Spiced Beet Cake with Citrus Glaze. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Unless you have been living under a rock since the 1970s, you’ve regularly encountered carrot cake at potlucks, cafeterias and in-store supermarket bakeries, with its longstanding sidekicks, cream cheese icing and those cute little orange-and-green piped carrot decorations.

But in the dessert arena, rutabagas, beets and parsnips – carrots’ equally capable root vegetable cousins – have gotten much less play. In the depths of a New England winter, when local produce choices are few and far between, these humble vegetables are worth the home baker’s attention. You can use them to make tasty pies, cakes, ice cream and custards.

More decades ago than I care to count, I infamously fooled my then college boyfriend into eating beets, which he emphatically detested, by baking them into a chocolate beet cake. It was delicious, and he thought so, too, before my smug giggling clued him in to the trick. Is this why our relationship ended? (A happier recollection was when my friend Mitchell Davis included my chocolate beet cake recipe in his wonderful 2002 cookbook, “The Mensch Chef.”)

A more mature me won’t try to disguise the vegetal content of these desserts. And a more mature American dining public – accustomed to sushi, pho, kimchi, fried Brussels sprouts, kale salads and so much more – presumably won’t turn up its nose at rutabaga layer cakes, parsnip custards or beet pies.

Credit part-time Maine resident Martha Stewart for that last idea. She features a beet pie in her 1985 “Martha Stewart’s Pies & Tarts” cookbook. In addition to the beets, it calls for vanilla, eggs and a generous amount of heavy cream. How could that be bad? Because of its forward red color, it’s on my short list for Valentine’s dinner this year (Wait! Another bad move?). A few pages on in the same cookbook, Stewart offers her readers a recipe for Carrot-Parsnip Pie. She was ahead of her time.

That beet pie sounds like an idea from former Vinland chef and owner David Levi, now a father and property manager. “Beet ice cream is really delicious,” he said during a phone interview. “The coldness somehow seems to play down the earthy flavors, and mixing it with the cream makes it a vibrant beautiful pink instead of that almost too-dark-to-appreciate red. You don’t need to go too heavy with the beets to get a really nice level of flavor and color.”


He credits the recipe to an early sous chef at his now-closed Portland restaurant, who baked beet meringues to go with it. A long-ago Maine food-writing predecessor of mine might be astounded at these creations, but I think she’d approve. “The beet is not always given full credit for its possibilities on the menu,” Edna Ferguson opined in a June 10, 1939, column in the Lewiston Journal. “Yet this vegetable is knocking on the kitchen door of opportunity, waiting for a chance to make good in many ways.”

I’d actually called Levi to ask him about parsnip custard, a staple on the dessert menu at the famously local Vinland; Levi sourced all his ingredients from within 100 miles of the Congress Street restaurant. Today, the spot is occupied by Friends & Family.

That dessert started with top-quality parsnips, he said, usually from Goranson Farm in Dresden. The quality was especially important to him because warm spices, like nutmeg, allspice and cinnamon, don’t grow in Maine and thus were off-limits in his kitchen. Good parsnips convey those flavors, Levi said, letting him “extend into that range in a way that was largely otherwise unavailable. Parsnips were an incredibly valuable ingredient in that respect.”

The custard also called for condensed yogurt whey, maple sugar, ghee and turmeric, an unconventional dessert, but then Vinland attracted adventurous diners. “People loved it,” Levi said. “People loved it.”

Levi mentioned that he used sunchokes, another homely root vegetable, to make semifreddo at Vinland. “And the potato has great potential,” he added, “as Holy Donut has shown.”

Slices of olive oil-rosemary-parsnip loaf in food editor Peggy Grodinsky’s kitchen. Recipe development is ongoing. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Over the last decade, parsnip cake has been slowly gaining in popularity. Chef Erin French, from Freedom, included a recipe, with hazelnuts and mascarpone, in her 2017 “The Lost Kitchen” cookbook. In my own kitchen, I’ve been fooling around lately with a version that uses olive oil, rosemary, pine nuts and lemon. The recipe is still a work in progress, though it’s nearing the finish line. When I offered an acquaintance a taste of that loaf cake recently, she mentioned that her daughter has been baking a parsnip-cranberry cake from famed baker Dorie Greenspan for their recent Thanksgiving dinners. Everybody thought the idea was crazy weird, she said, but then everybody fell in love with the cake.


