Baking Desserts with Vegetables

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“Sticky Fingers, Green Thumb” by Hayley McKee shows readers that baking and gardening can go hand in hand in the kitchen.

Sticky Fingers, Green Thumb (Hardie Grant, 2018) by Hayley McKee shows readers that vegetables and desserts can indeed be a winning combination. In almost 60 recipes, McKee mixes veggies into her unique desserts to give you a healthy and delicious treat, while showing you how to harness the most flavor from every vegetable. In the following excerpt, she discusses the different flavors each veggie has to offer in baking.

Vegetables are particularly versatile in baking, yet are so often forgotten. They offer a broad scale of flavors, provide form, add moisture and create texture. Root vegetables crop up in cakes, with carrots, pumpkins and beetroots being the most loved and well known, but turning to your salad bowl for inspiration can provide even more flavor ideas.

My most-loved vegetables add earthiness and a hint of nature to cakes, cookies, slices and pies. There are other vegetables that I’m sure are compatible with baking but, for me, if they don’t hit the flavor mark then they’ve not been included (I’m looking at you, cauliflower). Just because you can find a clever way to incorporate a vegetable into a dessert, doesn’t mean you should.

So, when it comes time to pluck your veggies from your garden (or a local farmers’ market), instead of turning to the same savory classics, try exploring this alternative collection of recipes made especially for your sweet tooth. For instance, say goodbye to your annual flood of zucchini fritters and hello to coffee, banana and zucchini loaf.

Flavor Notes

Some of the vegetables in this section are technically fruits but, because their taste and use are generally more associated with the vegetable family, I’ve kept them in the gang.

Avocado

With the texture of butter and the taste of fresh, grassy cream, avocados make an easy leap into baked sweets. Incorporate them into buttercreams or to give soft body to batters and doughs. Their delicate, fatty base notes work equally well with bright acidic flavors or oaky, dark chocolate. As an aside, their cool lusciousness makes them a good ally for mousses, ice creams and no-bake pie fillings.

Beetroot (Beet)

Whether used roasted, steamed or raw, dense, crimson beetroot adds a unique taste lying somewhere between a deep, robust funk and a sweet, floral perfume. Baby beetroots are more manageable to work with and roasting them is the least messy mode of preparation. Use golden beetroots or the candy-striped Chioggia variety for eye-catching garnishes, and use the juice as a natural food dye.

Carrot

Sweet, juicy carrots are the most classic of cake buddies. They belong to the same flowering plant family as celery and parsley, which you can taste hints of when you eat them raw. Use heirloom carrots for their rainbow colors of red, white, yellow and purple.

Cherry Tomato

Vine-ripened cherry tomatoes, warmed by the sun, are the reward that every home gardener savors. Leafy, acidic and jammy in flavor, tomatoes can be reminiscent of strawberries, so substituting them in your favorite berry recipes makes a great starting point.

Eggplant (Aubergine)

Eggplant is sublimely buttery when roasted and makes an excellent vehicle for absorbing other flavors. Always soak your eggplants in cold, salted water to draw out any hidden bitterness.

Fennel

I am a sucker for this plant. Sweet anise perfume gives it an unmatched flavor. From bulb to fronds you can eat all parts, including the seeds and pollen. The licorice tones of the bulb can be very subtle; for more of a kick, use ground or whole fennel seeds.

Green Leaves

Spinach, kale and rocket (arugula) are my go-to greens in baking. Mostly I use them to add a whisper of color, but kale crisps can add a nice crunch to desserts, while a smidgen of rocket can be an interesting bridge between sugar and spice.

Mushroom

There are only a few mushrooms suitable for sweets; the earthy, chocolate depth of porcini make them my favorite, though shiitake and pine mushrooms can bring a creamy, woodland element too. Because of mushroom’s intensely concentrated flavors, sliced and dried are better than fresh.

Parsnip

Parsnips should be every baker’s friend – they have similar fruity tones to bananas and apples and their spicy complexity gives a suggestion of nutmeg, coriander (cilantro) and parsley.

Pea

This rambling, tiny veg can bring a pop of grassy freshness to creams and custards. Steamed and then blended, pea purée is the best way to infuse baked goods with the taste of spring.

Potato

Don’t overthink it, just incorporate them as they’re best loved – either as a fluffy, creamy mash or crisped up and salted. Faintly buttery and sweet, spuds add earthy depth and moisture to cakes or a fun crunch to cookies and crusts.

Pumpkin (Winter Squash)

Ninety per cent water, pumpkins can be turned to for an injection of rich moisture. There’s a fruitiness to them that mimics rockmelon (netted melon/cantaloupe), and they have an amazing ability to delicately color buttercreams and fillings.

Rhubarb

Tart, herbaceous rhubarb has long been associated with winter puddings and crumbles, and rightly so. With its citrus-like punch and suggestion of rose petals, this is a beautiful vegetable to pair with nuggets of dark chocolate and lashings of whipped cream.

Sweetcorn

Except in Latin American cuisine, sweetcorn is an underused companion for desserts. Include the juicy, starchy kernels as a base for custards and pastry creams, or experiment with golden sweetcorn juice as a milk substitute in recipes.

Sweet Potato

Brown butter and honeycomb come to mind when I think of these burnt orange roots. There’s a light nuttiness to this vegetable that makes it a dream to create recipes with. Just like pumpkin, it brings a silky finish to cake batters.

Zucchini (Courgette)

Because of its watery texture, zucchini needs support when baked. Squeezing the liquid out of it is the secret. Once drained, it will inject whatever you are making with lots of moisture and a mild, cucumber-like flavor.

More from: Stick Fingers, Green Thumb

Green Tea Pea Cake Recipe
Green and White Cookie Recipe
Kale, Lemon, and Caraway Muffin Recipe


Recipe excerpted with permission fromSticky Fingers, Green Thumbby Hayley McKee, published by Hardie Grant Books March 2018, RRP $29.99.