It’s the colour: that deep, baked-in pink. Magenta, leaning to purple, almost black at its heart. When you cut it, it bleeds, staining like a mulberry. Lusty, earthy, sublime, it’s the most medieval of vegetables. Juiced raw, it’s fresh and lemony. Roasted, it becomes silkily black. Left in the oven overnight and eaten in the morning, tenderly wizened, it’s perfect with broken bacon and some goat’s cheese. Of course it’s brilliant in chocolate cake. Damp and glottal.
It’s a bit of a brute, though, at first glance. The shaggy skin slips off like a coat once boiled or baked, and then it’s much prettier in the altogether – glossy and vibrant. It shares its pigment, betalain, with bougainvillea, those papery flowers that froth over walls everywhere in LA. And the sweetness, noticeable in all root vegetables and unmistakable here, comes from its cousin, the sugar beet.
It’s interesting to me that even when I’m writing about vegetables, I’m still writing about sugar. Apparently, we have evolved to like sweet things, to seek them out, and our quest has aided our evolution and survival. I wonder how Jaffa Cakes fit into this paradigm. I remember my brother hiding them under the bed and behind the sofa, the tell-tale crackle of cellophane, that slippery sleeve of cakes, all the more delectable for being contraband. I too was a hoarder, a squirreler of chocolate and sweets. Cadbury’s Creme Eggs at dawn, that kind of thing. Now, when it comes to sugar, I’m like a bloodhound – a sugarhound, if you will. I’m forever attuned.
The sweetness and texture of beets – a sort of ‘wet bite’ – comes from the combination of starch and sugar. Moist heat – boiling or steaming – quickly softens the starches and keeps the colour pure, and the taste direct and clean. Dry heat – roasting – creates a darker, fuller, more complex flavour. This is where the beet’s sugars start to caramelize and you get that burnished, bronzed sweetness. This is the Maillard reaction, and apparently accounts for why we are all addicted to French fries.
Incidentally, it may feel a bit late to be talking about beets (beetroot to you in Blighty), and they’ve certainly peaked, but they’re still everywhere in farmers’ markets in LA. Check for freshness by buying them with their tops attached, and leave about an inch of the top and stem on for cooking so the colour doesn’t leach out. Look at the greens as well, and avoid anything limp or drab.
Chocolate Beet Cake
Inspired by Nigel Slater, Tender
The beets translate here into glorious dankness. Moist but not cloying. Good quality chocolate is important, as is the cocoa powder. The accompanying crème fraîche is a nod to the sour cream used alongside Eastern European beetroot dishes, and is definitely not an afterthought.
8oz (250g) beets, unpeeled
7oz (200g) dark chocolate (60-70 percent cocoa solids)
4tbs/60ml hot espresso (or water)
7oz (200g) room temperature butter, cubed
1 cup (135g) plain flour
3tbs very good quality cocoa powder
1 heaped tsp baking powder
5 eggs, at room temperature
1 cup (200g) golden caster sugar/superfine sugar
(or give ‘normal’ sugar a quick whizz in the coffee grinder)
Pinch of sea salt
Lightly butter an 8in (20cm) cake tin and line the base with baking parchment. Put the beets in cold water in a deep pan and bring to the boil. They will be ‘knifepoint’ tender in about 45 minutes, depending on the size. The smaller the better – look for ones the shape of lightbulbs. Drain and let them cool under running water. Peel them using a kitchen towel, or your fingers if they’re made of asbestos. Blitz in a blender to a rough puree.
Preheat the oven to 350F (180C). Break the chocolate into bits the size of gravel. Melt the chocolate pieces in a small bowl resting over a pan of barely simmering water. Don’t stir. When it looks almost melted, turn off the heat, but leave the bowl over the hot water and pour over the espresso. Stir it once. Add the cubed butter to the melted chocolate, and leave to soften, pushing it down under the chocolate if need be.
Sift together the flour, cocoa powder, salt and baking powder in a separate bowl. Remove the bowl of chocolate now from the heat and let it cool for a few minutes. Whisk the egg yolks together briskly and then add to the melted chocolate. Mix in the beet puree. Whip the egg whites until stiff, then gradually rain in the sugar. Fold the egg white mixture into the melted chocolate. Do not overmix, but go deep into the goo with a large metal spoon, using a figure-of-eight movement. Fold in the dry ingredients. Scrape the batter into the prepared cake tin, smoothing the top, and reduce the heat of the oven to 325C (160C) and bake for about 40 minutes, or until the sides are firm and set, but the centre still has a little wobble to it. Let the cake cool completely, then remove it from the tin. Serve with crème fraîche.
Roasted beets with balsamic vinegar
From Nigel Slater, Real Food
Good to kill two birds with one stone and boil a load of beets for the cake and this dish too. Once you start this, it will quickly become a necessary part of your cooking life during beet season. Initially it will feel like too much work. This gripe quickly fades on eating.
6 small beetroot, with stems and tops on, if possible
A dash of olive oil
2 medium-sized onions, peeled
A sprinkling of balsamic vinegar
Follow the instructions for boiling the beets above. Peel away the skins – using a kitchen towel if you have some – and cut each beet into wedges and toss them in a roasting tin with a little olive oil. Cut the onions into segments from root to tip. Add them to the beets and cover the roasting tin with foil. Roast in a hot oven (200C/400F) for thirty minutes. Remove the foil, add a dash of balsamic vinegar – not too much, just enough to add some depth and character – and a little salt. Return to the oven for a further thirty minutes, this time without the foil, until the beets are starting to brown and curl up. Serve with roast meat. Also, goat’s cheese is very nice. I have a feeling Roquefort would be pretty good too.