The recipe exceeded my expectations

I’ve become increasingly aware of something over the past year: Despite the fact that I talk a lot about food, I don’t actually do a lot of cooking. Some might consider that this is because I’m married to a chef, but there’s more to it than that. Jamie gets most of his cooking out while at our Food Bar, and once we pass into the threshold of our home, I become the Primary Chef.

It’s not that I don’t cook, per say. It’s more that I’m not overly adventurous with my everyday cooking — that is to say, I don’t create a glamorous collection of weekday meals. When I come home at night, I’ve already put forth a lot of energy around food and am content to eat simple, understated meals, like roasted vegetables and scrambled eggs, or creamy beans with hot sauce. Oh! Or cold roasted chicken dipped in mustard, with more roasted vegetables and a couple of squares of dark chocolate for dessert. I have no hangups with eating honest, earthy meals that don’t require a lot of time in the kitchen day in and day out, but that, none the less, signify home and good eating to me.

But then, November rolls around and something starts to change. It starts off as a slow nudge to linger a little more in my kitchen. Then, by the middle of December, that nudge becomes a straight up shove. I want to linger over cookbooks, and carefully consider the perfect assortment of dishes for my family’s holiday meal. Dishes that offer a quietly thoughtful balance of flavor and texture, nourishment and pleasure.

I made such a dish last Christmas. Jamie and I had recently moved into our new home, and my mom and brothers (and their respective dogs) were sleeping over for Christmas Eve. The holiday season is a delicate time for me and my family. It’s filled with especially fond memories of my dad, who delighted in Christmas — memories followed by the heavy, enduring grief of his absence. I liken it to getting punched in the gut a few times a day throughout the month of December. (Or more accurately, what I imagine that would feel like, because I’ve never actually been punched in the gut.)

Last year, I wanted to break tradition a little and prepare a meal that comforted. We were ending our first full year in the food bar and coming down from the whirlwind of our wedding, so we were all in need of a low-key, restorative dinner. I wanted to eat simply, but well. The recipe exceeded my expectations.

Regretfully, it’s been too long since I’ve eaten the dish to provide an ample description for you. But I will say that it was one I wanted to eat straight from the refrigerator; never mind a plate and utensils, or a quick reheat. It was good either which way. I think you’ll agree.

Roasted-Squash Salad
From the Dec. 20, 2015 New York Times Magazine

  • 5 tablespoons dried currants
  • 1/4 cup, plus 2 tbsp white-wine vinegar
  • 1 kabocha squash (about 3 to 4 pounds)
  • 1/3 cup olive oil*
  • 1/2 tablespoon kosher salt
  • 1 tbsp plus 3/4 teaspoon ground fennel seed
  • 1 tbsp plus 3/4 tsp ground sumac
  • 1 tbsp plus 3/4 tsp ground coriander
  • 1/2 cup chopped parsley, packed
  • 1/2 cup chopped cilantro, packed
  • 1/4 cup plus 2 tbsp freshly squeezed lime juice (about 3 to 4 limes)
  • 1/2 cup pistachios, toasted and chopped
  • 1/2 cup firm feta cheese, diced

You’ll want to start the currants several hours or the day before you want to serve this dish. Put the currants in a small bowl, and pour the white-wine vinegar over them. Let them soften for several hours or overnight.

Heat the oven to 450. Cut the squash in half and scoop out the seeds. If you want, you can peel both halves of the squash, but, you can skip this part, too. The skin is edible, but also easily removable after the squash has cooked. Slice the squash into 1/4-inch half moons. Brush the slices with 1 to 2 tablespoons of olive oil and season them with the salt.

Place the squash on parchment-lined baking sheet and roast for 15 to 20 minutes, flipping the half-moons once or twice throughout the roasting process, until soft and caramelized.

While the squash is cooling, combine the fennel seed, sumac and coriander in a medium-sized bowl. Add the parsley and cilantro and stir to combine. Add 1/3 cup olive oil and stir to coat the spices and herbs. You want a wet mixture, so add a tablespoon or two more, if you need to, to get it there.

