Sunday, March 23, 2008

Chocolate (Beet) Cake

The curiosity that is red velvet cake has been on my mind for some time now. Specifically, how did it come to be, and what, in particular, makes it red? To address the latter, beets have long ranked high on my list of suspects. I figured that the cake doesn’t find its “roots” in red food dye, so to speak. Why would anyone dump a vat of red food coloring into an otherwise perfectly fine chocolate cake?

A vat of food coloring? The New York Times ran an article a while ago with a recipe for red velvet cake. It calls for 6 Tbs of red food dye. That’s more than 1/3 cup coloring. I bet the box mix isn’t much different. I’m not against food coloring on my Christmas cookies, but this seemed ridiculous.

Refusing to succumb to modern convenience left me without red velvet cake for some time. Last week, I was browsing my Moosewood Dessert cookbook and what did I happen upon? None other than a recipe for "Red Devil Cake"… Beets! Vindication! I immediately set about collecting the ingredients for said cake.

Next problem: the ingredients include a can of beets. At Vons, my beet options were limited. I rolled the can around in my hand for a bit, checked the list of ingredients. Beets were followed by high fructose corn syrup and vinegar. "That's not the cake I want to make," I thought. Then I meandered over to the “fresh” produce section and found a small cluster of very sterile-looking overpriced limp beets. The only thing to do in this situation was to head over to Peoples, where bought delicious fresh beets, with hairy roots and dirt still clinging to them.

My excitement was mounting.

Got them home, scrubbed them clean, quartered them and put them in a pot with water to cover. Boiled them for about 45 min, until they were done, then removed them from their liquid and let them cool down to room temp, at which point I peeled them. I boiled the cooking liquid down a bit more to concentrate the color (not sure if this is necessary, but I was determined to turn chocolate cake red) and let that cool as well.

When everything was cool to touch, I pureed the beets (1 lb) in the blender with about 1/2 cup of the cooking liquid until smooth. Set that aside, it was nice and red. Beet-y. Once the beets were ready, everything else went quickly. Of course, if you use the canned beets, all you have to do is puree those beets with 1/2 c of their liquid and you're ready to go. In either case, the recipe calls for 1.25 cups of beet puree.

The cake:

Whisk 3 eggs well. Then whisk in, until very smooth:
1.5 c. sugar
1/2 c. vegetable oil
1 tsp vanilla
1/2 tsp salt
1.25 c beet puree

The following dry ingredients should be sifted together and gradually added to the wet, whisking until smooth:
1.5 c (180 g) unbleached white flour
3/4 c (65 g) non-alkalized (not dutch-processed) unsweetened cocoa powder
1/4 tsp baking soda

Pour into prepared cake pan- buttering and flouring the bottom of the pan is sufficient. If you do this all the way ‘round the edges, the cake may have trouble rising. The book says to use a 9-inch pan, I used a 7-inch pan to make it taller, but had to bake it longer. I also did a few muffins and mini-muffins for kicks. Bake at 350 until done (at least 35 min).

While the cake baked, I made the frosting:
Beat 4 egg yolks on high speed 2-3 min until they lighten. Let that sit while you make a simple syrup by heating 1/2 c sugar in 1/4 c water on the stove. Bust out your candy thermometer- the book instructs us to heat the syrup to 239F. Once you reach this magic point (I suspect this has to do with both the consistency of the syrup at this temperature) Immediately remove from heat.

While beating the egg yolks on high speed, add the syrup gradually. Beat until it's not hot to touch (5 min). Add 3/4-1 c butter a bit at a time, beating well. When finally thick and creamy, beat in 1 tsp vanilla and 2 oz melted chocolate, cooled to room temperature.

Let the cake cool and frost away…

The result?

The frosting is delicious. Not sweet in that ominous-raincloud way that is fun to look at, but can ruin part of your day. Rather, sweet in cumulous cloud sort of way, soft and fluffy.

The cake is quite good, too. Moist and chocolate-y. I can taste the beets, but no one else seemed to be able to. (The sample size included at least 10.) Tasty though it was, I was disappointed that it wasn’t red! Seriously, mine was a very dark chocolate cake.

After reading more on red velvet cake, here’s my take on the situation:
Before cocoa was processed (alkalized, raising its pH from 5 to 7ish), which gives it a milder flavor and darker color, chocolate cakes sometimes took on a reddish hue due to a reaction of the cocoa, itself an acid, with acidic batter. So, the vinegar which I eschewed in the canned beets is important. I think that to enhance the redness, I could use less cocoa and add in vinegar. Many recipes also call for buttermilk. I suspect that the moistness of the beets can take the place of the buttermilk, but the buttermilk is also acidic. I might blend the beets in 1/2 c buttermilk.

I’m sure a chocolate cake with a red hue can come from this. But I now see my initial suspicions were off… I think red food dye made its way into the cake before the beets did. Cooks were trying to amp up the red color, especially with the advent of the processed cocoa. The beets found their way in there when sugar got pricey.

This discovery that beets in cake is good brings me one step closer to my ultimate fruit-and-root cake, which will include carrots, beets, pineapple, raisins. Maybe apples and coconut if I get crazy.


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Jen said...

Thank you for blogging about this cake. I have been looking for the recipe for a while and have found a lot of variations to the Moosewood version. The beets really make it nice and moist and many people (even teenagers!) can't taste the special ingredient.

I am actually thinking of using this recipe to make a volcano cake for a child's birthday party. I noticed the comment about not flouring all of the sides or it won't rise so I'll keep that in mind for the bundt pan layer.

I'm curious if you think this cake is too moist for me to make three layers of it in order to achieve the desired shape. It's been a couple of years since I made it so I'm a little unsure about that.

Thanks again!

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