Jan 09 2015

Crash-Free Baking

If you walked into my kitchen one afternoon, the winter light reflecting off of cabinets and counters like a blue-ish laser beam, and saw this cake sitting on one of those counters, delicate and decadent, you might feel your shock crowding out your hunger. Cake in January?? Cake in January!!

The mixed reaction is understandable: most of us have just closed the door on a season of indulgences (some of us never do – we just work out more), and if so, seeing a chocolate cake with camellia-pink frosting is just cruel. But this cake, in addition to the standard doses of flour, sugar, and butter, also contains four roasted beets and a bunch of kale leaves.

I’m a believer in whole foods and creativity-fueled seasonal eating, but I’m also a believer in baked goods. I love the process of first measuring, stirring, and whisking before then putting a raw batch of something in the oven, waiting the requisite 20 minutes or an hour as the warmth and scent fills your home and nostrils, and then feeding another sense: your tastebuds. I’m not interested in giving that up, especially because so much of my baking revolves around seasonal fruit. But I also never want to experience a sugar crash like the one my husband and I had on January 4th.

The day before, my birthday, we picked up a slice of Palace cake, a sinfully tasty coconut concoction. Later that night, we went out for dinner, and the tasting menu contained desserts, one of which I felt powerless to stop eating – it was their take on a Reese’s Cup. The next day, I felt agitated and jittery, and it wasn’t because I was a year older. Finally, in the afternoon, my husband landed firmly on the problem (and the solution): the massive slice of cake and the 10 pm desserts forced our bodies into an amazing high before crashing into an anger-inducing sugar withdrawal. (The solution? To bake something else. In fact, as soon as I suggested baking my favorite chocolate cookies, our moods improved noticeably. This is the definition of additive behavior, and it’s worrisome.)

Instead of those chocolate cookies, I should have baked this cake. In the Winter issue of Edible Boston, recipe editor Sarah Blackburn details her inspiration for creating a cake like this: her picky kid, with a limited palate that seems to crave rice, pizza, and pasta exclusively, recently began drinking green smoothies for breakfast, lessening her anxiety about the nutritional composition of the food he enjoys. This success with daily green smoothies made her pause and reconsider the ingredient composition of one of the foods her son is decidedly not picky about: chocolate cake. Blackburn is not advocating for daily chocolate cake – what a concept! – but rather, wanted to see if the smoothie idea was equally applicable to a cake: could she create a cake that was crave-ably delicious, with a smattering of whole foods tucked carefully inside?

Her son loved the cake, and despite his not-yet-developed palate, I’m sure that he recognized that it tasted decidedly different from other chocolate cakes: denser, moister, more vegetal, yet just as chocolatey. Perhaps this was why Blackburn writes that her son wanted it in his lunchbox the next day.

I had beets for dinner and an escarole soup for lunch, and I’m not a picky eater (though, sure, if you’re going out for pizza, I’ll join nearly every time). Then what is the allure of a beet chocolate cake when I could eat a chocolate-chocolate cake and get my beets in other dishes? This cake fills my baking desires: along with measuring, whisking, and smoothing frosting (a personal favorite baking task), I created a delicious dessert that’s much more substantial and filling than it initially appears. This cake is not a substitute for your daily vegetables, nor should you want it to be (but that’s an entirely different discussion about vegetables – how when cooked with butter, salt, and spices, they beg for the starring role, not a secretive, understudy position).

But our bodies might be less susceptible to cranky sugar crashes, and less desirous of cookies as medicine, if this kind of baking began to become a permanent substitute for white-flour-centric baking. As I stare at my empty cake plate, the fork resting over a few stray crumbs, I’m not tempted to go get another slice. I’m too full and satisfied. When’s the last time that happened with another baked good?

Chocolate Beet Kale Cake with Vanilla Buttercream

Makes one cake (feeding about 10 people)

Recipe Source: Edible Boston

Ingredients for Cake

  • 4 medium beets (slightly under 1 lb), roasted until tender (this can take an hour or longer)
  • 5 large kale leaves, stems removed, greens chopped
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • ½ cup cocoa powder
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 3-ounce bar 80% dark chocolate, broken into small pieces
  • 1 stick cold unsalted butter, cubed
  • 1½ cups cane sugar
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 3 large eggs
  • 4 tablespoons crème fraiche (I like Vermont Creamery)

Ingredients for Buttercream

  • 2 sticks unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 2 cups powdered cane sugar, sifted
  • ½ teaspoon sea salt
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract


  1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Prepare one 9”x2” cake pan by buttering it, laying a round of parchment on the bottom, buttering again, and tossing a spoonful of cocoa powder in, shaking it around to distribute evenly and tapping out the excess. Set aside.
  2. Peel the roasted beets, quarter them, and add them to a high-powered blender (a Vitamix or similar). Blend until the beets are turned into a smooth puree. Add the chopped kale and ¼ cup water; blend, adding an additional ¼ cup water if needed. Blend long enough to maintain that smooth puree you had when it was just the beets. You should have about 1½ cups of beet-kale puree.
  3. In a double boiler, melt the chocolate and whisk in the butter, cube by cube, until incorporated. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool down; stir in the vanilla.
  4. In a mixing bowl sift the flour, cocoa, baking soda, salt, and cinnamon together and set aside. Beat the eggs and sugar in a standing mixer with the paddle attachment until fluffy and very pale yellow, then add the beet-kale puree and stir to combine. Add the cooled chocolate and beat again while scraping down the sides of the bowl.
  5. Add the dry ingredients to the wet in four parts, alternating with 1 tablespoon crème fraiche as you go. Mix just to combine each time, scraping down the bowl between additions. When all ingredients are incorporated, pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake 60-70 minutes, or until a cake tester inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean. Set the cake aside to cool while you make the buttercream.
  6. In your stand mixer (or with a handheld mixer), beat the two sticks of room temperature butter until very light and fluffy, scraping down the sides of the bowl a few times. Add the sifted powdered sugar in 2-3 parts, then add the salt and vanilla and keep beating another 1-2 minutes or until smooth, fluffy, and increased in volume by about half. *Note*: To get a pink hue in your buttercream, save the beet skins and put them in a bowl with some water. When you’re whipping together the butter and powdered sugar, add 1 teaspoon of the pink liquid into the mixture.
  7. Run a knife around the edge of the cake and turn it out onto a plate, then remove the parchment and flip it over again onto another plate or cake stand so the more domed top is facing up. Spread the buttercream over the whole cake with an offset spatula. Enjoy!.