It’s fairly well known and accepted that Roman Christianity pretty much cut & pasted Easter onto the existing Celtic spring equinox celebrations when it arrived on these shores, hence the inclusion of eggs, fluffy chicks and bunnies in proceedings (symbolic of new life and and re-birth in the Celtic spring equinox ceremonies) alongside crosses and the whole rising again thing from Christianity. It’s easy to see how it was all stitched together, it all mounts to a theme of springing back to life. No-one seems quite sure where chocolate came into the whole affair but then again no-one is complaining, either.
I love a rich gooey chocolate cake at Easter as much as the next person so I usually make one, but this year I wanted to make one that references our Celtic forebears. I wanted to incorporate our Celtic heritage both in its ingredients and its decoration so I eventually settled on a fudgey chocolate affair made with pureed beetroot, single malt whisky and a twist of black pepper. Beetroot is a crop historically grown on these islands; women from Celtic tribes, as well as eating them, used them as a form of make-up to stain their lips and cheeks. Thankfully we are able to use Boots instead of beets for that these days and can stick to culinary uses for it. Cooking them in chocolate cake may sound like an unusual application for it but people have been adding various vegetables, including this one, to cakes for a long time. No-one bats an eyelid at carrot cake, for example. The method I’ve developed of pureeing it with the whisky and reducing it down before adding it to the cake mixture makes for the moistest, fudgiest chocolate cake I’ve ever come across and it will not taste like Borscht, I promise.
Then there’s the whisky; I had to include that in the recipe because you don’t get more Celtic than a good single malt whisky (the word ‘whisky or whiskey’ being thought to derive from the Celtic name for it – ‘uisce beatha’ – meaning ‘water of life’). I used a Benromach 15 year old Speyside variety but any single malt, Irish or Scottish, will do. I recently saw a Welsh single malt so that deserves a mention, too.
Black pepper is another seemingly peculiar choice but I’ve found that a pinch of it does the same job in a dark chocolate cake that a pinch of chilli does, in that it acts as a subtle accent to the chocolate, nothing more. Many sources claim that black pepper arrived in Celtic England with the Romans, so I suppose it’s inclusion could symbolise that process I referred to at the beginning of Roman Christian traditions being grafted onto, and largely taking over, existing Celtic ones whilst at the same time incorporating some of their aspects. Tenuous maybe, but I’m sticking with it.
Finally, I’ve decorated my cake with the Celtic symbol for new life in the colour of woad, the ceremonial blue dye much loved by the ‘Picts’ (the Roman name for northern Celts) to paint their bodies for battle and ancient ceremonies.
300g vacuum pack of beetroot
100ml single malt whisky (60ml to go in the cake, 30ml to drizzle on the cake and 10ml to add to the chocolate frosting)
20 grinds fresh black pepper
150g Cornish butter (can’t leave the southernmost Celts out)
200g 85% cocoa dark chocolate
50g light oil
150g soft dark brown sugar
150g plain flour
50g rye flour
3 large eggs
2 tbsps cocoa powder
2 tsps baking powder
Good pinch of sea salt
2 cups icing sugar
1 cup cocoa
1 tbsp golden syrup (this gives the frosting a glossy appearance)
Pinch of salt plus the 10ml of single malt mentioned above
Hot water to mix
60g blue icing
Blue sugar craft balls
Line and grease an 8 inch spring form cake tin and put the oven on to 170/gas mark 3. Trim any hard root off the beetroot and puree it with the whisky and the black pepper, either in a blender or a juicer until it’s smooth. It will be an alarming pink colour, but don’t worry, reducing it down will fix that. I’ve found the easiest way to do this is to put it in the microwave in a glass measuring jug. Start with 10 mins on medium heat and see how far down that takes it, then stir and heat again in increments of 5 minutes until you have about two thirds of your original amount. It will now be a deep rich purple colour and will smell glorious.
Next put your chocolate into a zip lock bag and bash it to bits with a rolling pin. Don’t worry if you have some chunks up to 1cm-ish in size left. This gives a lovely texture to the cake.
Finally, put all the other cake ingredients – remember just 60ml of the whisky is for the cake mixture – together into a blender or mixer and combine. Pour into your prepared tin and bake for 40 mins. The top will crack a bit and a skewer will not come out clean. Ignore both these things. The top will settle and the inside is meant to be gooey like that. While the cake is still warm take a large needle, pin prick the cake all over and drizzle the 30ml of whisky over in teaspoons. If you have appropriated your partner’s best whisky for this purpose (ahem) remember to add a teaspoon of water before drizzling to release it’s complexity of flavours. At least then, whilst you may well be a thief, you’ll be a cultured one.
Allow the cake to cool completely in the tin. Once it has, invert it onto the serving platter or board; for this cake it’s best to decorate the bottom because it gives a flatter surface for the icing spirals to sit on.
To make the frosting put everything into a big bowl, cover it as far as you can with a clean tea towel for the initial stage to protect yourself from the sugary chocolatey dust cloud it will throw up, and whisk the ingredients with a couple of teaspoons of hot water, adding hot water teaspoon by teaspoon until it’s a glossy and spreadable, but fairly firm, consistency. Spread the mixture on the top and sides of the cake (don’t be tempted to try and cut the cake in half to put some in the middle, it’s far too squidgy for that). You may have some frosting left over but it freezes well. Better to have too much than too little. Once you’ve got as much frosting on the cake as you feel is enough, fill a mug with boiling water and put 3 or 4 eating knives in it to heat up. Pull one out – don’t even wipe off the boiling water that clings to it, it will help – and gently use it for 3 or 4 strokes to smooth out the glossy frosting to give you a level base for your Celtic symbol. Pop it back in the water and pull out another knife, repeating until your cake looks nice and neat.
Finally – if you can be bothered! – weigh out 3 x 20g pieces of blue icing and roll them out to about 30 inches per pieces. Starting in the centre, coil them round into 3 spirals and then follow the line of the spirals with the blue sugar craft balls. Or you could do the symbol free hand with icing if you have skill (I don’t), or perhaps you could use blue licorice laces (I’ve seen them online) or you could just not bother and eat the cake.