chocolate beet cake
This cake is not about sneaking vegetables into your dessert, though that is undeniably the result, and not an altogether unwelcome one. This is about the depth beets impart to cocoa, and more than that, how good it feels when everyone goes for a second piece even though you risked it all by putting beets into someone else’s birthday cake. To be fair, this recipe is only a tiny riff on Nigel Slater—whom I trust implicitly—but still. Scooping candy red batter into the pan, I worried it would come out too earthy, too nose-wrinklingly beety.
Turns out my spooky shame-reel was wrong, as it often is (will I ever learn?). The cake was universally beloved, much to the relief of my beet-stained self. Doing this sort of thing makes me feel a bit like an edgy magician, which was among my childhood dream careers and also why I’ve seen The Prestige an undisclosed number of times.
The overtones here are decidedly chocolatey, but with a bit of mystique, a thoughtful depth, like a chocolate cake that’s read some Tolstoy and has something to say about it. And the texture! Think of the beet, with its natural moisture content, as a shortcut to fudginess—and one that suspends the cake in an uncanny state of permafudge for a good four days after you bake it. (Not that it’ll last that long. It did in my house, on my second try, purely for testing reasons, and I had to shoo would-be cakestealers away).
Let’s be clear: this is a humble dessert. It doesn’t look like much, free of impressive tiers and swirls of frosting, though a dollop of crème fraîche ups the visual ante to just the right level for a cozy party. (Nigel Slater also tops it with poppy seeds, but I never have them around). You could definitely serve it with whipped cream, but you’d be losing the connection to sour cream and beets, which is a classic combination for a reason: the creamy tang helps temper the beets’ earthiness. Also, if there was ever a chocolate cake I felt not only okay but self-satisfiedly smug about eating for breakfast, this is it. I’m not a person who thinks you need an excuse for breakfast cake, but really, who could fault you for eating beets before noon?
chocolate beet cake
beets one large, or two small (250g)
flour one cup plus one tablespoon (135g)
granulated sugar a little under a cup (190g)
cocoa powder 3 tablespoons
butter a little under a cup (200g), plus more to butter the pan
semi sweet baker’s chocolate one whole package, or 225g
espresso or strong coffee 4 tablespoons
baking powder 1 heaping teaspoon
crème fraîche half a cup, or enough for a generous dollop per slice
You can do this part up to three days in advance.
Cook the whole, unpeeled beet(s) in unsalted water until tender to the point of a knife. Depending on whether you’re working with one or more beets, this can take up to an hour. Drain, and when cool enough to handle, peel off the skin—this should be easy enough with your hands, but a small paring knife can help. Cube and puree in a food processor. (The easiest way to get the amount right is to set your food processor on a food scale and cut the beet directly into it. If you don’t have one, estimating is fine).
Lightly butter the sides of an 8-inch cake pan, and line the bottom with parchment paper. You can cut out a rough circle freehand or use this handy method. It doesn’t need to be perfect—we just want the bottom to unstick without a fuss.
Sift the flour, cocoa, and baking powder into a bowl using a fine-mesh sieve. Measure out the sugar.
Separate the eggs, putting the whites in a large mixing bowl.* Stir the yolks together till more or less homogenous.
Cut the butter into small pieces.
Preheat the oven to 360F.
*When a recipe asks you to separate eggs, keep in mind that while a little white in the yolk is usually fine, avoid getting yolks into your whites. That’s because the fatty yolks may prevent the whites from beating up as fluffy as you want them.
make the cake
Break the chocolate into small pieces and set in a large heatproof bowl over a pot of simmering water. Resist the temptation to stir. While it starts to melt, make your espresso or coffee, and when the chocolate looks well on its way to melted, pour the coffee over the chocolate. (Did you know that—as salt does with pretty much everything—a little coffee helps chocolate taste more like itself?) Keep the heat on low and add the butter, which you’ve already cut up, using a spoon to nudge it below the coffee as much as possible.
While that softens, beat the egg whites till they form stiff peaks—easiest with a handheld electric mixer. Gently fold in the sugar.
Take the chocolate off the heat and stir with a rubber spatula till the butter has melted thoroughly. Stir in the egg yolks, and then the pureed beet. Gently fold in the egg white mixture, and then add the sifted dry ingredients. Careful not to overmix: less mixing = fluffier cake.
Pour the batter, which should be a deep shade of crimson, into the lined cake tin, and put it in the preheated oven. When it’s in, turn the heat down to 320F and bake for 45 minutes.
When the cake is done, it’ll still be a little jiggly in the centre, and the outside edges will spring back when you (gently) poke at it. It’s delicate: don’t try to remove it from the pan till it’s completely cool.
Dollop big spoonfuls of crème fraîche on thick slices of cake.
This will keep in an airtight container in the fridge for a few days.
what to do with your leftover...
Anytime I have leftover cooked beets, I simply douse them in olive oil and salt and eat them as is. But I recognize that not everyone is a lifetime seasoned beet-eater, so if this is too hardcore for you, dice them into a salad—they play well with sharp greens, goat cheese, and an acidic vinaigrette.
Add to pasta sauce for creaminess and tang, spoon into soup for the same, or use in place of sour cream on a baked potato.