Shilpa of Aayi’s Recipes is continually making me envious by her beautiful parade of cakes, and no wonder: she has a keen interest in cakes and cake-decorating, and has greatly expanded her talents by studying the subject hands-on with local masters. Despite her self-criticism of the final outcomes, she manages to astound me- and the rest of her readers- with her exquisite attention to detail and gorgeous design. Each time I view the latest one, I find myself wide-eyed in disbelief that she has just begun this hobby!
Let me be honest with all of you: I have never attempted to develop any skills with complicated frosting/icing work; instead, I seem to prefer finding myself in awe at weddings, birthdays, and other occasions when one of these beauties stands before me- silent and breath-taking to behold- and for now, that’s fine with me! I’m far more interested in churning out edible ladoos and burfis to tell you the truth… So, you’ll have to excuse this little attempt with its rather messy frosting, and slightly-off-center arrangement of nuts…
This is a beet cake. Apparantly, any recipe for carrot cake can be made with beets instead (is it just me or are there other people contemplating gajar halvah at the moment?), and I do find myself wondering if turnips, rutabagas and radishes would work as well- maybe not. What I do know is that for several years I have been searching for the perfect carrot cake recipe: one that would recall the good old days before the low-fat revolution of the 1980’s took place, one that is like the many slices that I’ve purchased and didn’t regret spending $3-4 dollars on, one that is sinfully-rich, moist, and flavourful, one that screams out: “chilly nights are upon us in Wisconsin”, “mulled cider or wine is in order”, and “tonight would be a great night to sit near the burning hearth”… But really, despite these very subjective images that I tend to connect to a fork-ful, this cake is enjoyable at at any time of the year, and in any weather. And thus far, this particular recipe is the best I’ve found, and yes…I would pay $3.50 for a slice!
I have changed a few things with the original recipe. Mostly the spicing. (I also reserve the nuts for the filling and exterior and I greatly-disliked the icing recipe that accompanied the original cake recipe and thus found a much better one elsewhere to use). There are some of you that dislike cinnamon-flavoured sweets, but I assure you: if I am able to acquire a taste for cinnamon-infused savories, then it stands to reason that… well….what can I say? I played with the original author/creator’s spicing, so you can too! (But Pel is still thinking that his formula beats all others!)
Beet or Carrot Cake
(inspired by this one from Burt Wolf’s Menu Cookbook)
3 1/2-4 C shreds of peeled beets or carrots
1 C brown sugar, firmly-packed
1 C ghee (hee-hee… ghee makes this cake most decadent with a rich, browned-butter flavour, but vegetable oil (soybean, corn, canola, peanut) is the more usual choice. Don’t reduce it: this is divided by at least 20 slices of cake- so splurge a little!)
1 t vanilla extract
3 1/2 t ground cinnamon (I use a mix of true/Ceylon and cassia/Chinese cinnamon)
2 T chopped crystallized/candied”stem” ginger
1/4 t ground cardamom
1/8 t ground cloves
1/16 t ground nutmeg or mace
1 t baking soda
1 t baking powder
1 C raisins, soaked in hot water for awhile and then chopped*
1 1/2 C all-purpose flour/maida (I suppose half-ata would be just fine)
1 1/2 C raw walnuts, pecans or hickory-nuts halves (I used pecans this time, but walnuts are most traditional)
ghee/oil for roasting nuts and greasing pan(s)
Icing-frosting (recipe below)
0)Pre-heat oven to 350 F/175 C. Grease and line the bottoms of 2 8″-9″ round cake-pans, or one 9″ spring-form pan with parchment-paper (use the bottom of the pan as a guide and cut to fit). Grease the top of the paper as well. I’ve tried it without the use of the paper: the cake tends to stick!
1)Roast the nuts in ghee/oil over med-low flame, stirring constantly until nicely-roasted and fragrant. Remove and drain. Reserve intact halves for decorating. Coarsely-chop the remainder for filling.
2)Mix the beet or carrot shreds with the sugar in a large mixing bowl and set aside for 30 minutes.
3)Add the ghee and mix well.
4)Add the eggs one at a time, mixing well after each.
5)Add the vanilla, spices, baking soda and powder and mix thoroughly. Add the raisins.
6)Add the flour in four parts, mixing just well-enough between each to blend. I try not to exceed 100 strokes of the spoon total.
