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How Sweet It Is

What happens when beets meet chocolate.

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In his offbeat classic Jitterbug Perfume, author Tom Robbins heaps lavish praise upon the beet. It is, he says, "the most intense of vegetables deadly serious the murderer returned to the scene of the crime. The beet is the ancient ancestor of the autumn moon, bearded, buried, all but fossilized."

The novel goes on to describe a recipe for immortality that includes, among other things, lots of sex and beets.

Beets are as earthy as a mouthful of dirt. Perhaps that's why, here in America, few contenders come close to challenging the beet for the title of Least Favorite Vegetable. Not broccoli, not spinach, not even yellow summer squash inspires such vitriolic passion among its detractors. Perhaps the offense is in the paradoxical earthy sweetness of the beet, while the scarlet aftermath in our toilet bowl sings of our marriage to the food chain in ways we'd prefer to forget.

Meanwhile, if you ask people about their favorite taste in the whole world, many will name chocolate. Like the beet, chocolate is a food of passion. In the movie Chocolat, for example, the heroine opens a chocolate shop in a conservative, old-world Catholic village during Lent. The town's leaders begin a witch-hunt, denouncing her as a temptress. Near the end of the story she succeeds in awakening the long-suppressed passions of the town folk. Indeed, chocolate is known in many circles as not only an aphrodisiac but as an outright substitute for sex.

So here we are, discussing two passionate, earth-toned foods, both of which demand to be taken seriously. Perhaps you suspect where I'm going with this and are bracing for a combination that seems even less likely than the union of heaven and earth.

But how heavenly is the taste of pure chocolate? Not very, unless heaven is a bitter place. Chocolate -- the roasted seed coat of the cacao plant -- is made palatable only when combined with sugar. Oftentimes that sugar comes from beets, the world's second source of the sweet stuff, behind sugarcane.

I was on the phone with a farmer friend one day while he was making dinner for his wife and their crew of hungry women. While we spoke, he made a vat of pesto and some French filet beans in a soy-garlic-ginger sauce. All of a sudden he said, "Oh, I gotta go stir my beet thing." Next thing I knew, I was talking to a dial tone.

That night, one of the farmer's hungry women brought me a sample of said beet thing. It was gooey and moist, like fudge. It was sweet and full of chocolate, like fudge. It tasted like fudge, even though it was mostly grated beets. (It also contained chocolate chips, cocoa powder, and butter. He cooked it on the stovetop.)

His wife was inspired by the possibility of chocolate and beets. Over the weekend, she did some research of her own, arriving at a dense oven-bar recipe, wherein a cup of flour is mixed with a cup of cocoa powder. To this is added a mixture of one cup grated beets, two eggs, fresh raspberries, a little water, and a melted mixture of two tablespoons butter and a cup of chocolate chips. This substantial wad is mixed and baked in a greased pan at 325 degrees for about half an hour. The product is a color that would make Tom Robbins blush: a combination of red and brown that is dark as night and shiny as ebony.

Not wanting to be outdone and aware that Robbins was also a huge mayonnaise fan, I devised, tested, tweaked, and perfected the following recipe for chocolate beet mayonnaise cake.

You think I'm crazy but wait! My tasters were thoroughly blown away by this perfectly moist and dense chocolate experience and reluctant to believe it contained beets and mayo. You, my friend, will like this cake.

Combine the following ingredients in the following order: two cups flour; one teaspoon baking soda; one teaspoon baking powder; 1/2 teaspoon salt; 1/2 cup cocoa powder; one cup sugar; 1/2 cup chocolate chips. Stir the dry ingredients before adding one teaspoon vanilla; 3/4 cup half & half, one cup mayo, and two cups shredded beets (boiled 10 minutes in one cup water, until tender, and drained). Bake it in a greased pan at 350 until a plunged fork comes out clean (about 30 minutes). Cool.

For the frosting, combine 1/2 cup each of sour cream, cream cheese, and confectioner's sugar in a bowl. Beat it all together until smooth. Beat two egg whites until stiff, fold them into the frosting, chill 30 minutes, and frost.

Tom Robbins, eat your heart out.

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