The cake part of this is Nigel Slater’s luscious chocolate beetroot cake from the Kitchen Diaries, which he serves with sour cream and poppyseeds, making it clear that it’s not a serving “suggestion”. The one time I encountered Nigel Slater in real life (at the butcher) I was exactly the too-eager, inept self we all hope not to be when we meet our heroes. To be exact, I announced breathlessly “I really like to both read and eat your recipes!!!” to which he responded, gravely, “Thank you.” I lingered just long enough for it to be awkward without saying anything else, then ran.
Anyway, I’ll never be able to face Nigel again, because rather than serving his cake with unsweeted Slavic accompaniments I’ve realised that a raspberry chocolate ganache filling and white chocolate icing (plus perhaps some chocolate covered strawberries) make it a perfect celebration cake.
Speaking of BBC talent in Islington, last summer I was on the same bus as Nick Robinson and called out to him from the top deck “You’re great on the Today Programme! Who’s going to win the Conservative leadership contest?” He called it right, incidentally.
Celebration cakes should have layers, in my opinion, and icing – to give the sense of joy heaped upon joy. And chocolate is always nice – for a long time my go-to celebration cake (not that any celebration is really standard) was this one, iced with chocolate ganache and filled with fruit folded into vanilla pastry cream, like strawberries or passionfruit. The ultimate example of the genre I suppose is my lovingly ripped off seven-layer version of Heston Blumenthal’s Black Forest cake, but this cake works beautifully dressed up, or even baked in a loaf tin, each slice dressed down with frozen berries and hot white chocolate sauce (equal quantities white chocolate and single cream. Heat the cream, stirring occasionally, until just starting to bubble around the edges, and pour over the broken-up white chocolate. Stir gently until the white chocolate has melted and all is uniformly, ambrosially smooth).
If I’m ever asked for a cake, it’s in spite of my presentation skills*. Lack of artistic vision combined with wobbly hand-eye coordination mean that my baking could most charitably be described as well-meaning (and, on occasion, well-leaning). But the white chocolate cream cheese icing here is extremely forgiving – it’s not one of those glossy chocolate layers which you aren’t allowed to touch, and it isn’t excessively soft, so if you stick bits in it they stay put. A looks-more-impressive-than-it-is option is to dip some strawberries in melted chocolate and use them as decoration – or to gently press a generous amount of fresh raspberries into the icing. In both cases the berries must be completely dry.
*Except the time that my dad asked me to make the dessert for his 60th birthday. My first thought was brownies, but it turned out he had something more specific in mind – his favourite dessert (French fruit tart with pastry cream and fresh fruit) in the shape of his favourite animal (“a Chinese dragon with a curving body like a river”).
I made this with beetroot from the garden – we grow a candy-striped variety that looks better than it tastes, unfortunately.
We only ever use it in salads (along with the green tops) and this cake. You’d think salad would be more of an everyday use and cake an occasional one, but so far this year I’ve made the cake four times and salad not at all. The beetroot flavour isn’t perceptible apart from perhaps a slight earthiness – it mostly just gives the cake a wonderfully indulgent texture, ironically.
Recipe: Nigel Slater’s Chocolate Beetroot Cake
from The Kitchen Diaries, unchanged except that the coffee is replaced with vanilla and I reduced the amount of sugar, on the basis that the cake is being served with white chocolate icing/sauce instead of Nigel’s more ascetic sour cream. That said, we have eaten leftover slices with plain Greek yoghurt and berries, and not missed the extra sweetness.
Serves 8, at least.
250g beetroot, stem and hairy root threads removed
200g dark chocolate (at least 70% cocoa solids – I like Lidl’s Ecuadorean chocolate)
200g butter, cut into 1cm cubes
135g plain flour
1 heaped tsp baking powder
3 Tbsp cocoa
150g caster sugar
Pinch of salt
1 tsp vanilla extract
150g dark chocolate
150g white chocolate
120g raspberry jam (better quality versions have more fruit less sugar, which is desirable here – Lidl’s own brand is good for this)
250 ml double cream (or if you weren’t specific enough with your husband and he bought single cream, you can substitute for 150ml double cream, 100ml single cream plus 1Tbsp unsalted butter when you heat it)
75g full fat cream cheese
Strawberries/raspberries/frozen berries to decorate
100g dark chocolate for dipping the strawberries in (optional)
- (Can be done ahead). Wash beetroot thoroughly but do not peel. Chop the beetroot into 1-inch cubes and boil gently in unsalted water until tender all the way through when poked with a fork (about 40 mins). Blitz in the food processor to a smooth puree and reserve. If the beetroot is really old because you basically left it in the garden for months because it was too cold to go outside, pass the puree through a sieve to get all the tough fibres out. (or don’t bother! fibre’s super good for you)
- Line the base of a 20cm cake tin with baking parchment (I’ve made this in a loaf tin or even as a traybake before – whatever suits) and preheat the oven to 180C.
- Break up the 200g dark chocolate in a giant bowl and melt (either 20 seconds in the microwave, stopping when it’s mostly melted and gently stirring to finish) or over a saucepan of simmering water. Stir as little as possible to avoid the risk of the chocolate splitting.
- As soon as the chocolate is fully melted, stir in the cubes of butter, making sure they are fully immersed, so that they melt.
- Separate the eggs – the yolks into a small bowl, and the whites into a small bowl, adding them one by one into a large bowl (of the stand mixer if you have one) when you’re sure there are no specks of yolk/shell in them.
- Add a pinch of salt to the egg whites and whip into soft (not stiff!) peaks. Add the sugar, slowly at first and then you can add it faster – start when the peaks are just starting to form so that you don’t overwhip.