7)Pour the batter into the pan or pans and bake until a toothpick inserted in the centre comes out clean. (about 30 minutes for two 9″ pans, or 40-45 minutes for one 9″). Place on a rack and allow to cool completely.
8)Meanwhile, prepare the cream-cheese frosting/icing:
1/2 C butter, at room temperature
8 oz cream cheese, at room temperature
1/2 t vanilla extract
1 pound of confectioner’s/powdered sugar (plus more if needed)
A)Cream (beat well until fluffy and pale) the butter and cream cheese. Add the vanilla; add sugar little-by-little until stiff enough to hold a peak. (If you add too much, a sprinkle of milk will cure it)
9)Remove the cake(s) from the pan(s) and paper. If you baked a single, thick cake: carefully remove it from the pan and paper; slice it horozontally in half to form two layers/rounds.
10)Place one layer on a cake plate. Spread about 1/3 of the icing over the top. Sprinkle the chopped nuts over this and gently press them into the icing.
11)Place the second layer over the first. Press this layer gently, but firmly atop the other. Spread the remaining icing over the top and sides of the cake. Decorate the surface with the remaining nut-halves.
12)Chill for a few hours if you wish (I prefer it chilled), slice and serve with hot tea or coffee.
*I’ve also seen and eaten cakes that contain fresh/canned pineapple and/or coconut- very good. Other dried fruits might be nice too- instead of raisins- like apricots, prunes, etc.)
**P.S. Today is my birthday. I’m really quite old now… I would like to extend warm gratitude to my dear friend, June, for not only allowing me to photograph parts of her kitchen, but for the wonderful time I had at a dinner recently had there.)
If you are fond of beets, you are in for a treat; if not, you may well be converted by this simple, summertime recipe. Of course, you probably won’t give it a whirl if you don’t like beets, therefore, pass this recipe on to someone who does! Then, if you’re feeling brave, you can take a spoonful…
I was one such person long ago…well, not that long ago I suppose…When I was in my early twenties I worked in a nursing home. Air-conditioning? Just near the nurse’s station at the centers of the long corridors. It was hardly noticeable at either end or in the rooms, where I did most of my work, and not at all in the basement, where the employee lounge was located. That was where a good friend and I would try to meet for lunch; you see, we both had the habit of bringing food with us (as opposed to the “snackers” who raided the vending machines), and, since we both had an inbuilt natural curiosity, seeing what the other had brought was a matter of course! And one warm summer day during our lunch-break, she talked me into a spoonful of this fuchsia-coloured stuff.
My friend was taken in, as a child, by foster parents, who happened to be Lithuanian. She was very proud of this fact, partly, I am sure, by the sheer exoticness of it all, but mostly, I think, because they were very kind people who cared very much for her, and that stability and unconditional love helped her become the person she is today: a registered nurse living in Austin, Texas…kind, caring, mature, self-confident, and still enthralled with life.
Unless she’s now dead; honestly I haven’t heard from her in quite a few years, nor she from me! Somewhere, sometime, between all the moves we have both made in our lives since those naive years, we lost track of each other. Perhaps someday fate will bring us together again for a quick “catching up” over something potable. Perhaps not.
The good news is that I managed to pry 3 recipes, this among them, from her and her recipe-hoarding foster-mom. [evil laugh] You see, her “mother” (perhaps I shouldn’t use the quote marks because this kind woman was everything a good mother could be) was quite old-fashioned in an Old-World way: most protective of her family’s gastronomic secrets. She had a thick, fascinating accent when speaking English, still…her use of it was good enough to politely evade my several requests for this and other recipes… until, finally, as the time drew closer to her daughter moving away for an irresistable job-offer, she loosened…just a bit.
Such a simple recipe too, to cause all this mischief! But, when you consider that it is delicious enough to convert a staunch beet-hater into a beet-worshipper, it’s simplicity becomes a part of its charm; simple, that is, in its original avatar. By now, if you know me even somewhat, you will note that I enjoy tinkering a bit. And tinker I have indeed with this little gem from the Baltic sea-coast. I present to you a soup to catch the eye, cool the body and soothe the mind- both my version and the original (er…..I think….[always wonders] ) for you to play with as well…
You might notice how very much it resembles an Indian raitha…
You might want me to stop babbling and just get on with it…
You might be right!
