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Chocolate beet cake is a delicious way to sneak vegetables into a cake without ever being able to taste the beets. It just tastes of chocolate cake. The problem is that the beet part of the recipe is time-consuming. Most chocolate beet cake recipes recommend using fresh beets, cooking them, and then grating or shredding them before including them in the cake. If you're thinking this seems like a lot of work before you've even started making the cake batter, you're correct.
So why not try a shortcut with canned beets? Most recipes say that canned beets can in theory be substituted, but that fresh is better. What happens if you try it with canned beets? I put this to the test by making the chocolate beet cake you see in the photo above, but with canned beets instead of fresh.
Which type of canned beets should you use in this recipe?
If you browse the canned beets section in your local grocery store, you'll notice that there are many different types of canned beets - whole, sliced, shoestring, and pickled. Do not use pickled beets in this recipe! The pickling solution will affect the taste of the cake.
I used shoestring beets, also known as Julienne beets. Shoestring beets are already cut for you matchstick-style. So considering the beets need to wind up as finely shredded as possible, I figured this was a good part of the way there. All that was needed was to mash them with a potato masher and then a fork. Simple, right?! Actually it wasn't simple, but it would be even harder with sliced beets, so shoestring is OK to start with. And yes, you can use them without cooking them first or heating them up - canned beets are safe to use straight from the can.
Here is what the shoestring beets looked like straight from the can, before mashing:
Unfortunately, the major problem with using canned beets in a chocolate beet cake recipe is that the beets don't fall apart easily or mash easily. When you think about it, this makes sense - the beets are likely to end up as an accent in a salad, and no-one wants them turning to mush there, so that was probably the aim of the canning companies. But when you're trying to mash the beets to put into a cake, canned beets are really not your friend here because they just don't want to mash up easily, unless you have a food processor. I didn't have that, and this is the best I could do with a potato masher and a fork:
As you can see, the major problem is it's extremely difficult to mash canned beets smoothly by hand.
Two possibly better solutions if you're using canned beets
A couple of improvements you could make would be either:
- Use whole canned beets and grate them by hand on the finest side of your grater - it's possible that this gets them more finely shredded than trying to mash shoestring beets. Or...
- With shoestring beets, use a food processor or blender to finely shred them
What to do next with the beets
Once you have the beets finely shredded or mashed, they need to go in your chocolate beet cake recipe. For the purposes of this test, I used this chocolate beet cake recipe from Joy the Baker. It's clearly pointed out in the recipe that fresh beets are best (in this recipe, they are roasted). So be aware that I was going against the recommendation by using canned beets. Any failure of the cake to taste good would therefore be my fault and not that of the recipe. In fact, the recipe is beautifully illustrated and clearly explained in an engaging manner, so if you're going to make a beet cake that's the one I'd recommend. I frosted mine with regular home-made frosting colored with beets, instead of the cream cheese frosting on the recipe.
Here's how mine looked when it was complete (after removing some slices for tasting!)
How the cake tasted: results from people who tried it
I had 4 testers counting myself. OK they were all family, but they still tested it! The results were mixed. My spouse and my oldest son liked it. My youngest son and I didn't.
The one thing that all 4 of us agreed on is that we loved that the cake was neither too light and dry, nor too heavy and moist. It was just right! This is something you rarely see with chocolate cakes, so everyone was happy about that.
The major complaint from those of us who didn't like it was that the cake tasted bland and you could sometimes feel "bits" of beet, which wasn't anywhere near as gross as it sounds, but was a bit unexpected considering the bits weren't visible in the slice of cake in front of you.
Those who liked it were eager to eat more of it, and the slight bits of texture didn't bother them. Even though I had told everyone it was beet cake before eating it, my oldest son asked me for "more of that berry cake, please". I realized that he didn't know what beets were and he thought they were a type of berry, thus making the textural bits less of an issue for him because he was expecting that.
The final verdict
I think I can sum it up best by saying it's a good way to make a relatively healthy cake - but the result probably isn't something you'd be excited to give to a neighbor or friend. On the other hand, if you had managed to more finely shred your canned beets (e.g. food processor or fine grater), then you might have a lot more success than I did.
Overall, making chocolate beet cake using canned beets and mashing them with a fork is not something I'd recommend. Either shred them more finely or preferably put in the full extra work and use fresh beets.
For a much easier and more successful dessert recipe for a crowd, I recommend this sticky toffee pudding that you can make ahead. It looks impressive and tastes irresistible.