If nobody told you it was half root crops, you’d simply think it was a magnificent chocolate torte, moist like a rainforest, rich like a truffle and dense like a brownie. 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 a half-day’s worth of fiber only compounds the satisfaction.
Although you don’t consciously taste 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 also lend their sturdy texture. And of course, both are sweet. You can bake this treat with very little added sugar — or if you’re truly hardcore, none at all.
For all intents and purposes, beets and carrots are both in season year-round because they are always available either freshly dug, or fresh from the cooler. This means you can make this cake with local ingredients in any season, but this time of year, which happens to be my birthday season, is also high season for chocolate beet cake.
I came to this conclusion while tweaking the recipe with beets and carrots from the farmer’s market. In spring, many vendors have baby beets by the bunch for sale alongside big storage beets harvested last fall, and bunches of small new carrots with the tops still on going next to big old carrots from last year.
I brought home young and old specimen from each species and ran side-by-side trials with zero added sugar. Sampled raw, the new carrots were sweeter and juicier than old carrots, but the reverse was true with the beets. The big old honkers from the root cellar were much sweeter than the youngsters with the leaves and long, hairy taproots.
Soon after the bars were done, a pack of neighborhood kids, some of them mine, wandered into the house, and 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 differences between batches in which carrot age was the variable were more subtle than when beet age was compared. The bars made with old beets were sweeter, while those made with new beets had, as my son Louie pointed out, “more flavor.” He did not mean this in a good way.
“More beet flavor,” he clarified.
If made with added sugar, mind you, these children-of-the-corn-syrup would praise and devour beet bars made with any aged root. And with all of the sweetness the beets and carrots bring, it doesn’t take much sugar at all. When Louie’s friend Ana tasted a slightly sweetened version and said, “It’s almost sweet enough,” I knew I’d nailed it.
The olive oil, mayonnaise and heavy cream that further enrich the cake, meanwhile, collaborate on a silkiness that makes you think of mousse, not earthy storage crops.
A simple frosting of whipped cream and lemon zest rounds out the experience. The zest highlights bright vegetal notes from the roots, without fully exposing them, and cream needs no introduction. Apply this topping with abandon. The cake is half dirt, after all. There is nothing to feel guilty about.
Chocolate Beet Bars
The amount of sugar you add is totally subjective. Taste the batter and decide — before adding the eggs, if you’re squeamish. It will probably taste sweeter than you expected, thanks to the beet and carrot, but perhaps you’ll want it sweeter still.
Makes a dense, one-inch deep bar in an 8 x 11-inch baking dish, or six 4-inch ramekins.
2 cups (½ pound) old red beets, grated (not peeled, unless you really want to)
1 cup (¼ pound) new carrots, grated (not peeled)
1 cup cocoa powder
1 cup heavy cream
1 cup flour
1 tsp baking soda1 tsp vanilla
½ teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon mayonnaise
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil½ cup sugar
Optional: more sugar to taste, or ½ cup dark chocolate chips
2 eggs, beaten
Optional: a cup of cream, whipped, with 2 teaspoons of lemon zest on hand with which to garnish
Simmer the grated beets and carrots in 6 cups of water for 20 minutes, and strain. Put the purple liquid back in the pot and reduce it gently to about a cup. Blend the shredded beets and carrots with 2-4 tablespoons of the liquid, 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 other ingredients and mix. Taste, add sugar if necessary, and up to a half cup of chocolate chips, as you see fit. Pour into a buttered 8 x 11-inch baking pan.
Bake for about an hour, or until a (clean) knife comes out clean. Let cool, top with whipped cream and sprinkle with lemon zest.