Chocolate Beet Cake with Cream Cheese Beet Frosting 

Chocolate Beet Cake4

Happy November! I hope you all had a great first week and have had time to adjust to the fact that we are less than two months away from a NEW YEAR! Whoa. We are spending our time delaying pinning down travel plans for the holidays and watching Hallmark Christmas movies. (We like to yell life advice at the characters, like, “HE SHOULDN’T WANT YOU TO GIVE UP THE JOB YOU LIKE IN THE CITY IF HE REALLY LOVES YOU!”) Anyway.

As soon as it turned chilly, I started cooking up a storm, and now our fridge is now full of deliciously cozy leftovers. I’ve reached an age (and the time of year) where I cook at home almost every day because I just don’t want to go outside. Our dinner sides often consist of whatever vegetables I can roast together with some salt, pepper, and oil without giving them much thought. In fall, that vegetable increasingly becomes beets. We have them around the house constantly this time of year, which made me start hunting for new recipes. Then I realized, why not dessert??

This recipe for chocolate beet cake with beet cream cheese glaze comes to you because 1) I LOVE beets (tbh, it’s hard to believe there aren’t several more beet recipes on this blog) and 2) because it’s been really dreary here lately and I needed a pop of color (provided by the bright, naturally beet-colored cream cheese glaze).

The thought of pairing beets and chocolate might seem strange, but it shouldn’t. During the World Wars, when sugar and butter were rationed, home cooks would often add beets or beet juice to their chocolate cakes for both their color and to help keep the cake moist.

And, you may not think of beets as a sweet vegetable, but they actually contain a high amount of sugar. It wasn’t until the mid-1700’s that German chemist Andrea Margraff discovered that sucrose could be derived from beetroot. Initially, this discovery was nothing more than an interesting realization, but a few years after Margraff’s death, and almost fifty years after Margraff first made his discovery of sucrose in beets, one of his students, Franz Carl Achard, revived his studies. Achard began experimenting with sugar-producing plants on the grounds of his home, finding that sugar beets were the most efficient producers of sugar. More than 10 years after beginning his studies, Achard opened the first sugar beet processing plant in present-day Konary, Poland, under the patronage of Frederick William III of Prussia. Within 10 years of opening, the Napoleonic Wars had started, and the plant was destroyed during the fighting, though by this point other factories had begun springing up. The sugar beet sugar industry surged during the war, particularly in Germany, because Napoleon established a blockade that prevented Caribbean cane sugar from reaching Europe and, in 1813, banned the import of sugar all together. This ban ensured that factories producing sugar from sugar beets continued to pop up. The success of Achard in deriving sugar from beets so worried British sugar merchants that they offered him money to say that his experiments had failed, but he refused. Today, most of the sugar we consume comes from sugar cane, but a surprising 30% of the world’s sugar still comes from sugar beets.

Which brings us to this chocolate beet cake–in this case, not made with the sweetest beet, the sugar beet, but just regular old purple beets you find in the grocery store.

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Chocolate Beet Cake with Cream Cheese Beet Frosting
This recipe is inspired by Joy the Baker’s Beet Cake, and my recipe for malted chocolate cake. I used a 10-inch bundt pan, but this is about 6 cups of batter, so two 8 or 9-inch round cake pans could be used instead, though you will need to adjust your cooking time.

Ingredients:
For cake:
1 3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/4 cup white sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 1/4 tsp baking soda
1 1/4 tsp baking powder
1 cup unsweetened cocoa powder, plus more for dusting the bundt pan
1 1/2 tsp salt
2 eggs
1 cup buttermilk
1 1/2 tsp vanilla
1/2 cup vegetable oil, plus more for greasing the pan
1/2 cup boiling water
1 1/2 cups shredded beets (about 2-3 large beets)

For glaze:
4 oz cream cheese, very soft
1/3 cup milk
6 tbsp powdered sugar

Instructions: 

For cake:
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Thoroughly wash beets (without peeling them), coat them in olive or vegetable oil, and wrap them in foil. Place on a cookie sheet and bake for about an hour or until you can easily pierce them through with a fork. Remove from the oven and allow them to cool completely. Once cooled, cut off the ends, peel with a knife or vegetable peeler. Shred them on a box grater. Set aside.

