Today: Step aside, red velvet.
I am not an advocate of shoving vegetables into things for the sake of sneaking around and not telling your kids (or coworkers or roommates or spouses) that they're eating their vegetables.
Don't do that, or at least don't tell me you did. I have deeply overthought convictions about this, thanks to research on picky eating I did in grad school. This makes me think I am an expert and that I will be blessed with children who eat like Amanda's do. If you want me to rant some more about it, I will.
But if you want to openly incorporate vegetables into baked goods based on their own merits -- their flavor, texture, moisture, or even their nourishing qualities -- I won't rant at all. I might even call you a genius.
Like carrot cakes and zucchini breads that came before, Nigel Slater's chocolate beet cake fulfills all of these holy purposes. Slater is very good at thinking about vegetables and fruit, and where they'll do good work. His encyclopedic odes to produce, first Tender and then Ripe, have proven this.
As he shows us in Tender, it just so happens that the deep pink earthiness of a beet is surprisingly well suited for bittersweet chocolate cake. It's such a revelation, Food52ers fiveandspice and fil_mishmish both wrote to me about it when I asked/begged for tips on your go-to genius recipes back in June.
No matter how you feel about beets in salads or soups, this cake will not be an acquired taste. Crushed beets are a cheap way to make a cake achingly moist, nearly molten. They do make themselves known, but only barely, "elusively", as Slater says. Rather than just a desperate vehicle for vitamins, these roots pull their weight.
They also sort of solve the red velvet problem: to get a festive red-tinted cake, you don't need a whole bottle of food coloring after all.
Slater even frosts with the beets in mind, using crème fraîche and poppyseeds, which he says are not merely a suggestion, but an important part of the cake. Fil_mishmish points out that this hearkens back to a dollop of sour cream pooling in your borscht -- maybe with some poppyseed bread on the side. (For the birthday party set, you can go pink on the frosting instead.)
You might worry that half a pound of beets will sink your cake, rendering it pasty and dense. Slater combats this by whipping in egg whites and using a gentle touch all along the way. He also calls for a curious "heaping teaspoon" of baking powder -- chalk it up to a U.K.-to-U.S. edition lapse. Luckily David Lebovitz translated this to 1 1/4 teaspoons, and all is well.
Ready to slide some beets into your dessert yet? You should know this before you embark: this is not a dump-it style, single bowl recipe. You are doing the opposite of dumping it.
You are sifting dry ingredients. You are gingerly melting chocolate per Slater's instructions, and looking at it, but not stirring. You are separating eggs and beating their whites, and folding, folding, folding, as weightlessly as you can.
If you have a reasonably large, well-appointed kitchen, you should have no trouble. You will just feel proud of putting it into service and grateful for your dishwasher. If you have a mini kitchen, or less than 5 bowls to your name, this will be a bit more trying and messy, but you'll get through it, and believe you me, it will be worth it.
And you will be telling everyone -- your beet-weary friends, your wide-eyed, open-mouthed kids -- just what's in it, and makes it so good.
From Tender by Nigel Slater (Ten Speed Press, 2011)
8 ounces fresh beets
7 ounces fine dark chocolate (70%)
4 tablespoons hot espresso
3/4 cup + 2 tablespoons butter
1 cup + 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
3 tablespoons cocoa powder
Scant 1 cup superfine sugar
Crème frâiche and poppy seeds, to serve
Got a genius recipe to share -- from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected].
Photos by James Ransom