Some of you may have noticed that I missed the History Bite for last week. I had a pretty good excuse though; I was getting married. Woohoo!
First and foremost, a quick announcement. We’ll be taking next week off from the Love Box to sort out some administrative stuff, and to be honest, give ourselves a breather. So we’ll be putting out some extra History Bites to make sure you get your fill while we’re off. Anna and I have been putting a tonne of time and energy into getting this venture off the ground, and it’s time we took a beet to get our ducks in a row.
Notice how I said, took a beet? That’s because we’ll be talking about this week’s seemingly unusual dessert, the double chocolate beet cake. What a segue. Somebody give this guy a job.
People have been using vegetables in baking for quite some time. Think about some of the classics: carrot cake, pumpkin pie, banana bread, and zucchini loaf.
So why do we do this? Put simply, it’s because we could and we had to.
We often forget the seasonality of food living the way we do now. But for most of human history, everything had a season. Tomatoes are typically done growing outdoors by this time of the year. Apples are coming into their prime now, and strawberries are long forgotten by October.
Hearty plants like kale, carrots, beets, turnips, and cabbages are all that remain past October. Of course, all this varies depending on your climate, but in this part of the world, these vegetables can last for a long time, and are all harvested right around now. That’s why we have Thanksgiving: it's a harvest festival to start digging into all the beautiful crops that have been harvested before the frost rolls in.
Why does this all matter?
If you’re anything like me, the thought of eating the same leftovers every day for a week is incredibly boring. As we approach Thanksgiving, I’m already thinking about my plans for what to do with that turkey I’ve ordered from the butcher, especially since we’re all geared up for a socially distanced holiday and it will just be my wife and I enjoying it. So I’m taking that bird and turning it into as many different meals as I can, so I don’t go insane. All of which leads me to my next point, and explains where beet cake comes from: working with what you have, and getting creative.
If you have a tonne of carrots on hand, you’re obviously not going to eat carrot soup and roasted carrots every day. That would suck. Same with beets. You’re going to pickle them, roast them, make borscht, and use them every which way. There are English recipes from the 1500s of carrot puddings, which were essentially stuffed carrots. This recipe had a lot of similar ingredients to a carrot cake. It’s also around this time that fruits and nuts started to be used in baking, creating sweet pies which were basically non-existent (at least in the historical record) up until then.
It’s also important to remember that humans have a sweet tooth. It’s hard wired into our brains. Sugar is easy to breakdown in our bodies, and glucose is the main fuel source we run on. All the food we eat essentially gets broken down into glucose (I’m oversimplifying things here since this isn’t a science blog). The complexity of what we eat affects how quickly that happens. There are specific sucrose (sugar) receptors on our tongue, and when the brain senses sucrose it goes crazy. Simple sugars (like refined sugar, maple syrup, or honey) really light these receptors up, no matter how full you are. Your brain innately recognizes the presence of an immediate fuel source, and tells you to eat it (so don’t feel bad if you go back for an extra slice of pie this weekend).
Back in the day, when people wanted that sucrose hit in the middle of winter, they had to rely on their winter vegetables to make it happen. Certain vegetables contain more sugar than others, and beets are one of the sucrose superstars. At a time when sugar was prohibitively expensive, creating cakes and sweets from beets made sense.
In the mid-1700s, people started producing beet sugar as a more affordable option for sweetener. Even today, 30% of the world's sugar comes from beets. But sugar, no matter where it comes from, has always been pricey, and so people have continued to get creative in their quest to quench the sweet tooth.
We see this especially in the Second World War. Carrot cake—another vegetable sucrose superstar—had been around since sometime in the 1800s. But with war rations in place, sugar was again in short supply, so many bakers turned back to the old methods of sweetening things. And once your sweet summer berries are gone, what you have left to get the sugar hit your brain desires are those hearty winter vegetables.
Bakers again started using shaved carrots in their cakes, and carrot cake exploded in popularity. Beets came back in a big way too, with their juice being added to cake batter, creating red velvet cakes. Using these vegetables was an easy way to bump up the sugar when there’s not as much to go around. It also reduces the amount of eggs or milk needed, as you don’t need as many leavening or binding agents (since there’s also starch in these veggies).
These all-natural sweeteners do something else for the cakes, too: they increase the moisture level in your cake, especially if you use the actual vegetable. As the cake slowly bakes, the starches in the vegetables break down into sugars and water, simultaneously sweetening the cake and leavening it. That’s why carrot cake is so moist and delicious.
So when you take your next bite of carrot cake, pumpkin pie, or our decadent double chocolate beet cake, take a second to think about all the history that made it possible.
Until next time,
P.S. Order this week's Love Box to get a taste of our double chocolate beet cake