Flash in the Pan 

Eat your heart out

Valentine's Day is approaching faster than Cupid's arrow shot from a compound bow, and you may be sweating under the pressure of preparing a sweet something for your sweetheart. You want your creation to be as full of significance as flavor, as surprising as it is sweet and sexy. For the ultimate culinary embodiment of your feelings for your Valentine, you could do a lot worse than bake a chocolate mayonnaise beet cake.

No discussion of love could be complete without a discussion of mayonnaise. If there is any truth to the notion that opposites attract, then mayonnaise is metaphorical proof, representing the union and long-term relationship of opposites. Shakespeare is surely kicking himself in the grave for not thinking of it himself.

In mayo we have oil: refined and pure, an aristocrat among foods. And we have egg: the shit-smeared menstrual product of a chicken, that most clueless of fowl. When egg and oil meet, they quickly separate, as if intuitively aware that they don't belong together. Not every true love begins as love at first sight.

Little do they know that something exists in the heart of the egg, a yellow-brown fatty substance that belongs to the broad category of plant and animal extracts known as lecithin. Specifically, the lecithin buried deep in the egg's yolk goes by the oh-so-sexy name of phosphatidylcholine, and it has the ability to bond egg and oil in blissful mayomony.

Lecithins such as phosphatidylcholine can act as emulsifiers, which stabilize mixtures of substances that would otherwise separate. Thus, with the assistance of phosphatidylcholine, the mixture of oil and egg stays together in a stable, enduring and creamy relationship. Cynics will surely liken the emulsifier to a pair of handcuffs binding two disinterested substances against their will, but true romantics will recognize this bonding force as love.

It's not for such metaphorical reasons alone that mayo deserves its place in the mixing bowl when we prepare a special Valentine's Day chocolate beet cake. Those who balk, incredulous, at the addition of love crème obviously haven't read the recipes for too many chocolate cakes, because they all contain oil and eggs.

While glancing at an ingredient list can help overcome an aversion to mayo in cake, convincing the baker to include the earthy, bloody beet takes more of a leap of faith. This lover's leap will pay off.

  • Photo courtesy of Eliza Magro

As with love crème there is a strong metaphorical basis for adding beet to your chocolate Valentine's Day cake. Beet is the color of what courses through our hearts and veins, the color of lipstick, sports cars and cherries. Like love, the beet stains our insides. Like love, the beet is bitter and sweet.

And as is the case with love crème there is also a solid culinary basis for including the beet in our cake. Sugar is derived from beets because beets are full of sugar. And sugar never hurt a cake. Meanwhile, the texture of shredded beets gives the cake body, much like the lift carrots bring to a carrot cake. While the beet's color can be off-putting in some contexts, in this cake it hides behind the darker color of chocolate, and the beet's bitter side blends with the bitter chocolate, adding subtle complexity.

Start by grating 2 cups of red beets. Simmer the bloody shards in 4 cups of water for 20 minutes. Strain the beets and save the red water, pouring it into a saucepan to simmer at low heat until less than a quarter cup remains—just don't let it dry out and burn the pan. Set aside the reduced beet water.

Combine the following ingredients in a mixing bowl: 2 cups flour, 1 teaspoon baking soda, 1 teaspoon baking powder, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/2 cup cocoa powder, 1 cup sugar and 1/2 cup chocolate chips.

Stir the dry ingredients together and add 1 teaspoon vanilla, 3/4 cup half & half, 1 cup mayo and the 2 cups of shredded beets. Bake it in a greased pan, or separate pans for a layer cake, at 350 degrees until a plunged fork comes out clean (about 1/2 hour per 2 inches). Let it cool completely to room temperature.

Frost it with pink whipped cream, which can be prepared as follows: Chill a mixing bowl and 1 pint heavy cream. Then whip the cream with a hand or electric mixer. When it's whipped to the point where stiff peaks form, stir in that red beet concentrate you reduced after steaming the beets.

I have made this cake with all kinds of mayo, including my favorite, Grapeseed Oil Vegenaise, which isn't a true mayo as it contains no eggs. Even my fake mayo works fine, as do all the others I've tried. So use your favorite version of love crème and she'll thank you. Or he'll thank you. Or they'll thank you.

And if he or she or they ask what you put in the cake to make it taste so good, you may want to consider the possibility that an answer like "mayo, beets and a touch of phosphatidylcholine" might kill the moment. If you were to simply answer, "Love," that would be truth enough. Shakespeare, eat your heart out.

Ask Ari: Special Delivery

Q: Dear Flash,

Have you heard about a new service in Missoula that delivers local food directly to your door? I've heard rumors, but nothing solid. Is there any truth to it?

—Longing to be a Locavore

A: Dear LL,

Yep, the organization of which you speak is called Farm to Family. The way it works is you go to the website, www.farmtofamilymt.com, and choose from the list of items, which will include local and seasonal foods when available, such as Lifeline dairy products, Le Petit bread and pizza dough, Hunter Bay and Cravens coffee, Totally Organic tofu, Mission Mountain eggs, Bernice's granola and cookies, vegetables and fruit from local farms (in season), Botanie Soap and many other items. You pay with your credit card and pick a delivery time and date, and the food comes to your door. The delivery charge is $4. The folks at Farm to Family are aiming for a late February launch of this service.

Later in the spring, a weekly CSA will also be offered through Farm to Family. It will run for 20 weeks and keep a family of four in veggies, and also include delivery.

Meanwhile, for those who have the time and desire for more hands-on involvement in their retail food purchases, the Missoula Community Food Co-op continues to kick ass and expand. A one-time membership fee and a commitment to work three hours every four weeks at various tasks earns you the right to shop at the co-op. The prices are good, and it's surprisingly well-stocked for such a small (but expanding) space. Working there is really fun, and you get to be a part of something very cool and dynamic.

Send your food and garden queries to flash@flashinthepan.net

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