When my sister pressed her copy of Red Velvet & Chocolate Heartache into my hands last weekend, it came with a warning. “Give it a chance” she urged me, knowing that I was already slightly biased against this book.
“I will, don’t worry” I answered. But inside, I was skeptical. Come on- cakes made with vegetables instead of butter? Who’s buying that one?
The premise behind Red Velvet & Chocolate Heartache is that cakes can be healthy, or at the very least, not unhealthy. The author, Harry Eastwood, was one of four women behind Channel 4′s 2007 series Cook Yourself Thin, and is a self-confessed cake junkie. She wrote this cookbook because she believes that enjoying cake- real, delicious cake- should be a regular activity, and not an infrequent indulgence.
How to achieve this, without sacrificing flavour for health? Reduce the fat, sugar and calorie content of classic cake recipes by replacing the butter with a combination of ground almonds (for fat and texture) and finely grated vegetables (for moisture and fluff). Used together, this nuts-and-veg combination is meant to magically create a moist, tender crumb without compromising on taste. What I thought? We’ll see about that.
The book looks lovely, if a bit cute and girly for some tastes. Most of the food shots are beautifully styled and a treat to look at, and the only ones that truly bother me are those where cupcakes are displayed in an antique doll’s house (yes, really) or the ones featuring little girls dressed up like fairies. The thick, matte paper is a nice quality, and the layouts are pretty, but clean and effective.
The eight chapters, rather infuriatingly, have been given colours as well as names, such as The Pale Pink Chapter – Birthday Cake or The Purple Chapter – Lemon and Lavender Drizzle Cake. Obviously there is more than one recipe per chapter (those named are simply the leading one), and there has been an effort to group these somewhat logically. For instance, The Orange Chapter – Chocolate and Peanut Butter Cupcakes contains recipes of an autumnal feel, many containing citrus, toffee or fall fruits. This “system” of organization is slightly confusing, but not a huge annoyance.
No, the huge annoyance here is the writing. As nearly every review of this book has mentioned, the author’s girly, twee, altogether too-cutesy-for-words style grates like fingernails on a blackboard. She seems strangely preoccupied with personification: every vegetable and cake gets a personality, and usually a gender too. Absurd to the point of hilarity, it does get a tad annoying when you realise that, instead of offering any useful information about each recipe, there’s nothing but a little story. For example, the blurb about Orange Blossoms:
These little cupcakes are light, bright and pretty. They’re also a little fickle, and not without ambition. Don’t be surprised if they compliment you on your hair, the week before your birthday party invitations are being handed out… (pg. 13)
(A word to the wise: if your cupcakes do, in fact, begin to compliment you, step away. They’re likely laced with more than just vegetables.)
If you can move past this to the actual recipes, you’re in for a delicious surprise. After first trying some of my sister’s veggie baking, I was astonished; these cakes are good. My own first effort was Ginger Millies (pg. 15), a butternut squash-based cupcake with a unbelievably moist crumb. I then tried the Sunken Apricot and Almond Cake (pg. 49) which rivals many traditional (and far less healthy) treats in both taste and texture.
Next on my list are the Forbidden Chocolate Brownies (pg. 137), which get their “squidge” factor from beetroot, and the Ginger Sticky Toffee Pudding (pg. 172), which contains parsnip. Not limited to cakes, Red Velvet & Chocolate Heartache also contains recipes for preserves like Sharpie Strawberry Jam (pg. 7), teatime treats such as Port Mary Scones (pg. 94) and other intriguing delights, like Parsnip Vanilla Fudge (pg. 169).
Not everything is super-healthy, though many cakes are low in calories (there is a useful nutritional table at the back). Since the vegetables contain natural sugars, there is little extra added- good news for those of us who don’t like our cakes too sweet. Also unusually, all the recipes have been tested with white rice flour (though they can be made with plain flour), which makes them suitable for those with gluten allergies. While almost all of the recipes are notable for their lack of butter, many of the icings, sauces and toppings in the book do rely on it, as Harry claims to be “all for butter- when you can taste it” (xiii).
So, have I been convinced? Yes and no. I’d like to hang on to Red Velvet & Chocolate Heartache for a while, though I’m not sure I’ll be investing in my own copy. While these cakes are light years better than I expected them to be, they’re hardly the Most Delicious Cakes I’ve Ever Had or anything. I also feel that, while the texture of Harry’s cakes are indeed wonderful, the flavour isn’t always there (butter adds more than just fat and moisture to baked goods, after all).
When all is said and done, though, I (grudgingly) admit that Red Velvet & Chocolate Heartache is a great cookbook. If you’re a health-conscious cake lover, a concerned parent looking for some healthy treats, or have a gluten allergy, you can’t go wrong with this book. If you can get past the nauseating writing, there are some wonderful recipes in here. Four twinkly, sparkly, dancing little stars, then.