to, pass it off as beet-free, but what’s the fun in that. (None of the people I fed this cake to guessed its secret ingredient except one who knew the answer already.)
In the interests of full disclosure, I have to admit that this is not one of those one bowl cakes, where you toss everything together, give it a few stirs and then pour it into the pan. It’s quite possible, in fact, that you will need to use every bowl in your kitchen to make this cake. I had the flour bowl, the egg white bowl, the chocolate bowl, the egg yolk bowl and the bigger chocolate bowl I had to transfer everything into once I realized the bowl I’d melted the chocolate in was too small. The only reason I didn’t have a beet bowl was that the beets went right from the pot to the cutting board to the chopper and then into the cake.
But it’s not a hard cake to make, despite the various steps. I’d boiled my beets earlier in the day, so they were cool and ready to peel and chop when I was ready to make the cake. The melted chocolate mixed with the coffee and the butter looked a little alarming at first, but once stirred together, became smooth and glossy.
You separate the eggs and whip the whites, and the batter becomes rather frothy once you add them:
But once it’s baked, what you end up with is moist all the way through, tasting of serious chocolate, and bound to impress your chocolate-loving friends, even if they don’t guess the secret ingredient.
The one place where I disobeyed Slater’s orders was in the serving of it. The cake, after all, is called “An extremely moist chocolate-beet cake with creme fraiche and poppy seeds,” and Slater makes a point of saying that the creme fraiche “is not just a nod to the sour cream so close to beets’ Eastern European heart, it is an important part of the cake.” The problem was that I had no creme fraiche, and I wasn’t convinced the poppy seeds in my freezer were still good. I decided to taste the cake just to see if it felt lacking without its creme fraiche topping . . . and it tasted like a delicious chocolate cake, if one without icing. Know that Slater would like you to eat creme fraiche with your chocolate-beet cake. Know also that other suggestions include lightly sweetened whipped cream, vanilla ice cream, and mascarpone frosting. Know that despite the dirty bowls in your kitchen sink, you will be glad to have a new chocolate cake in your repertoire, and know that you will be glad to have this most inventive and delicious way to use some of your CSA beets.
Nigel Slater’s Extremely Moist Chocolate-Beet Cake
(Adapted slighty from Tender)
- 8 ounces fresh beets
- 7 ounces fine dark chocolate (70%)
- 1/4 cup hot espresso (or other strong coffee)
- 3/4 cup + 2 tablespoons butter (I used less than this to no ill effect)
- 1 cup + 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 1 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
- 3 tablespoons good quality cocoa powder
- 5 eggs
- Scant 1 cup superfine sugar (You can find boxes of this at the store; otherwise, use regular granulated sugar whirled in a food processor for a minute or just use granulated sugar and don’t worry about it.)
- Crème fraîche and poppy seeds, to serve
- Lightly butter an 8- or 9-inch springform cake pan and line the base with a round of baking parchment. Heat the oven to 350 degrees F. (You can use a regular cake pan if it’s buttered really well.)
- Cook the beets, whole and unpeeled, in boiling unsalted water until tender– 30 to 40 minutes. Young ones may take slightly less. Drain them, let them cool under running water, then peel them, slice off their stem and root, and process in a blender or food processor until a coarse purée. (You can cook these earlier and let them cool.)
- Melt the chocolate, broken into small pieces, in a small bowl set over a pot of simmering water. Don’t stir. When the chocolate looks almost melted, pour the hot espresso over it and stir once. Cut the butter into small pieces — the smaller the better — and add to the melted chocolate. Push the butter down under the surface of the chocolate with a spoon (as best you can) and leave to soften.
- Sift together the flour, baking powder and cocoa.
- Separate the eggs, putting the whites in a large mixing bowl. Stir the yolks together.
- Now, working quickly but gently, remove the bowl of chocolate from the heat and stir until the butter has melted into the chocolate. Let sit for a few minutes, then stir in the egg yolks. Do this quickly, mixing firmly and evenly so the eggs blend into the mixture. Fold in the beets. Whisk the egg whites until stiff, then fold in the sugar. Firmly but gently, fold the beaten egg whites and sugar into the chocolate mixture. A large metal spoon is what you want here; work in a deep, figure-eight movement but take care not to over-mix. Lastly, fold in the flour and cocoa.
- Transfer quickly to the prepared cake pan and put in the oven, decreasing the heat immediately to 325 degrees F. Bake for 40 minutes. The rim of the cake will feel spongy, the inner part should still wobble a little when gently shaken. Test with a cake tester or toothpick too — if it is still gooey in the center, continue baking just until moist crumbs cling to the tester.
- Set the cake aside to cool (it will sink a tad in the center), loosening it around the edges with a thin icing spatula after half an hour or so. It is not a good idea to remove the cake from its pan until it is completely cold. Serve in thick slices, with crème fraîche and poppy seeds.
Other Beet Possibilities
Beet Seed Cake This is another beet cake from Nigel Slater. Slater compares this one to carrot cake, and I am looking forward to trying it. (The seeds are sunflower or pumpkin seeds, not the seeds of the beets. In case you were wondering.)