Recipes for parsnip cake – likewise carrot and beet cakes – variously call for raw grated vegetables or cooked pureed ones. I’m not sure why, as the results don’t seem all that different to me. In any case, the idea of using parsnips in desserts is actually not a new one. Some plum and marrowfat puddings were made with a parsnip base, according to English historian Dorothy Hartley in her 1954 “Food in England.” But as sugar became more available – read less expensive – that usage waned. Incidentally, culinary historians also say that the reputation of the parsnip, apparently in its heyday in the Middle Ages, was done in by the rise of the potato.

Carrots and parsnips are members of the Apiaceae family. Rutabagas and turnips are brassicas, which make them cousins to cabbages (same family, different species). Nonetheless, in savory cooking, I use all these root vegetables interchangeably. And while a relative of the cabbage doesn’t, on the face of it, seem promising for a dessert, I had a hunch rutabagas would work out just fine. So despite the aptly named food historian Waverly Root dismissing the rutabaga in a single damning sentence in his 1980 food encyclopedia, “Food,” as “a root more admired a century or two ago than it is now,” I lugged home a sturdy, wax-coated specimen from Hannaford and used it in a cake recipe in place of the parsnips that were called for. Yum!

But are these vegetable-laden sweets any healthier for you than your average slice of chocolate cake? As I poured 1 cup of luscious heavy cream into a puree of rutabagas, pears and apples to make pie, I was feeling skeptical. That’s when the phone rang; dietician Melissa Page was on the other end. First, the bad news.

“When you look at it per slice, you don’t really get too much benefit in terms of more fiber, less sugar, more protein or even less calories,” said Page, senior bariatric dietician at the Weight & Wellness Program at Maine Medical Center.

But on the whole, Page is positive about the idea of incorporating root vegetables into sweets. Eaters may get such pluses as more antioxidants, more beta carotene, more vitamin A. And if a baker cooks and purees the vegetables first, he could use them to replace some of the fat in a cake, she said. Finally, root vegetable baked goods can be a great way to introduce timid eaters to food they might otherwise refuse.

But tell them what you’re doing, she added. Don’t be sneaky.


Grodinsky ices Caramelized Rutabaga Layer Cake. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer


Serves 10

This recipe is adapted from Regan Daley’s “In the Sweet Kitchen.” She calls for parsnips; I substituted rutabaga, which worked beautifully. Among a few other changes, I adjusted the mixing method and used a favorite icing of my own. You can make the cake with all white flour; that’s what Daley calls for, but I like the depth that a bit of whole wheat or spelt flour adds. Eaters will probably not be able to identify the rutabaga, or for that matter the pear, but this is a delicious, brown sugary layer cake that reminds me of carrot cake and hummingbird cake; if I ran a diner with a rotating glass display case, I’d feature it. Because of the cream cheese in the frosting, store any uneaten cake in the refrigerator.

Yield: 1 (9-inch) layer cake

2 cups peeled, sliced rutabaga, sliced 1/4 inch thick
1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup whole wheat or spelt flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
3 lightly beaten eggs
1 cup mild vegetable oil
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup packed light brown sugar
3/4 cup finely chopped canned pears with 1/4 cup of the pear juice liquid
1 cup chopped, toasted pecans
1 cup unsweetened shredded coconut
1 recipe Caramel-Cream Cheese Frosting (below)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter and grease 2 round 9-inch cake pans and line with parchment.


Line a baking dish with aluminum foil, add the sliced rutabagas in a single layer. Cover tightly with more foil and bake for about 45 minutes until the rutabaga are tender and lightly caramelized. Remove from the oven and mash with a potato masher or fork. Set aside.

In a large bowl, whisk together the dry ingredients – the flours, baking powder, salt and spices.

Whisk together the eggs, oil, vanilla and mashed rutabagas. Stir in the sugars. Add this mixture to the combined dry ingredients and stir just to combine. Fold in the pears, pecans and coconut.

Divide the batter between the two prepared pans and bake for 35 to 45 minutes until a tester inserted into the centers of the cakes emerges clean, and the cakes are golden, just beginning to pull away from the edges of the pans. Allow the cakes to cool in their pans for 15 minutes, then invert onto a wire rack to finish cooling, removing the parchment paper.

When the layers are cool, frost with the Caramel-Cream Cheese Frosting.



I make my own caramel, or easy dulce de leche really, from canned sweetened condensed milk, but you can use store-bought caramel sauce. If you make caramel, it must be cool before you beat it into the frosting.

12 ounces cream cheese, softened
6 tablespoons butter, softened
3/4 cup caramel sauce

Beat the cream cheese in a mixer until smooth. Add the butter and beat until combined and smooth. Slowly pour in the caramel sauce and beat. If you make the frosting ahead of time, store it in the refrigerator.