- Gently stir the egg yolks and the vanilla into the chocolate.
- Sift the flour, cocoa and baking powder together.
- Using a large metal spoon or a spatula, fold one-third of the meringue into the chocolate mixture, using a figure-of-eight motion until it is evenly lightened. Gently add the rest of the meringue and fold it in until there are no visible streaks of egg white.
- Add the flour mixture and fold in quickly but gently, making sure there is no unmixed flour left at the bottom. Handle it as little as possible so that it doesn’t deflate.
- Gently (again!) scrape the batter into your prepared tin. Place the tin into the middle of the oven and immediately turn the heat down to 160C. Bake for around 40 mins – the cake should be wobbly but a skewer into the centre should come out clean.
- Leave to cool completely in the tin. If you’re going to fill the cake, it benefits from a little time in the fridge to firm up before you split it.
Recipe: Chocolate-Raspberry Ganache
To split the cake – I like to loosen the sides and sit the cake on its base on an upturned dinner plate, so that the sides of the tin, resting on the counter, come up about halfway up the sides of the cake itself. Using a breadknife, you can use the sides of the tin as a guide to splitting the cake using a gentle sawing motion.
Slide the top layer of cake onto a baking sheet and clip the sides of the tin back around the bottom layer.
- Heat 150ml cream in a small saucepan until small bubbles form at the edges. Meanwhile, break up 150g of chocolate and get out the jam.
- Remove the cream from the heat and add the chocolate, 120g raspberry jam and a grind of salt if desired. Stir in with a wooden spoon until smooth and uniform, and when the ganache is not piping hot but still pourable, spread it in a uniform layer over the bottom layer of cake.
- Carefully replace the top layer of cake – line up the far edge of the cake over the tin, and then slide the baking sheet out from underneath. Leave in the fridge to cool.
Recipe: White Chocolate Cream Cheese Icing
- As before, heat the remaining 150ml cream in a small saucepan, before pouring over the broken-up white chocolate and stirring until the white chocolate has melted.
- In a separate bowl, loosen the cream cheese with a metal spoon until smooth. Pour in the white chocolate cream, a little at a time at first, mixing in each addition (because the cream cheese is much denser). If you go too fast and there are unmixed pieces of cream cheese, don’t worry – just whip the whole thing with an electric whisk.
- Spread thickly over the top of the cake, and gently place chocolate covered strawberries or raspberries (make sure they are totally dry!) on the top whilst the icing is still soft. We brought this cake to a friend’s house this weekend and I didn’t think the decorations would survive the bike trip, so we let the icing firm up and brought a tupperware full of raspberries from the garden separately. The 3 year old agreed to help me decorate the cake, and started placing each berry with fairylike delicacy – after about seven of these, she suddenly tipped the whole box of raspberries over the top – it looked terrific!
Chocolate Dipped Strawberries and other chocolate-dipped things
Growing up, my parents used to set up a chocolate fountain as part of (!) the dessert buffet when we had large numbers of people round. There would be bite-sized treats to skewer and hold under the flowing chocolate (and, I’m afraid to say, oil – after helping set it up once, I could never really enjoy it again) – marshmallows, cake pieces, brownies, various fruits – but the best, in my opinion, were the strawberries.
Making chocolate-dipped strawberries is hugely efficient, because they look and taste terrific, but are really straightforward and simple. Even slightly-past-their-best strawberries and the cheapest supermarket chocolate become a luxurious treat, but for best results, 70% cocoa chocolate brings out the sweetness of the fruit and gives a wonderful glossy finish.
- Make sure the chocolate doesn’t split. This happens when it’s overly agitated or overheated, so stir as little as possible, and stop heating the chocolate when it’s about 2/3 melted – remove from the heat, just make sure all the unmelted chocolate is immersed, let it sit for 20 seconds or so before stirring very slowly.
- Melt the chocolate slowly – either in in the microwave (a couple of 30 second bursts on full, then reduce to 20, then 10 second bursts on medium power) or in a heatproof bowl over a pan of simmering water. If the chocolate hardens too much when you are working with it, gently reheat it until liquid again.
- The dipping substance should be as cold as possible, and completely dry (water will stop the chocolate adhering to its surface). For strawberries, wash and gently dry with a tea towel and then keep in the fridge (the air in a fridge is cold as well as dry).
- Place the dipped item on a piece of baking parchment/silpat in a cool, dry place, and don’t touch or move them until the chocolate has completely hardened.
Strawberries work particularly well for this, because the stems act as a convenient handle, and you can leave a little of the red exposed, which looks festive, if not downright attractive! On the same basis, chocolate-dipped cherries are lovely and you can use the stalk to dip them.
For fruit without a convenient handle, raspberries also work well – in my opinion, the frozen raspberries you can buy in the supermarket are easier to work with than fresh – because they are harder, colder and dryer – and when left to defrost, the juicier, more liquid interior is a more exciting contrast to the chocolate shell. Using two forks, roll the raspberry in the chocolate until completely coated.
Not to be too decadent or anything, but leftover salted caramel sauce also works beautifully for this. Reduce the caramel sauce until thick, and when cool, pour onto a baking tray or plate with a reasonable rim which you have lined with baking paper, and place flat in the freezer for 5-10 minutes, until firm. Cut into squares, and shape into rough blobs, before freezing again until completely hard and dipping in the chocolate. Work in small batches so that the caramel doesn’t soften, and ensure each piece is fully coated in the chocolate. Dreamy.
Chocolate-covered strawberries can smarten up a cake quite wonderfully – they are a quick and welcome addition to afternoon tea, or a light and lovely dessert for two.