Monday, January 30, 2012

Uncommonly luxurious

Chocolate-beet cake
I want to be upfront about one thing--making this cake right here, it can get a little messy. Flour can fly. Chocolate can splatter. Yolks can run. Beets can splash. Don your apron. Have a stack of kitchen towels at the ready. Trust me, you'll need them.
But let's back up a bit. Beets? In a cake? Yes, and they make for an uncommonly luxurious one, one that is velvety, dark, and yielding--every bit the chocolate cake of my dreams. And I'm saying this as a girl who almost never goes out of her way to bake with chocolate, who lets half a bar of Scharffen Berger languish in the pantry for nearly a year. It's not that I don't like chocolate. Often enough, it's just that I'm more captivated by other things (lemons, tomato jam, salted caramel). But this chocolate cake--I've fallen for it. After my friends left the other night, I snuck a second slice. I couldn't resist.
Some beets
Boiled, peeled beets
And the beets? Their presence is a little hard to describe. It's faint after baking, just a quiet harmony against that dark, resonant chocolate. They make a good pair (next, I'm thinking: dark-chocolate and beet ganache).
Unsurprisingly, maybe, this cake is Nigel Slater's. If you're not familiar with him, you should know that he's a man who cultivates and cooks his vegetables with real affection. He appreciates each on its own terms. He works to make them all sing. The chocolate cake is from his recent book, Tender. I received it about a month ago, and it has kept me spellbound. It is lovingly written, the sort of cookbook that you can curl up with at the end of the day and just read. It is page after page of gorgeous vegetables, inviting recipes. I've been cooking a lot of wintery one-pot dinners from it lately, but the recipe for this cake was the first that caught my eye. A beet-laden cake topped with crème fraîche and poppy seeds? Say no more.
Puree and chocolate
Whipped egg whites
Tender has made me want to take more care with my vegetables, to coax new things out of them, to lavish them with whatever they deserve. And what better way to start than with butter and dark chocolate? (Okay, that could get dangerous...)
An afternoon slice of chocolate-beet cake

An extremely moist chocolate-beet cake with crème fraîche and poppy seeds
Adapted from Nigel Slater's Tender
Note: Crème fraîche and poppy seeds. Slater says that these are not just a nod to beets' Eastern European heart but an important part of the cake. I agree. They play beautifully against the chocolate's deep notes. Take the trouble of getting both. Reserve them until you're just about to serve the cake. Otherwise, you'll end up with sodden cake and crème fraîche shot through with hot-pink streaks. Pan size. Slater uses an 8-inch spring-form and bakes the cake for forty minutes. I think most of us in North America have 9-inchers for the standard cheesecakes we've learned to bake from our mothers, so I've adjusted the baking times accordingly below. Make ahead. The cake keeps well for a couple of days on the counter wrapped in plastic. Somehow, it's even more moist on the second day.

8 oz / 250 g beets (about 4 small or 2 medium ones)
7 oz / 200 g good-quality bittersweet chocolate (70 percent cocoa solids)
4 tablespoons hot espresso
1 3/4 sticks / 200 g unsalted butter
1 cup + 2 tablespoons / 135 g all-purpose flour
1 heaping teaspoon baking powder
3 tablespoons good-quality cocoa powder
5 eggs, separated and at room temperature
1 scant cup / 190 g sugar
crème fraîche and poppy seeds, to serve

Lightly butter a nine-inch springform cake pan and line with a round of parchment paper. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
Cook the beets, whole and unpeeled, in boiling unsalted water. Depending on their size, they will be tender when pierced with the tip of a knife within thirty to forty minutes. Young ones may take slightly less. Drain them, let them cool under running water, then rub their skins off with your fingers, slice of their stem and root, and then process in a blender or food processor to a coarse purée.
Melt the chocolate, broken into small pieces, in a large 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 and add to the melted chocolate. Push the butter down under the surface of the chocolate with a spoon (as best you can) and let soften.
Sift together the flour, baking powder, and cocoa. 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 still, then fold in the sugar. Firmly but gently, fold the beaten egg whites and sugar into the chocolate mixture. A large metal spoon (or a large flexible spatula) is what you want here; work in a deep, figure-eight movement but take care not to overmix. 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 thirty to thirty-five minutes. The rim of the cake will feel spongy, the inner part should still wobble a little when the pan is gently shaken.
Set the cake aside to cool (it will sink a tad in the centre), 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.
Makes for 12 modest slices.


