In January, my husband signed us up for a weekly CSA (community-supported agriculture) program. Since then we have been “blessed” with an abundance of winter greens and sweet potatoes. Especially sweet potatoes. Lots of them. Big ones.
The other day, I remembered an old recipe I haven’t made in years: Sweet Potato-Chocolate Cake, from “The Victory Garden Cookbook,” by Marian Morash. It’s a simple cake, but a beautiful one, with swirls of chocolate and a delicately spiced, tender crumb. Baked in a 10-inch tube pan, it emerges burnished and marbled, and needs only a dusting of powdered sugar. Like so many recipes in the book, it is homey yet good enough to serve to company. Baking it reminded me why I still love and use this book after so many years.
Originally published by Knopf in 1982, “The Victory Garden Cookbook” was the companion cookbook to the original PBS gardening series of the same name. The show was produced by Morash’s husband, Russell, who also created “The French Chef” and other cooking shows starring Julia Child, as well as “This Old House” and “The New Yankee Workshop.” Marian Morash, an avid gardener who had worked as an executive chef on one of Child’s series, contributed countless recipes for the many vegetables featured on “The Victory Garden” show.
The book is an alphabetical homage to vegetables from asparagus to zucchini. Each vegetable (or family of vegetables) gets its own chapter, with information on growing, varieties and yields; plus basic instructions for blanching, boiling, sautéing, baking and more. The recipes — more than 800 altogether — beautifully showcase the versatility of each vegetable, on its own and with other vegetables, in salads, soups, sautés, stews, braises, breads and baked goods, in appetizers, main courses and desserts.
Long before Brussels sprouts, kale and fennel were the darlings of chefs across the country, they were Marian Morash’s darlings. “I never tire of marveling at Brussels sprouts,” she writes. “Cut open a Brussels sprout and examine it closely. See how the tiny leaves curl against each other and the way the color shades from cream to bright green.”
My mom got the first copy of the book in our house. I can’t remember for sure, but my guess is that it was a gift from my dad, an early devotee of PBS cooking shows (not surprisingly, we Marchettis were big fans of “The Romagnolis’ Table”). The sweet potato cake was one of the first recipes she made from it, and there was a period during which she seemed to make it at least once a week, to bring to friends or to keep on our kitchen counter.
A few years after my mom got her book, she gave a copy each to my sister and me. Mine has followed me more or less everywhere I’ve gone since then and I still consult it regularly. It’s a large paperback, and a few years ago, its front cover finally came off and had to be taped back on. I thought about buying a new copy — the book was re-released in 2010 — but by now part of the appeal for me lies in its worn state.
“The Victory Garden Cookbook” has none of the stunning photos that accompany so many of today’s cookbooks. There is not a whiff of celebrity about it. What it has is Morash’s down-to-earth style and practical, yet joyful approach to cooking. She is just a knowledgeable teacher sharing her passion. Maybe that is the secret to this book’s enduring appeal.
The sweet potato's natural orange color looks beautiful swirled together with chocolate. The mashed sweet potatoes add moisture to the batter, resulting in a rich, tender crumb. Serve plain with just a dusting of powdered sugar. This recipe is slightly adapted from "The Victory Garden Cookbook" (Knopf, 1982), by Marian Morash.
- 4 ounces semisweet chocolate
- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- 3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
- 1 1/2 cups sugar
- 2 teaspoon baking powder
- 2 teaspoon baking soda
- 2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
- 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 1 tseaspoon salt
- 2 cups cooked, mashed sweet potatoes
- 1 1/2 cups vegetable oil
- 4 large eggs
- Confectioners' sugar for dusting
Preheat the oven to 350 F. Butter and lightly flour a 10-inch tube pan. Place chocolate and vanilla in a small saucepan and set, covered, in a larger pan that you've just filled with boiling water.
Sift together all dry ingredients and set aside. In a large bowl, beat the sweet potatoes and oil together. Beat in the eggs, one by one, until well blended. Slowly add the dry ingredients and beat until thoroughly combined. Put one-third of the mixture in another bowl and stir in the chocolate, which should be melted smooth by now. Alternate the batters in the tube pan, as you would with a marble cake. With a knife, cut through the two batters to slightly swirl together.
Bake for 1 to 1 1/4 hours or until the sides have shrunk away from the pan, the top is springy, and a cake tester comes out dry. Set the pan on a rack and let cool for 30 minutes. Carefully remove the cake from the pan and cool completely. Dust with confectioners' sugar before serving.