Sweet natured

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Kathy Slack on making the most of vegetables’ naturally sweet properties to make cakes

People tend to wrinkle their noses when you mention baking with vegetables. “What, you mean like putting tomatoes on top of focaccia?” they ask, hopefully. No, I mean like putting vegetables in cakes. And so begins a litany of concerns: it won’t be sweet, it’ll look funny, it’ll taste all… vegetable-y.

I suppose you could be forgiven for thinking that veg-filled sweet baking is reserved for the lunatic fringe of lentil-loving allotment holders. (I say that without scorn: I’m a veg-grower myself.) It does seem a bit counter-intuitive to add something apparently so savoury to sweet dishes. But it would be your loss— the addition of vegetables to cakes, muffins, brownies and tarts brings many benefits.

For a start, it is a brilliant way to add moisture and avoid a dry crumb. Plus, it improves the texture, making for a denser cake with a bit of bite but without heaviness. Finally, vegetables add sweetness. Because when you think about it, many vegetables aren’t very savoury: children tend to like squash, peas, carrots and so on precisely because they are sweet. And it is a sweetness that’s perfect for desserts—more complex than the basic hit of caster sugar, which can be sickly enough to set your teeth on edge.

The value of cake
Top of many people’s reasons to add vegetables to cakes, and one I hear most often, is that it is one of your five-a-day, conveniently hidden in a more palatable form. But I don’t agree. Cake is not a functional food. You might, at a push, manage one of your five-a-day out of a cake if you add enough vegetables. But that does not in my mind make it a better cake. The value of cake is not measured by its nutritional benefit. Cake is A Good Thing. Always. Plus, it would be a mistake to view the addition of vegetables to baking as a way of ‘sneaking’ them ‘secretly’ into your diet. Do we somehow need tricking into eating a courgette? Courgettes are delicious. They don’t need to be hidden. They need to be celebrated.

On 11th April I’ll be back at the Demo Kitchen to do just that: rejoice in the loveliness of veg-filled cake and, indeed, all sweet vegetable bakes. Part of a month-long sweet baking residency, this vegetable feast is one of a series of demonstrations also featuring Sarit Packer, Juliet Sear and Hayden Groves, who will explore other areas of baking.  

I’ll select the best of the seasonal harvest to make an afternoon tea fit for an allotment king: early Italian courgettes for courgette and lime muffins; the last of the beetroot in perfect chocolate brownies; a raid of the stores for squash cake (with sugared primroses from the garden); carrot jam to replenish the cupboards and make carrot and thyme frangipane tart with. Do join me to look beyond the carrot cake and discover the potential of veg-filled baking.

Join Kathy for tips, tastings and recipes Thursday 11th April in the Market Hall, 1-2.30pm