If nobody told you this dessert was composed primarily of root vegetables, you’d simply think it was a magnificent fudge bar — moist like a rainforest, rich like a truffle and creamy like a cheesecake. It is what it is because of beets and carrots, not in spite of them. The fact that a single piece of this decadence contains two servings of vegetables and half a day’s worth of fiber only compounds the satisfaction.
Though it tastes nothing like beet or carrot, their sweet and bitter flavors subtly enhance the impact of the cocoa powder, flanking its bitter tones with their own harmonies like background vocalists. The beets and carrots give a starchy, sturdy thickness, along with sweetness. You can bake this cake with very little added sugar — or, if you’re truly hardcore, none at all.
Beets and carrots are both in season year-round because they’re always available either fresh or in the cooler. This means you can make this cake with local, fresh ingredients at any time.
In spring, many farmers market vendors have baby beets for sale by the bunch alongside big storage beets that were harvested in the fall. The same goes with carrots — bunches of small, new carrots with the tops still on, for sale next to big, old carrots from last year.
I brought home young and old specimens from each species and ran side-by-side trials with zero added sugar. My impression was that new carrots and old beets make the best chocolate beet cake. The new carrots are sweeter and juicier, while the old carrots are drier and more “carroty.” These differences are subtle, however, compared to the differences in new versus old beets. The small, new beets have a more intense, earthy flavor that you can easily differentiate in a side-by-side. But part of the magic of beet cake is not remembering you’re eating your veggies.
A pack of neighborhood kids, some of them mine, wandered into the house. I offered them samples, and after the crumbs settled, they confirmed my conclusions. Their favorite was the one with new carrots and old beets. The cake with new beets, Louie complained, “had too much flavor.”
There’s some added sugar in the cake, of course, but with all of the sweetness the beets and carrots bring, it doesn’t take much at all.
The olive oil, mayonnaise and heavy cream further enrich the cake, collaborating on a silkiness that makes you think of mousse, not hairy taproots pulled from the dirt.
A simple frosting of whipped cream and lemon zest rounds out the dish. The zest highlights bright vegetal notes from the roots without fully exposing them. Apply cream and zest with abandon. The cake is half dirt, after all. There’s nothing to feel guilty about.
Chocolate beet bars
The amount of sugar you add is totally subjective. Taste the batter and decide. It will probably taste sweeter than you expected, thanks to the beets and carrots, but perhaps you’ll want it sweeter still.
Simmer the grated beets and carrots in 6 cups of water for 20 minutes, then strain. Put the purple liquid back in the pot and reduce it gently to about a cup. Blend the shredded beets and carrots with 2 to 4 tablespoons of the liquid. Use as much as necessary to allow a smooth vortex to form. Blend until glassy smooth. Add vanilla, cream, oil, mayo and egg and blend again briefly until smooth.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Combine the dry ingredients (flour, cocoa, baking soda, salt, sugar) in a mixing bowl. Add the puree to the dry ingredients and mix. Taste and add sugar if necessary, or up to a half cup of chocolate chips. Pour into a buttered 8-by-11-inch baking pan.
Bake for about an hour, or until a knife comes out clean. Let cool, top with whipped cream and sprinkle with lemon zest.
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