Drain the vinegar from the currants, reserving the vinegar for the green sauce, and add the currants to the green sauce. Add the lime juice, pistachios, cheese, and 5 teaspoons of the reserved vinegar to the green sauce. Taste for flavor and add more olive oil, vinegar or lime juice, if you like. Season for salt after tasting as well.

Place the squash on a platter and spoon the dressing over the top.

Yields 4-6 servings.

*A note about the olive oil: The original recipe calls for about 3/4 cup of olive oil, which felt a little heavy for my taste. I started with adding 1/3 cup of oil to the green sauce, then added more in small amounts, after all of the ingredients were added to the sauce, to get a balanced flavor that suited my tastes. I trust you’ll find the amount that pleases your palette, too.

A cake, an apology, and a promise

I made you a cake! Well, technically I made it for my mother’s birthday dinner, but I had your interests at heart, too. My mom and I celebrate our birthdays only five days apart — mine is on the 15th and her’s is on the 20th — so I also kiiiind of made it for myself. Either way, I think we all win.

I hope you don’t mind that this cake has a vegetable in it. With the obvious exceptions (like carrot cake and pumpkin or zucchini bread), I admittedly become a little hesitant when I see unusual ingredients, such as beets, in a dessert recipe. But, as I’ve said before, if Nigel does it, I’ll gladly reconsider.

Before we go any further though, I need to tell you something that relates to cake. (Loooooong siiiigh.) I feel silly about it, but here it goes: I wrote a blog post once called something along the lines of “How to slay the sugar dragon”…

HAAAAAA ha ha haaa, ahhhhh, HA ha haaa, oooooohhhhhh god.

As you can imagine, this is a fact that makes me both laugh hysterically at myself, and viscerally cringe for contributing to such noise around sugar and food and eating. I feel like, in writing such words, I made of villain of things like cake. And cookies! And muffins!! And pumpkin bread!!! Which in some way feels like I’ve villain-ized my grandmother, and maybe yours, too, if she likes to lovingly bake you cookies and cakes and muffins and breads. Not that baking is reserved solely for grandmothers (or women, for that matter). I might have made of villain of your grandfather, too! Oh noooooooo. This was a huge mistake. I did not mean to make baked goods or your grandparents, or anyone else who bakes for you, out to be bad guys. From the bottom of my heart and the deepest cake pan I can find, I’m so, so sorry. Please accept this cake as a token of my apology, and a promise to never write such potentially harmful words EVER again. From here on out, let’s create a world, or at least a space, where any baked good is viewed as a symbol of love, kindness, and sweet grandmothers/grandfathers, instead fear and other not-fun feelings. Deal?

Phew. Now on to the cake. I made it three Tuesdays ago, the night of my mom’s birthday dinner. It required more athletic baking skills than I was prepared for that day, but it came together nicely; and, despite the fact that my mom was just a weeeee bit curious as to whether or not our guests would embrace a cake with beets in it (gasp!) (I love you, Mom), it received praise all around. When we had all finished wiping up and licking clean the last bits of crumbs and crème fraîche with our fingers, my Uncle John confessed that, before tasting the cake, he’d secretly wished for a cup of coffee to go with it. But upon first bite, he deemed the coffee irrelevant. The cake stands alone.

I had plans to take a nice photo of the finished cake. But, currently I’m not much good at keeping plans that aren’t absolutely required of me. But a couple of mornings ago, I started to feel a pressing need to get this cake out of my head (and refrigerator) and on to this blog. So I took a lazy photo, then ate the last piece of it for breakfast while leaning over the kitchen counter — at that point feeling a pressing need to get to our Food Bar to meet the day’s duties.

Chocolate Beet Cake
This, however, is not the kind of cake you want to eat, or make for that matter, in a hurry. This is the kind of cake you want to spend some time with. From the marble-y swirls that happen when the butter melts into the chocolate, to it’s complex and just-sweet-enough taste, this cake subtly seduces the senses. It makes you want to sway in your seat a little bit — and, if you’re me, you just might do it. And maybe, just maybe, your eyes will roll around and lose focus for a second, your other senses deeming what’s happening in the Taste Realm far more interesting and important to function properly. The cake doesn’t knock you over with it’s sweetness, and doesn’t make you feel like you’re eating vegetables for dessert either. When all was said and done and eaten, I decided that this cake is exactly the kind I’d like to have in my repertoire — for birthdays, apologies, holidays, and the like. I think you’ll agree.