Lithuanian Summer Borscht- original as it was dictated to me
Take about equal parts of cooked, shredded beets, chopped cucumbers and sour cream. Mix these well, then add a good amount of fresh, minced dill and a few grinds of black pepper. Thin it with buttermilk (I don’t think she meant true buttermilk– rather the thinned yoghurt available and sold here labeled as “buttermilk”) to a soup-like consistency and salt it to taste. Refrigerate it for at least a few hours, but preferably for a day to allow the flavours to blend. Serve chilled, of course, with crusty home-made bread. (Can we say rye?) And… (I recently learned this) boiled or fried potatoes….also, traditionally this soup is decorated with slices of hard-boiled eggs (I am rarely in the mood for these, so I’m afraid, pretty as they would be, they do not grace my photo).
Lithuanian Summer Borscht- the Pel variation
1 1/2-2 lbs of fresh beets
2 lg cucumbers
1 C green onions- green part only, sliced into 1/4-1/8″ rounds
1 fresh hot green chile- such as serrano, seeded and minced very finely- like 1 mm dice
3-4 T fresh, minced dill-weed (not the flowers or tough stems)
several grinds of black pepper
3 C whole-milk yoghurt (or a mix of real sour cream and yoghurt, or low or non-fat yoghurt- whatever spins your wheels)
salt to taste
See? Nothing terribly foreign to the Lithuanian taste-buds…and I am sure that, besides having a few “chile-heads” there, it is probable that there are many in search of a lighter version of this recipe- hence my use of yoghurt in place of sour cream…but, the two can be mixed if you like; I sometimes do this.
1)Wash and trim both the stem-end and root-end of each beet, place in a saucepan and cover with enough water to be an inch or so above the beets. Bring to boil, lower to simmer and cook for 45 minutes- 1 hour until tender. Allow to cool in the cooking liquid.
2)Remove each beet and slip the skins off- they should slide off quite easily; discard the peels, but retain the cooking liquid; place the skinned beets in a separate dish. Allow the cooking liquid to sit undisturbed while you complete the next steps. (obsessive me will often strain this through a fine sieve into another bowl, but I didn’t want to admit that- ooops, I just did!)
3)Into a large mixing bowl, shred the beets using a medium-cut shredder (if too fine, they tend to form clumps I’ve found). You should have 2 1/2-3 C or so…
4)Peel the cucumbers (if using small, young cucumbers there is no need to peel) slice each in half lengthwise and scoop out the seeds.* Slice each hollow half into 1/3″ strips lengthwise, and then across into 1/3″ cubes. Again, aim for about 2 1/2-3 C… Add these to the bowl.
5)Add the sliced green onions, minced chile, minced dill and black pepper to the bowl. Add the yoghurt and/or sour cream and mix very well.
6)Thin the soup by carefully decanting the reserved beet-cooking liquid into the mixture until a desired consistency is reached. (Any missed dirt will sink to the bottom, so don’t use the final dregs of the bowl. If you’d like it thinner yet, use water or American “buttermilk”)
7)Here’s the part that your real skills as a cook are on display: salt this soup to taste. Try not to overdo it: add salt little by little and mix very well before adding more. Salting a cold mixture is tricky, because it doesn’t dissolve as quickly as adding salt to a hot liquid- therefore, it is very easy to over-salt- what tastes fine now can turn to saline-unpleasantness in 30 minutes. Thin it with more liquid if this happens. Those of you adept at raitha-making already know what I’m talking about.
8)Chill for at least 4 hours, but preferably for a day to allow the flavours to meld. Serve with bread, toast, a sandwich, as a first course for a light summer meal or as a snack to cool you off. Offer some to your neighbor with the all-white rooms and act drunk as you step inside the door, clumsily offering a bowlful. Hours of fun! [winks]
*Oh yeah, the cucumber seeds…why chuck ’em? They’re perfectly fine and delicious, but they tend to cause faster spoilage in cold soups… So…here are a few things I do with them: break the pulpy chunks into bite-size pieces and place in a bowl…then either 1)season them with salt and pepper 2)season them with Thai fish sauce, lime juice, and a sprinkling of ground chiles 3)season them with Indian chat masala and lime juice 4)make of them a paste, and smear it on your face- or other body-parts- as a cooling moisturizer! (rinse it off before you go somewhere, unless you need a new look)
And one more little tidbit for those of you who enjoy reading my verbal dribble so much that you got this far: I sometimes add a stalk of finely-sliced lemon-grass to the soup as well, if I have some handy, which I often do…adds a lovely lemony note that goes quite well with the tart yoghurt! (But don’t tell any Lithuanians that I snuck in a Thai ingredient)