  1. I have seen this cake pop up so much on different blogs and each time I tell myself I need to make it. I love beets and chocolate so I'm really curious how they play out together. I must say yours fits the "extremely moist" part of its name--it looks really great. And that huge hunk of chocolate!! Ooph I have got to get myself one of those.

  2. Amy, you really should make it. I know it's still only January, but I feel as though this will have been one of the stand-out cakes of my year. I will emphasize, however, that the beets' presence is definitely quiet in the finished cake. If you want to get a better idea of what beets and chocolate really taste like together, dip a finger in the cake batter before it goes into the oven. The beets are really in the cake to make it super-moist, molten even, but beets and chocolate do pair well.
    Doesn't everyone's local grocery store sell 1 lb bricks of Callebaut?

  3. Katie, This cake looks terrific. I wonder whether there would be a way to mod. this, take out the chocolate (or replace some of it with cocoa, and get a 'naturally' red red velvet cake...?

  4. Haha, I'm pretty sure the only store within biking distance of where I live is the smallest Safeway I've ever seen... and I'm lucky to get 4 oz. bars of ghirardelli there! Really. I'm jealous.

    And I forgot to mention in my first comment-- I love that new picture icon in the top corner.

  5. Agnes, I have to admit that I've never actually made or eaten red velvet cake. I'm going to chalk that up to it being an American thing and not so common in Canada. So, I'm not really in a place to say anything about how to turn this beet cake into red velvet. What I can say is that the cocoa powder seemed to be the real culprit in making the cake as dark as it was. The cake batter was more milk-chocolate-coloured until the cocoa powder and flour got folded I think leaving out the cocoa powder might be the thing to do. But that might just leave you a light-brown cake. And adding more beets would probably change the cake's consistency. Food colouring is a strange thing, but it is awfully convenient.

    Amy, thanks, my boyfriend kindly obliged and played photographer. I'm sorry about your chocolate situation. Good-quality chocolate in bulk is really hard to find sometimes. I was surprised to see the Callebaut turn up down the street from me.

  6. Your cake looks incredibly delicious and moist! I think I might just have to try this recipe...

  7. Makes sense; I don't really mind food coloring, I just thought it would be neat to get that effect with beets. (And I thought it might make the cake moister too.)

    For chocolate-seekers: I buy all my chocolate online, from They have everything, and it's cheaper than the supermarket. They do charge for shipping but if you buy in reasonably large quantities (chocolate and cocoa last forever; I make a purchase about every year and a half), it's not much more than what our Chicago supermarkets charge for sales tax.

  8. Your cake looks amazing - and (if you know me at all) cake and vegetables?? sign me the heck up!

    I adore Nigels recipes - he has literally never let us down and I think like 3 recipes on my blog are pretty much his (the most standout being the baked feta one!). My big cake project at the moment is my BFF's wedding cake... which I dont think I can put beets in?... but as oon as thats over I want to get on board!

    And sorry for overlooking you in the Bloody Maria post.. maybe I should have said West Coasters?? :) HAve a great weekend!

  9. Thanks, Courtney. Do give the cake a try.

    Agnes, thanks for the recommendation. It would be nice to get my hands on some Valrhona, especially at that price, and feves are way more convenient than bricks.

    Em, I'll have to check out the Slater recipes you've posted. Tender is such a huge tome that sometimes it's hard to know where to start.
    Wow, a wedding cake! I'd love to work on one of those one day. Can't wait to hear about it. I wouldn't say no to a wedding cake with beets in it, but I guess not everyone likes their cake and vegetables all in one place.

  10. Beets & chocolate. Oh my. Diving in. :)

  11. I'm back again! I made this cake from your site about 4 months ago for my sister's birthday and i'm here again to make it for my best friends birthday upon her request. It is truly something special. Thank you. : )