Nigel Slater’s An extremely moist chocolate beetroot cake with crème fraîche and poppy seeds
From Tender, Volume I: A cook and his vegetable patch

A quick note about the measurements in this recipe: When baking, I typically pull out my scale and measure by weight rather than volume. Unfortunately, all of my brain power went to pulling together my mom’s birthday dinner, and I didn’t think to convert the main measurements from grams to cups for you. I’ll be sure to think of that next time.

About the chocolate: I had some dark-chocolate chips on hand from the Food Bar and used those. They worked fine and eliminated the need to chop more things.

One last thing: the original recipe calls for golden caster sugar which is a fine granulated sugar popular in and unique to the UK. I had some cane sugar on hand so that’s what I used and, as far as I know, it worked just fine. Per David’s suggestion, I did give the sugar a quick zizz in the blender, which produced a fine, powdery consistency; but I don’t know that it was that important of a step. If you have granulated sugar on hand, this should work nicely, too.

  • 250 grams beets, rinsed and scrubbed to remove dirt
  • 200 grams semisweet or dark chocolate (60-70% cacao solids), chopped if not using choclate chips
  • 4 Tbsp. hot coffee (or water, if you don’t feel like making coffee)
  • 200 grams room-temperature butter, cut into small pieces (the smaller the better)
  • 135 grams flour (I used an all-purpose gluten-free flour mix)
  • 1 heaped tsp. baking powder
  • 3 Tbsp. cacao powder/unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 5 eggs, separated at room temperature
  • 190 grams (roughly one cup) sugar
  • crème fraîche and poppy seeds to serve

Start by cooking the beets, whole and unpeeled, in boiling water until they’re very tender. You want them to be “knifepoint tender” which will take 30-45 minutes. Younger beets might take less time. While the beets are cooking, weigh out/gather the other ingredients.

When the beets are done, drain them, then let them cool under cold running water. Cut off the stem and root, peel them, then “blitz to a rough purée” in a food processor. (I love you, Nigel.)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Lightly butter an 8- or 8 1/2 inch springform pan and line the bottom with parchment paper.

Melt the chocolate, which should be chopped into small pieces if you’re not using chocolate chips, in a small bowl that’s resting over a pot of simmering water. Stir as little as possible.

When the chocolate is nearly melted, pour the hot coffee or water over it and give it a quick stir. Only one or two stirs will do. Turn the heat to low, then add the cubed butter to the melted chocolate, pressing the butter into the chocolate with a spoon to soften. Don’t stir.

Sift together the flour, cacao powder, and baking powder in a separate bowl. Separate the eggs, and be sure to put the egg whites in a larger mixing bowl. Stir the yolks together.

Remove the bowl of chocolate from heat, and stir until the butter has completely melted into the chocolate. Let this (beautiful) mixture sit for a few minutes to cool, then stir in the egg yolks. Work quickly, mixing firmly and evenly so the eggs blend into the mixture. Next, fold in the beets.

Using a hand-mixer, whip the egg whites until stiff. Fold the sugar into the whipped egg whites with a spatula. Then, using a large metal spoon, fold the egg whites/sugar into the melted chocolate mixture — careful not to overtax. Finally, fold in the flour and cacao powder.

Scrape the batter into the prepared cake tin and put it in the oven, turning the heat down to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. Bake the cake for 40 minutes, or until the rim of the cake is set/spongy and the center still a little wobbly when shaken.

Let the cake cool completely, loosening it around the edges with a dinner knife after 30 minutes or so. Don’t remove the cake from it’s pan until it’s completely cool. Serve in thick slices, with a smear of crème fraîche and a sprinkle of poppy seeds.

I stored the leftover cake in the refrigerator for a whole week, but the cake tasted best on the second and third days.

(Okay, as an aside, can we please talk about how wonderful Nigel’s title for this recipe is?)