A slice of Spiced Beet Cake with Citrus Glaze. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer


The recipe for this moist, hearty cake comes from Ken Haedrich’s “The Harvest Baker.” Next time, I’d reduce the raisins from the 1½ cups that Haedrich calls for to 1 cup, so that’s what I’ve called for below. I also reduced the sugar slightly, since the beets, raisins and glaze provide a lot of sweetness, and I swapped in some whole-grain flour. In general, it’s easy to overbake a cake, which makes it unappealingly dry. But this particular cake has so many moist, heavy ingredients, better to err on the side of overbaking, or risk a gummy cake. I found the deep magenta color of the batter thrilling (that’s what passes for excitement in the life of a food editor). Heads up: The cake is labor-intensive, and because you’ll dirty both the food processor and the mixer, it generates a lot of dishes. “But once you’ve tasted it,” Haedrich writes, “you’ll think the work is a small price to pay for such deliciousness.”

Serves 16


5 medium beets (about 1 ¼ pounds)
1 cup dark or golden raisins
2 cups all-purpose flour
2/3 cup whole wheat or spelt flour
1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ginger
1 ¼ cups sugar
3/4 cup honey
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
4 eggs, at room temperature
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Finely grated zest of 1 lemon
Finely grated zest of 1 orange
1/2 cup buttermilk
1 cup chopped, toasted walnuts
1 recipe Citrus Glaze (below)

Scrub the beets and bring them to a boil in a pot with enough water to cover. Reduce the heat, cover partially, and cook at a low boil, 30 to 45 minutes, adding water if necessary, until the beets feel tender to the core when pierced with a knife. Drain, cool, then skin the beets, dice and measure out 2 cups. (You can speed this up by quartering the beets before boiling them.)

Put the raisins in a small bowl and cover with warm water to rehydrate them. Set aside. Butter and flour a 12 to 14 cup Bundt pan. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Whisk together the dry ingredients – the flours, baking powder and soda, salt and spices. Combine the sugar with the 2 cups diced beets in a food processor and puree.

Beat the honey, oil and butter in a bowl with an electric mixer. Add the eggs, vanilla, lemon and orange zest and beat on high speed for 1 minute. Blend in the beet puree on low speed.

Add half of the combined dry ingredients. Mix on low speed until just combined. Blend in the buttermilk, then the remaining dry ingredients, again until just combined. Drain the raisins. Stir in the raisins and walnuts by hand, just until combined.


Pour the batter into the prepared Bundt pan and bake for 50 to 60 minutes, until a tester inserted into the cake comes out clean. Cool the cake on a cooling rack for at least 20 minutes, then invert to finish cooling. Drizzle with the Citrus Glaze.


2 cups confectioners’ sugar, sifted
3-4 tablespoons milk
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 to 2 teaspoons finely grated lemon or orange zest

Combine the sugar, 3 tablespoons milk, vanilla and zests in a bowl. Whisk well. It will be stiff at first, but it will smooth right out. Add the remaining milk, 1 teaspoon at a time, to reach a medium-thick drizzleable consistency.


This recipe is heavily adapted from a Nov. 7, 1986, Morning Sentinel recipe. “Don’t make a face,” Ted Larsen wrote at that time. “In thousands of taste tests, this usually wins over pumpkin pie. Seriously, this is a holiday must it will wow and delight.”


1 apple
1 pear
1 pound rutabaga, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
2/3 cup brown sugar
3 eggs
1/2 teaspoon allspice
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/8 teaspoon cloves
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup milk
One (9-inch) par-baked deep dish pie shell
Whipped cream, to dollop

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.

Peel and core the apple and pears and slice the fruit in half. Place the rutabaga on a tray in the hot oven and roast until done. Be patient; rutabaga requires it. After 20 minutes, add the apple and pear halves, composting the peels and cores, and continue roasting for 30 minutes. Keep your eye on the fruit and remove it, if need be, if it softens before the rutabaga. Remove the rutabaga when completely tender when pierced with a fork. Reduce the oven to 350 degrees F.

Puree the fruit and the rutabaga in a food processor. Add the sugar, eggs, spices, salt and vanilla and blend. Whisk together the cream and the milk, and gradually add the dairy to the processor, just to combine all the ingredients.

Pour the mixture into the par-baked pie shell. Bake the pie for 50 to 55 minutes until the filling is mostly set but still jiggles slightly in the very center of the pie. Like all custard pies, it will firm up as it cools. Serve cool or chilled, dolloped with whipped cream if you like.

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