One of things I love most about travel is delving into a different culture and, if possible, going beyond the role of tourist. One way I like to mingle with local folks is grocery shopping far away from tourist areas. I like to tell myself that I’m fitting in just like a local. I probably stick out like a sore thumb, but it makes me feel good to try.
Grocery shopping at home is sometimes an unwelcomed chore, but going marketing in Italy is a very pleasurable experience, most of the time. I still remember my first time in a supermarket in Italy. It was Conad supermercato, comparable to Safeway; a neighborhood market. I had my little cloth shopping bag, my list, and I was going to make dinner in my Air B&B. Just like I lived there.
I headed straight for the produce section, thinking about making a fresh pasta sauce. The red tomatoes and the fresh basil caught my fancy. As I reached out to give the tomatoes a little squeeze to test for ripeness, I was quickly accosted by an angry clerk. Frowning, he pointed to a plastic glove dispenser. Lesson #1: Never touch the produce with your bare hands. It is considered rude and very unsanitary. Lesson #1 learned.
I donned the plastic glove and picked out my produce; my face was the same color as the tomatoes. Sheepishly, I queued up to pay. When I got to the front of the line, again, the clerk frowned and sent me back to the produce section. Customers must enter a code into a machine, weigh the produce and then affix the price to the item BEFORE getting in line. Lesson #2 learned.
The next time I went to the grocery store, I proudly put on my plastic glove, happily tested for freshness, weighed and labeled my produce with the proper code, just like a local. Now when I go grocery shopping in Italy, every so often I will see an innocent, unindoctrinated tourist touching the fruit bare-handed, and chuckle when a clerk comes running over. Oh, those silly tourists. Sometimes it’s nice to be in the know.
Another way I can feel at home is to buy a local Italian rag from a newsstand and try some recipes. One day, I found a lovely magazine called La Mia Vegetariana. Much like an Italian version of Sunset magazine, it’s full of lovely recipes and enticing food photos. Of course, it was all in Italian; the perfect way to practice my skills! Now that I am back home, I am working my through the recipes, translating and reliving wonderful moments.
It’s beet season, and smack in the middle of the magazine is a beet section with a half-dozen interesting beet recipes, including this chocolate beet cake. I’ve never had so much fun with beets!
Trial and Error
I had some goofs while making this cake and practiced several times before I got it just right. The first time, my melted chocolate seized. Yes, apparently that is a verb you can use when melting chocolate. If there is not enough liquid mixed in, the chocolate will get hard and seize. It is not pretty and the flavor is affected.
The next time, I thought I could get away with less sugar. The cake still tasted okay, but with less sugar the chocolate flavor did not stand out and the cake was sort of bland. Also, I wanted to see how it would be with cow’s milk instead of the required rice milk, thinking that might compliment the chocolate. The results were not good and the cake was almost gummy.
The third time, I got the melted chocolate just right, added the right amount of sugar, and used high quality chocolate and rice milk. It was perfect. Super chocolatey and just the right amount of moisture. Perfect mouthfeel.
The crunch of the hazelnuts and the moisture of the beets are really a pleasure for the palate. Oh, yes, and the rich chocolate flavor is not too bad either.
Chocolate Beet Cake
Rich chocolate mixed with sweet beets makes a perfect snack cake.
- 1 3/4 cup all purpose flour
- 1 1/4 cup hazelnuts, roasted and chopped
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1 3/4 tsp baking powder
- 1 large beet, precooked
- 150 grams of 70% chocolate
- 3/4 cup rice milk
- 1/4 cup corn or peanut oil
- powdered sugar for dusting
- optional – a dollop of mascarpone or vanilla ice cream
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees F and place rack in the center of the oven. Grease and flour a 12″ x 8″ baking dish.
- In a large bowl, mix dry ingredients together: flour, hazelnuts, sugar, and baking powder. Set aside.
- Using a hand mixer or blender, break up the beets into a chunky consistency. Then, in another mixing bowl, combine beets, oil, and 1/4 cup of the rice milk. Mix well.
- Add dry ingredients to the wet ingredients and stir to combine.
- In a bain-marie or double-boiler, heat remaining 1/2 cup rice milk over medium heat. Next, once milk is hot (not boiling), add chocolate, remove from heat, and stir occasionally until chocolate is melted. Pour the chocolate mixture into batter and stir until everything is uniform in color. The cake batter will have a chocolate color with a tinge of red.
- Pour the batter into the prepared baking dish and cook for 40 minutes until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Once the cake is nice and cool, cut into squares and dust generously with powdered sugar. Serve right away or store in a container for up to one week. This cake is excellent with a scoop of vanilla or coffee ice cream on the side. A dollop of mascarpone is another wonderful option.