in praise of beets

Inherent glutton I may be, but as a kid I did push away a fair amount of food at the table.

I was never a picky-eater and my mother had strict rules about wasting food – hence my brother and I grew up eating almost everything that was served to us. Almost. There was a list of things that I found difficult to ingest happily. It was, however, a short list. And the list has grown considerably shorter over the years. There are only a couple of things left on it now – rice pudding and porridge.

I have tried in the past, believe me, to make friends with rice pudding. Its tradition to stir up vats of sweet milky rice pudding on every birthday in a typically Bengali household – a minor torture I have to undergo every birthday I spend at my parents’. I once even allowed Hana, one of my ex-housemates, to cook me a Vietnamese version of savoury rice porridge when I was down with the flu. I figured that its Asian heritage might make me warm up to it. Sadly, it didn’t. There’s just something about rice and milk together that’s off-putting. It is a marriage I do not support.

But I’m not here to talk about what’s on the list. I’m here to talk about something that made it out of the list quite successfully a long time ago. Beetroots.

I could quote Nigel Slater to Alice Waters on beets and their lust-inducing earthiness, but beets do not need anyone to speak for them. They know what they have and they know how to flaunt it. Beets are in the business of being sexy.

When steamed they bleed and stain everything with ruby red. When roasted they go all nutty and yet hold their own. They don’t disintegrate like potatoes do  and they don’t give into caramelisation as easily as parsnips do. To channel Tom Robins, “the beet is what happens when the cherry finishes with the carrot”.

If beetroots are still a part of your list, I have half a mind to push you out of the plane without a parachute. But fear not. Try these cupcakes for an introduction to them and I promise they’ll set your juices flowing. And I’m not in the habit of throwing around such promises carelessly.

It is by no means breaking news that chocolate and beetroot have always had a roaring affair. But so far, I’ve only been an eavesdropper trying to listen in on conversations involving the pair of them […and drooling over my keyboard at the same time].

Have you heard of Harry Eastwood? She, along with four other super-chic female chefs – including Gizzi Erskin [tattooed, punked-up & fabulous] – hosted Cook Yourself Thin on Channel 4, a while back. I used to hurry home from my classes to watch the girls whip up butter-less brownies made moist with mashed pumpkins and sugarless-butterless lemon cakes. The show was discontinued for a bit in the middle after which Gizzi Erskine came back to host a brand new version of it – alone, armed with recipes such as Beaconhill cookies and skinny Thai curry. That is when I first heard about how beets moisten up chocolate cakes and watching Harry Eastwood groan with pleasure at the end results was quite enough to convince me.

I know I could have come up with a salad or a spicy beet masala as means to convince you. But cake does a much better job. In fact, cake will always do a much better job than anything else.

But you didn’t think I was going to end it with a simple cake did you? This time I spooned the batter into home-made cups and studded the centres of each cupcake with chocolates. And I mean chocolates. Not chocolate. Molded, injected with fillings, wrapped in shiny bits of paper milk chocolates. That came out of a purple bag emblazoned with the words ‘Quality Street’. Remember those? My last trip to the market included a) grabbing an enormous bag of Nestlé’s Quality Street chocolates and b) consequently giving up hope of ever shedding a few kilos.

Anyway. With a bit of research, poring over Nigel Slater’s moist beetroot and chocolate cake in his book Tender and then flipping through a post on chocolate and beet cupcakes by 3191’s Stephanie, I stuck to Stephanie’s version because it used cocoa powder that I already had in hand – because as we all know, the chocolate keeps disappearing. Her recipe also uses plain water which, and I’m guessing here, adds extra moisture and workability to the batter. Nigel Slater’s recipe uses hot espresso. And that, trust me, is a winning substitution if you want to attempt it. That man should be voted King of the World.

After 50 painful minutes of working and waiting, I bit into deeply moist, earth-fragrant, still-warm-from-the-oven beet-chocolate cupcakes that were dark brown with red red edges and molten centres. And I am more than happy to confess that they were miles better than certain men I’ve kissed in my lifetime.

In-the-business-of-being-sexy beet & chocolate cupcakes
adapted from Stephanie and inspired by Tender by Nigel Slater

The recipe produces about 6 cupcakes and can easily be doubled for a 8-9″ cake.

Note on cocoa & chocolates: The original recipe calls for 6 tablespoons of cocoa powder which I used for my first batch. The cupcakes came out too chocolaty thereby diminishing the beet-flavour. In my second batch however, I halved the amount of cocoa powder and replaced the other half with flour.
Any kind of chocolates would do for these cupcakes. You could use the molded 1 oz (30g) chocolates that you get in gourmet chocolate shops or you could just chop your favourite candy bars into bite-sized pieces. I haven’t tried this, but now that I think of it, studding the unbaked batter with chocolate truffles may also be a great idea. If you do not have candy or chocolates at home, just break squares of a chocolate bar and use. Seriously, go crazy with this one.

Note on beets: For the beet puree, peel and trim 2 medium-sized beets and simmer them in a sauce pan, with the lid on, for about 45-50 minutes or till tender. I use a pressure cooker which takes only 15 minutes. The beets can then be cooled and pureed in a blender or processor.

Note on espresso: When making hot espresso, instead of using plain water try using the liquid that remains once you’ve cooked the beets.

1/2 cup unsalted butter, melted
1 cup granulated sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 cup hot espresso
1 cup + 3 tbsp all-purpose flour
3 tbsp unsweetened natural cocoa powder
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup beet puree (see head note)

Pre-heat oven to 180 deg C and line 8 cupcake tins.
In a big bowl combine butter, sugar, eggs, vanilla and espresso. In a smaller bowl sift in flour, cocoa, baking powder and salt. Mix well with a fork. Pour dry ingredients into wet and stir till just combined. Do not overwork the mixture. Gently fold in the beet puree. Fill the liners about 3/4 of the way and bake for 20-30 minutes till the tops are firm to the touch and a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out slightly greasy. Cool the cupcakes in their tins before serving.

To serve, you could always dust the cupcakes with powdered sugar or add whipped cream or pipe some cream cheese frosting on top. But like I said earlier, these cupcakes don’t really need accompaniments and can hold their own very well, thank you.