At some point in the mid ’90s, I ate too many beets. They had long been a favorite food, and in what would become a pattern throughout my life, I pushed it too far. In one bite, everything changed, and I couldn’t even look at beets without revulsion. For a long time, I actively avoided them. Then, a few years ago, I gave them another chance. Unfortunately, I don’t learn life lessons well and decided to ease back in by eating a beet smoothie every day. Let’s just say I’m back on the no-beet train. It’s a tale as old as time: Woman loves food, eats it in excess, and then cannot stand the sight of it.
Phase two of my beet overindulgence coincided with the Internet-wide push to replace red dye in red velvet cake with a natural alternative. When I saw the first recipe that called for coloring the cake with pureed beets, I thought, “Thanks, but no thanks.” I don’t like cake or borscht enough to try that. So I let it pass, made a few “red” velvet cakes using hibiscus as a dye, and didn’t think another thing of it.
When Our State asked me to work on a red velvet cake recipe this summer, I decided to push past my beet exhaustion and try it. I took my go-to red velvet cake recipe and made a few adaptations, namely blending the raw beets in with the safflower oil and adding a bit more cocoa to balance the earthy flavor. I also substituted the classic cream cheese icing for a simple whipped cream, which brings some lightness to an otherwise dense and moist cake.
This is my opportunity to apologize for every time I saw a beet red velvet cake recipe and thought “GROSS” and moved on. I was wrong, and we can really only blame that beet egg salad sandwich that I ate in a Dumfries, Virginia, parking lot in 1994 for my hesitation. The beets’ flavor is subtle, and it blends well with the flavors of the cocoa, buttermilk, lemon juice, and whipped cream. The cake is incredibly moist and sweet in a lovely, earthy way. So the next time you’re making a red velvet cake, ditch the red dye and just beet it.
2½ cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 tablespoon cocoa powder
1¾ cups sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1½ cups safflower oil
4 small-medium size beets, raw
1 cup buttermilk, room temperature
2 large eggs, room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Juice of 1 lemon
2 cups heavy cream
½ cup sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
Peel and chop beets. In a food processor or blender, combine beets and oil. Blend until completely smooth.
Sift together dry ingredients. In a stand mixer or large bowl, mix together wet ingredients, including blended beets and oil. Beat until combined with paddle attachment. Slowly add dry ingredients to wet ingredients.
Preheat oven to 350º. Oil and lightly flour three 9½-inch round cake pans. Pour cake batter evenly between three cake pans. Bake for 30 minutes or until cooked all the way through, rotating halfway. Transfer to racks and let cool completely.
To make the frosting, combine all ingredients in a stand mixer. Beat until stiff.
Place the first layer on the cake stand or plate, topside down. Spread a good layer of icing on top. Add the second layer of cake, also topside down. Spread more icing. Finish with the third layer, topside up. Ice the top. Serve immediately.