Forget salt and pepper, garlic and lemon. The most successful seasoning for what we eat is a good pinch of nostalgia.

I could spend all day reading Nigel Slater. Correction: I have spent whole days reading Nigel Slater.

Slater is one of the best cooks writing today. His food is simple and straightforward, not unlike Jamie Oliver’s or Yotam Ottolenghi’s; it’s seasonally-driven, basic, and satisfies cravings you didn’t know you had. His writing has filled seven cookbooks and countless articles for The Guardian. His 2004 memoir, Toast: the story of a boy’s hunger, kept me up one night until I had no more pages to turn.

When Tender was published in the U.S. last year, combining the UK edition’s two volumes into one 600-page tome, I was eager to get my hands on it and smudge the pages with buttery fingers. Organized by ingredient (this seems to be a popular method in UK cookbooks), I stumbled upon the Beet chapter and not one, but two, cake recipes therein. This guy’s good.

Of course a cake that includes beets, melted dark chocolate, poppy seeds, and crème fraîche called to me, especially one that promised a molten lava center. I remember wanting to make this for my sister Hope’s birthday back in November but decided it was too risky. At last I’ve embarked on the project, during my own birthday week no less.

Turns out this chocolate cake is dreamy, silky, and not too sweet; the beets keep the cake moist without offering a beety flavor. Think carrots in a carrot cake, or zucchini in zucchini bread. The cake is served with tangy crème fraîche and poppy seeds, a playful take on the classic beet and sour cream flavor combination in eastern European cooking.

To serve, I thought of the china I keep in my cupboard that belonged to my father’s mother, my namesake, whom I never met. Reading Nigel Slater always makes me a little nostalgic, and the old, delicate china that once belonged to Mahala McLaughlin seemed like a fitting presentation.

Serve to friends. Serve with love. And you don’t have to tell anyone there are beets inside, unless, like me, they’re into that kind of thing.

Incredibly Moist Chocolate Beet Cake
From Nigel Slater, Tender

8 ounces (240 g) beets, unpeeled and rinsed (approx. 2 beets)
7 ounces (200 g) bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped
1/4 c (60 ml) hot espresso
7 ounces (200 g) butter, room temp, cut into small cubes
1 cup (135 g) flour
3 tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder
1 heaping tsp baking powder
5 large eggs, separated, at room temp
1 cup (190 g) superfine, or caster, sugar

Butter the bottom and sides of an 8-inch (20 cm) springform cake pan, then line with a disc of parchment paper. Preheat the oven to 350 F (180 C).

Cook the beets, whole and unpeeled, in boiling, unsalted water for 30 to 40 minutes, with the lid slightly askew. They’re done when a knife can easily pierce through the flesh. Drain and rinse in cold water. When cool, peel them, and pulse in a food processor until they’re a rough purée.

Melt the chocolate in a bowl over a pot of simmering water. Do not stir. When the chocolate is just about all melted, turn off the heat, and add the hot espresso, stirring only once. Add the butter to the melted chocolate, pressing it into the chocolate but not stirring. Leave to soften.

Sift together the flour, cocoa powder, and baking powder. Put your egg whites in a mixing bowl. Stir the egg yolks together by hand.

Working quickly but gently, stir the butter into the melted chocolate, and leave for a few minutes to cool, then stir in the egg yolks. Fold in the beet purée. Whisk the egg whites by hand or using a stand mixer until stiff, then fold the sugar into the egg whites. Fold the egg whites and sugar into the chocolate mixture, careful not to overmix. Fold in the flour and cocoa.

Transfer quickly to the prepared cake pan and put in the oven, turning the temperature down to 325 F (160 C). Bake for 40 minutes; the rim will just barely be separating from the edges and the center will still be a bit wobbly when gently shaken.

Let cool completely in the cake pan on a wire rack (it will sink a little in the center). Loosen around the edges with a butter knife after a half hour or so. Only remove the cake from its pan when it has cooled completely. Serve in thick slices with crème fraiche and poppy seeds. Grandmother’s china optional.

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