Turn oven down to 350 degrees.

In a medium-sized bowl, mix together the flour, sugars, baking soda and powder, unsweetened cocoa powder, and salt.

In a large bowl, beat together the eggs, buttermilk, vanilla, and vegetable oil.

Pour the dry mixture into the wet mixture and use a spoon to stir together until no flour streaks remain.

Add the boiling water and stir until completely combined. Add the shredded beets, reserving about 1/4 cup for glaze, and stir until combined.

Coat a 10-inch bundt pan with vegetable oil or butter, and dust with cocoa powder.

Add the batter evenly to the bundt pan and bake for 35 to 45 minutes. Begin checking at 35 minutes by inserting a toothpick or thin knife. If it comes out clean, it’s done.

Allow the cake to cool in the pan on a wire rack for 15 minutes. Then, trace the edges of the pan with a butter knife and invert onto the wire rack to cool completely.

For glaze:
In a small saucepan, add 1/4 cup shredded beets to milk. Heat, stirring occasionally, removing from heat when the milk begins to steam. Strain the shredded beet from the mixture. Allow to cool slightly.

In a small bowl, combine the softened cream cheese with powdered sugar. Beat with a mixer until smooth. Beat in 1 tbsp of the beet-milk until you reach the desired consistency.

Pour evenly over the top of the cooled cake.

Serve and enjoy!

Chocolate Beet Cake

I like a tender cake. Tender and moist. Probably because I grew up on cakes made from boxes (I love them still), with everything perfectly measured and timed for the home baker. This cake gives me both of those things. And it makes me wonder why everyone isn’t putting beets into their baked goods. Please let me know if you have other beet-in-dessert recipes. I’m dying to try them!

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Grandma Breckner’s Dumplings and Gravy

Jennifer Breckner

I think the real highlight of this blog, for me, is the amazing ladies that I get to meet and work with. It gives me an excuse to shoot an email to someone and say, “Hey!” and then have a meet-up. I actually met Jennifer where it seems like everyone meets now: Instagram. I gave her a follow, she gave me a follow. We met for coffee and had a lovely time talking about food and family. Jennifer is a writer, educator, event producer and public speaker, focusing on good food, craft beer, art and culture, and combining her background in nonprofit management and art history with her passion for sustainable food systems.

For nearly a decade she has served as a Slow Food volunteer. If you’re not aware of Slow Food, it is an organization that was founded in the 1980s by Carlo Petrini in Italy that promotes local food and traditional cooking. Their motto is, “Good, clean, and fair,” meaning they believe people should have access to naturally produced, high-quality foods at a reasonable price. “The passionate writings of Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini made a connection between my two interests: food and art,” says Jennifer. “I was hooked.”

Her introduction to Slow Food came when she was an art history major studying Italian futurists. She started as the Chicago chapter leader who produced the Farm Roast, the annual fundraiser featuring biodiverse Ark of Taste dishes created by local chefs. The Ark of Taste, Slow Food’s biodiversity initiative, is a catalog of delicious foods in danger of disappearing, that the organization highlights to keep in production and on our plates. Jennifer became the chair of the Midwest Ark of Taste Committee, working with regional volunteers who are passionate about agricultural biodiversity. “I love Slow Food because they advocate for joyful resistance and assert the importance of the cultural aspects of our foodways,” she says.

Jennifer is now stepping into the role of International Councilor for Slow Food, and will serve as a U.S. rep advocating for good food policy at her first global summit in China this October. Her increasing interest in agricultural biodiversity, support for small-scale sustainable farmers and producers, and desire to contribute to nonprofit organizations has recently brought her to Chicago’s venerable Green City Market Junior Board. Jennifer is also passionate about craft beer and serves as Lead Event Ambassador for Brooklyn Brewery in Chicago, where she conducts taste education workshops and promotes the brewery’s portfolio at events around the city.

Jennifer grew up near Youngstown, Ohio, and her interest in food comes from her family. “I’m lucky that both sides produced good cooks—simple, working-class fare. I had many years of sitting down to family dinners at home or with extended family, or spaghetti dinners, pierogi and haluski, and potlucks at various churches.”

