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?)

I had plans

I had plans to come here today to talk about chocolate cake. Nigel Slater’s chocolate cake, to be exact, made with good butter and sweet, steamed beets. I was also going to tell you about how I’ve grown suspicious of desserts that include things like beets or avocados or sweet potatoes, because the descriptions of said recipes usually include words like “guilt-free” and “safe,” and these are words and ways of thinking that I don’t like hearing or using when it comes to food. However, when David Leibovitz does it because Nigel Slater did it, my suspicions soften and turn trusting, and I make a plan to make a cake.

Ahhh, but then my plan to make the cake three(!) Mondays ago, turned into another plan to make the cake three Tuesdays ago, and, well, seeing how three-plus weeks have passed since making said plan, you know how that turned out. It’s not that I don’t want to make Nigel’s cake. I want to make most things Nigel writes about, and have not been disappointed in my endeavors. No, it’s more true that I haven’t found the right opportunity to bake, and putting unnecessary pressure on myself is bad for me. So instead I resort to splitting one or two of the French chocolates our sweet customer, Myelene, brought back for us from Paris, and, well, that’s not terrible. So the chocolate cake gets put on hold until the next day (and then the next week), and I spend the evening doing whatever pleases me, which is usually reading or watching Six Feet Under or lingering around the dinner table with Jamie or watching movies with my brothers, like the old days.

2016_08_23
Right now, I want to eat and make foods that require as little fuss as possible. And considering the story I just told you about the cake, you’d be right in assuming that I don’t really want to do a whole lot of making. But, there are only so many times we can eat from our food establishment’s menu before things become a little uninspiring and boring.

So a few dinners ago, while taking stock of available ingredients on hand for what would be our dinner, I set out to eat something not boring. Thirty minutes later, I had what I needed for a sort-of(?) Niçoise salad. I don’t remember when I first learned of a Niçoise salad. But seeing that, as it currently stands, my cooking ideas come from only a small handful of cooks who write, I didn’t have to look far to find a direction for what I had to work with, which was: sardines, capers, eggs, mixed farm greens, red onion, and black olives.

In my search for wisdom from some of my tried-and-trues, I came across a recipe of Molly’s for deviled eggs, which called for frying capers, and oh yes, that sounds great, I’ll do that, but, ohhh shoot!, I don’t have any tomatoes or green beans, Nigel, but, eh, I’ll use them next time. While the eggs were hardening, I pan-fried the sardines until the skin was brown and crispy, and the fat was aggressively popping out of the pan at me. Once those were out of the pan, I threw in the capers — they were much less dramatic I should add — and let them sizzle around until they popped open.

Next, I peeled the eggs, which might have been less frustrating if they were cooler, and after that I whisked together a quick vinaigrette that came from Nigel’s nicoise recipe, only I used apple cider vinegar instead of red-wine vinegar because it’s all I had. And when we sat down to eat this salad, we were very pleased with it’s simplicity and it’s elegance. It was a very good salad that required very little of me, which means it was a very, very good salad by this home’s definition.

I was going to take a picture of our plates, but they weren’t much to look at, and I highly doubt they would’ve motivated you to run to the kitchen to make your own. But, then again, I’ve grown a little suspicious of recipes that come with perfectly staged images — if I actually make the recipe, I usually end up disappointed in the outcome. It’s usually the plain, understated images that get my attention and favor. Oh look! I shared a suspicion with you after all. We’ve come full circle.

A Sort-of Niçosie Salad

  • 2 cans sardines
  • 3-4 hard-boiled eggs
  • 2 tablespoon capers
  • a few handfuls of leafy greens
  • black olives
  • red onion
  • tomatoes, if you have them

For the dressing:

  • 4 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 tbsp red wine vinegar (apple-cider vinegar works fine, too)
  • 1/2-1 tbsp Dijon mustard (if you like the kick of mustard, add 1 tbsp)
  • 2 small cloves of garlic — crushed and finely chopped
  • sea salt

Start by hard-boiling the eggs. Put them in a single layer in a large pot. Cover the eggs with cold water by an inch or so, then place the pot over medium-high heat. Let it come to a boil, then immediately cover the pot and remove it from the heat. Let the eggs sit for 12 minutes. Drain and rinse with cold water.

Next, pan-fry your sardines. I usually use one of two brands of sardines: Wild Planet Wild Sardines in Extra Virgin Olive Oil; or Crown Prince Natural Wild Caught Brisling Sardines, also in Extra Virgin Olive Oil. Split the fish and remove any bones. Put about half of the olive oil from one can of sardines into a skillet and warm it over medium heat. When it’s warm and glides easily around the pan, add the sardines. If you have a lid or screen to put over the skillet, you might have it near by — the sardines pop aggressively with heat. Sear each side of the sardines for 2-3 minutes. Remove to a paper towel.

Wipe out your skillet and add a splash of olive oil. (I used fresh olive oil to fry the capers, but don’t see why you couldn’t use the oil from the sardines?) Let it warm over medium-high heat. When it slides easily around the pan, add the capers — you want them to sizzle. Fry, shaking the capers around a few times, until they split open. This will only take a couple of minutes, and you’ll want to watch them so that they don’t brown. Once they’re ready, drain them on to a paper towel.

Make the dressing by whisking the vinegar and mustard together with the garlic and a three-finger pinch of sea salt. Then, whisk in the oil. Taste and adjust to your tastes.

By this point, the eggs should be sufficiently cool enough to peel. So peel them then cut them in half, whichever direction you please — horizontally or vertically.

Fill a couple of bowls with a heaping handful of greens, then add your toppings — sardines, eggs, olives, etc. Toss gently with the vinaigrette and serve.