Rachel’s cake was rich, dark, moist, full of chocolate, and . . . something else.
“It looks a little red,” somebody observed. “Is it red velvet cake? Devil’s food?” Both of those are traditional favorites, the latter connoting sinful richness, and — in contrast with angel food cake’s fluffy whiteness — a deep color, often with a glint of crimson.
The story of chocolate and redness has elements as dark as a bar of bittersweet Scharffen Berger. Within Harold McGee’s 18-page chocolate entry in his book “On Food and Cooking ” lies this unsettling inference: “The Aztecs roasted and ground cacao seeds and made them into a drink that was served in religious ceremonies and associated with human blood.”
Elsewhere in the book, McGee notes that the “purplish dots” found in the cells of coffee beans are related to the red-hued anthocyanins found in many foods. Others have suggested that the acidic buttermilk used in early chocolate cake recipes brought out those compounds’ color.
When more recent cooks sought the traditional redness, their options seesawed between the devilry of carcinogenic red food coloring and the virtues of that paragon of nourishment, the beet — which is what Rachel had put in her cake.
I tried her recipe, which came from the site Greenkitchenstories.com, but I added my own twist: I grated two cups of baked beets instead of raw ones, which made it all the more moist and irresistible.
I thought about other dishes I might make with the bumper beet crop in our root cellar, the shelf life of which would soon expire. Borscht, of course, and while we’re in Russia how about beet kvaas, a traditional fermented drink? The site Wellnessmama.com has a recipe that ferments in just two days if you add whey or sauerkraut juice.
I could also try making red flannel hash, an old-fashioned variant of hash browns in which the potatoes are overwhelmed by beets. Garish — but might taste great. Recently I’ve enjoyed beet pizza at our local joint, so how about beets in ravioli or lasagna?
I sometimes serve three- or four-inch slabs of baked beets that I call beetsteaks. Maybe I should move on to beetburgers or beetloaf. Those wouldn’t have to be vegetarian, nor would the beets need to stand out. In fact I like recipes that are a little subtle — sneaky, even — about the way the beet goes in. My pink applesauce is not made with pink-fleshed apples (wonderful as those are if you happen to find or grow them). A small piece of beet has been cooked in with the fruit, just enough to give it an appetizing tint. I also love the beet-flavored yogurt made by the restaurant Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, N.Y. (www.bluehillyogurt.com). It’s part of a series that includes carrot, tomato and other vegetables mixed in with organic yogurt from grass-fed cows, sometimes with a touch of honey, maple syrup or other natural sweetener. Pastel pink in color, it contains raspberries as well, and has an ice cream look to it.
Beets are full of antioxidants and probiotics, and stealth beet cookery is a good way to feed them to reluctant eaters. But full disclosure should follow. Eating beets is often followed by a phenomenon called beeturia, in which urine and feces are tinted red. So before you rush off to the doctor in alarm, check to see whether anyone has slipped you a beet.
Damrosch’s latest book is “The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook”
Bare patches in the lawn can be cultivated and seeded in early spring, but be aware that preemergent herbicides applied now will impede grass seed germination. Major lawn renovation is best done in early fall in the Mid-Atlantic region so cool-season grasses are well established before their first summer.
— Adrian Higgins