She decided to share a recipe with me that she remembers her grandmother making for Sunday dinner, a meal that was an important part of her childhood. “After my parents divorced in the 1970s and my father moved back in with his parents for a couple of years,” she says, “my grandmother insisted that we come on Sundays and sit down for dinner. She knew that in the chaos of a family post-breakdown that my brother Jeff, my sister Natalie, and I needed stability, unconditional love, and the comfort that only food and your grandmother could offer.”

Julia and Andy Breckner

Her grandmother, Julia Henrietta Ryznar, grew up in Ohio, the daughter of Polish immigrants. “She had a tough life. Her mother suffered from mental illness and was institutionalized. Her father committed suicide,” Jennifer told me. “She dropped out of school after the eighth grade because at the time education for women, especially poor immigrant women, was not a priority.” Julia was married to Jennifer’s grandfather, Andy, for over fifty years. “Given my grandmother’s difficult and painful childhood one could understand if she ended up a bitter, sad person. Yet, she was happy and joyful. She lit up a room and you just loved being around her. She loved being a wife and a mother, but shortly before she passed away she offered that her only regret in life was that she never got a job in a ‘dime store’ so that she could have something of her own.” That lesson had a major impact on Jennifer. “My own desire to both have my own projects and passions and find solace and comfort in my home and at the dinner table are directly affected by that.”

Grandma Breckner

Jennifer said her grandma would serve her dumplings and gravy with chicken paprikash and lemon-garlic broccoli. When Jennifer makes this dish, she has her own version of the chicken and her brother has a slightly different way of making her broccoli. “The most interesting thing to me now,” she says, “is how we’ve all taken that basic recipe and added our own twist to it.”

Grandma Breckner’s Dumplings and Gravy

Dumplings
Ingredients:
1/2 cup flour per egg (for example: 3 eggs, 1 1/2 cups of flour)
2 tbsp fresh parsley, or 1 tbsp dried
Note: If using less than three eggs, add 1/4 tsp of baking powder to the flour.
1 tbsp olive oil

Instructions:

Put a pot on the stove with water and bring to a boil.

Add 1 tbsp of water to the egg and beat until fluffy.

Slowly add flour, parsley, and baking powder (if using less than 3 eggs). Gently mix until slightly sticky but consistent. Add 1 tbsp. of oil to the mixture.

Spoon approximately 1 tbsp. of flour mixture into the boiling water. (Note: Put your spoon in the water prior to putting in the flour mixture to avoid the flour sticking to the spoon.)

Boil for 15 minutes but keep an eye on them because you don’t want to overcook. The dumplings will rise to the top. You can either pull them out individually or wait until all are done and put a cup of cold water into the pot then drain the dumplings into a strainer.

Season with salt and pepper.

Gravy
Ingredients:
2 heaping tbsp sour cream
4 tbsp flour
1 chicken bouillon cube or 1-2 cups of broth
2 cups water

Instructions:

Slowly mix the sour cream and flour together.

Add 1/2 cup of broth to the mixture and continue to stir.

Add this to the water and bring to a boil.

Lower heat and stir continuously until it thickens.

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A delicious meal, made with simple ingredients. These are the recipes that I like to showcase on this blog. Not the flashiest or sexiest recipes, but those that elicit the happiest memories.

Jennifer agrees. She told me that when working at the Art Institute several years ago, Anthony Bourdain was visiting for a lunch and book signing. “Bourdain told the crowd that cuisine developed because of the contributions of poor people who often were given the leftovers of an animal or the least desirable produce and had to make something edible from it. He offered that if you are given the best cut of meat you need to do very little to make it taste delicious. His words meant a lot to me then for it was the first time that I understood the contributions of poor people to culinary life.”

If you want to follow Jennifer, you can check out her website, or you can follow her (and Ark of Taste) on Facebook and Instagram. Just look for the handle @jenniferbreckner  and @midwestarkoftaste.

Jennifer, thank you so much for sharing your grandmother’s recipe and how it had such an impact on your life!