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Local And Seasonal: Double-Chocolate Cupcakes

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February fourteenth is just around the corner, and I've been pondering the question of what to make for my Valentine. I considered classic heart-shaped bonbons and chocolate-covered strawberries, but oddly I kept coming back to beets. Beets are his all-time favorite winter vegetable. (Can you see why he's my Valentine?) When I saw him eagerly reach for a big bunch at the market, I wondered if the round, red, root vegetable could be a surprise ingredient in his Valentine's Day dessert.

I realize beets aren't exactly romantic, but they are sweet. Of all the vegetables, beets have one of the highest levels of natural sugars. They are also loaded with antioxidants, folate, manganese, and potassium. Beets are sometimes feared for their vivid red juice, which stains everything it touches, but there's really no need to worry; the scarlet color washes off with soap and water.

In California, freshly dug beets turn up in markets from October to July. Red varieties are most common, though you'll also find golden and white types. There's even a candy-striped beet called Chioggia, native to the Veneto region of Italy and increasingly popular in the United States. Choose rock-hard beets with perky leaves still attached. These fresh greens are the best way to tell that the vegetable was recently harvested, and they also happen to be quite flavorful. If the leaves are small and tender, toss them raw into salads. If they are large, try sautéing them with garlic, then stirring them into pasta or a frittata.

Beets have an earthy, mineral flavor. A good dose of acidity balances it out nicely. Be liberal with the vinegar when dressing shredded beets for a salad, and don't shy away from a firm squeeze of citrus juice to enliven the flavors of any beet dish. On Valentine's Day, I'll be baking a batch of double-chocolate cupcakes. They're fudgy, earthy, moist, and rosy thanks to an unexpected ingredient.

Double-Chocolate Cupcakes
These decadent cupcakes are a sweet way to show your love. If your Valentine adores cream cheese frosting, by all means use that instead of ganache.

Makes 2 dozen

½ pound beets
1 teaspoon safflower oil or other neutral-tasting oil
1½ cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
¾ teaspoon baking soda
1 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup sour cream
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
10 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
1½ cups granulated sugar
2 large eggs
¼ cup freshly brewed espresso or strong coffee
6 ounces good-quality chocolate, broken into small pieces
¾ cup heavy cream

Preheat the oven to 350°F.

Scrub and trim the beets. Place them on a sheet of foil, drizzle with the oil, then wrap tightly. Roast for 1 hour, or until the beets are completely tender. Unwrap the foil and let the beets cool. When you can comfortably handle them, slip off their skins. Purée the beets in a food processor until very smooth--you may need to add a spoonful or two of water to help the beets move around the bowl of the food processor. (Beet purée can be made up to three days ahead and refrigerated.)

Generously butter the inside surfaces of a muffin tin (or line it with paper baking cups).

In a small bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, cocoa powder, and salt. In another bowl, stir together the sour cream, vanilla extract, and ¾ cup beet purée.

Using a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter and sugar until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, mixing until each egg is incorporated. Scrape down the sides of the bowl. While mixing on low speed, add one-third of the flour mixture, followed by one-half of the beet mixture. Add the second third of flour, the remaining half of beet, then the final third of flour. Stir in the espresso.

Divide batter evenly among muffin cups. Bake for 18 minutes, or until the tops spring back when lightly pressed. Let cool for 5 minutes, then transfer cupcakes to a wire rack and let them cool completely.

Meanwhile, make a ganache frosting by placing the chocolate pieces in a small bowl. Bring the cream to a boil, then immediately pour it over the chocolate. Without stirring, allow the chocolate to melt for a few minutes, then whisk quickly to combine. Let the ganache cool for 10 minutes or so, until it is easily spreadable. The longer the ganache cools, the firmer it will be; you can always re-heat it in a double boiler (or microwave) if it gets too stiff. Using a butter knife, frost the cupcakes, swirling to cover their tops. (Cupcakes can be stored in an airtight container for up to three days.)

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