One of the many injustices of life is the over-the-top abundance of food from the garden –that you must attend to before it goes bad – which arrives when you would rather be whiling away the brief end-of-summer days by the sea, or a pool, or really anywhere but the kitchen. I love warm weather, and if I am deprived of any of it for the brief time it arrives on this little island, in this particularly rainy village, I get a little disgruntled.
Well, I say that, but I also happen to love the kitchen. Lucky for me that I can earn my living doing what I love, but even I can be a little daunted by 30 or 40 kilos of beetroot arriving in the college kitchen with the gardeners’ pleas to use it all up. My friend Ruth went to work making pickles and chutneys, and we both cracked on with the boiling, peeling, slicing and bagging of beetroot, ready to freeze and to be used later in the year, when the gardens have given up all their bounty for a long winter’s nap.
In amongst all this beetroot madness, we had a call for a birthday cake. I think you may see where I’m going with this.
Putting vegetables in a cake is not unusual, but finding the right balance is key. I made a parsnip cake once, and while 4 out of 5 people in my family liked it, I did not, mainly because of the pernicious taste of parsnip. Carrots, courgettes (zucchini), and tomatoes are all good contenders for cakes – although strictly speaking tomatoes are a fruit and therefore might be a little more expected – and they all add moistness, sweetness, and because they are not incredibly strong in flavour, they blend in well with other ingredients.
But I had a hard time finding a recipe for a cake with beetroot. Despite the fact that beetroot is packed with fibre, folate (vitamin B9), manganese, potassium, iron and vitamin C, it has a natural sweetness to it, which makes it a great candidate for a cake ingredient. Beetroot is also quite earthy in flavour, but that quality can add an intriguing depth to the cake which may surprise unsuspecting eaters. Still, a quick perusal of the cookbooks left me coming up empty, so I checked the internet, and this is where I found inspiration.
Some people advocated adding raw, grated beetroot to the cake batter, but I thought that might keep the earthy flavour at the forefront; I was also concerned that the beetroot might not cook fully, and I wanted this to be a birthday cake, not a salad. So recipes that called for cooked and puréed beetroot seemed the way to go. (There are also recipes that are gluten-free, dairy free, and vegan too, but I like to stick with a conventional recipe when I’m just starting out – which is to say that I made a gluten-free vegan cake second, but I’m not ready to share that yet, as it needs a little work). The recipe I used is incredibly simple, so I did tweak it a little, and I’m glad I did.
Let me tell you, the resulting cake was moist, sweet, and chocolatey, with not a vegetable-y thing about it (except for the little unseen halo over the nutritional content). I’m so happy with the results that I have made it for my own family. High praise came from The Son, who all of a sudden has declared that he wouldn’t mind not eating anymore (this after I told him about the drink called Soylent) but when pressed he said he would drink his dinner and then eat cake, because it is “delicious.” So we can safely call that a win. I think.
Chocolate Beetroot Cake
Adapted from a recipe by Lenna on All Recipes.co.uk
The original recipe is similar to a typical sweet quick bread, in that it uses vegetable oil for the fat and baking soda for the raising agent. It is also incredibly easy, and I think it would be pretty hard to mess it up, no matter how little experience you have in the kitchen. Still, there’s always room for improvement, which to me means butter and brown sugar.
When your cake is done. you can eat it as we originally did – plain – or you can add a dollop of whipped cream, which truly takes this cake to great gastronomical heights. If you’re feeling really ambitious, you can add ganache, or any frosting you like, and you could make the candied beetroot; mind you, it is very sweet, but it still has the original beetroot flavour, so it’s not for everyone, but it’s so pretty! (Recipes for ganache and candied beetroot at end*.)
Makes one 23cm cake, which is high enough to split and fill, if you like.
- 250-300g (8-10 oz) beetroot
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 150g (3/4 C) granulated sugar
- 150g (3/4 C packed) brown sugar
- 225g (8 oz) unsalted butter, melted
- 3 eggs
- 225g (2 1/4 C) plain flour
- 1.5 tsp bicarbonate of soda (baking soda)
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 60g (1/2 C) unsweetened cocoa powder
The first thing you need to do is cook and purée your beetroot. Wash the beetroot well, put it in a saucepan and cover with cold water.Bring it to a boil and then reduce the heat slightly and let it cook for anywhere from 20 -40 minutes, depending on size. (If you have one big 300g beet, it will take longer; if you have three 100g beets, it should be fairly quick.) To test for doneness, poke a knife into the centre of the largest beetroot. When the knife meets no resistance, the beetroot is cooked. Drain, leave to cool, cut off the root top, and then rub the skin off. Purée the beetroot in the food processor, or mash well with a fork or potato masher. The smoother you can get it, the more uniform your resulting cake will be. You want to end up with 250g of purée. (If you like to plan things in advance, now is the time to make about 1kg of pureed beetroot and store it in the freezer in 250g packs, ready for cake in the winter months.)
Preheat oven to 180 C / Gas 4. Line the base of a 23cm springform pan or similar sized baking tin with parchment.
In a large bowl, combine the puréed beetroot, vanilla, both sugars, butter and eggs. Sift the flour, bicarb, salt and cocoa powder directly over, and beat in vigorously. (Alternatively, you could use a food mixer, which is what I did.)
Pour the batter into the prepared tin, and bake for 25 to 30 minutes until done. (The centre of the cake should feel the same as the edges when you gently tap it, and a toothpick inserted into the centre should come out clean.)
Release the springform from the cake, and let cool on a rack. Eat it as is, or you can doll it up all you like; this cake is versatile!
*To make candied beetroot, thinly slice a small raw beetroot into slivers or rounds – any shape you like, really, just keep them thin. Place in a small saucepan with equal amounts of sugar and water – you want the beetroot to be just covered with this solution. I also added the juice of 1 orange to mine. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer and let it cook for about 20 minutes, taking care that the liquid does not boil away completely.It is done when the liquid has become a thick syrup and the beetroot is cooked and very sticky. Place the beetroot pieces on a sheet of parchment or a metal rack to cool. If you are not using it straightaway, store it in an airtight container once it is cool.
*To make chocolate ganache, measure out 350g (12 oz) of good quality chocolate (I used organic chocolate drops) into a deep bowl and set aside. Measure out 200ml (7 oz) of double cream (heavy cream) into a saucepan, and heat on medium until it is just coming to a boil. Pour the heated cream over the chocolate (use a rubber spatula to get every drop!) and let this mixture stand, untouched for 2 minutes. Now stir the chocolate and cream together, slowly at first; some of the chocolate will already be melted, and the rest will melt from the stirring. It may seem like it’s separating, but keep going and it should all come together. At the end, if you have any bits of chocolate that haven’t melted, you can use an immersion blender to whiz up the whole lot, and that should do the trick. When the ganache has cooled slightly, start pouring it on the cake. You may have to do this in stages; if the ganache is too warm, it will run down the sides of the cake, and if it is too cool, it will not be spreadable.