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Planting Gardens & Being Thankful: Beet Red Velvet Cupcakes

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This week I kicked off chefs cooking at the at the Atlanta Botanical Garden in their awesome outdoor kitchen. It’s a lovely space and Atlanta is fortunate to have such an amazing garden. If you are a resident or a tourist, you should make sure to pay a visit when time allows. It’s spectacular.

The class was planned months ago, but happily we were able to use about 80% ingredients from the garden. It’s always a gamble, it is after all, farming, but the weather cooperated. The menu was Cream of Spring Greens Soup, Pea and Lettuce Risotto, Fennel Slaw, and Pecan Crusted Trout. For dessert, I made Beet Red Velvet Cupcakes. Other than the trout, all the recipes were newly created for the class. I wanted something special to start the season. An homage, of sorts, to the birth of Spring.

Several climate zones North of Atlanta I’m working on a garden for this summer in New England. Hay and sheeting still cover the rows, but it’s almost ready to be unwrapped. Being in the beauty of the gardens in Atlanta has given me great inspiration. Gardening is so powerful and full of life. Dirt is alive!

If Spring is an infant, Summer moves from toddler to teenager, and quickly. First there are small plants with clumsy, crooked stems then there are these powerful full fledged beings bursting with energy. But not yet, now there are dozens of seedlings in starter pots and biodegradable cups. Babies. They need watering or misting daily.

It’s just not in my skill set.

I do pretty good once the plants hit the great outdoors, but while still inside, they are too close to house plants. I am not so good with house plants. I can barely keep alive “pathos” which could likely survive nuclear winter and Saharan-like drought. What’s funny to me is that the lack of desire to spritz seedlings has to do with patience. I don’t have the patience for it — but I am actually a patient person. If I think something is worth having, I think it is also worth waiting for… working for….

So, my partner in this summer garden venture is spritzing the seedlings. What’s so funny is that she might be perceived as less patient. I talk slow; she talks fast. I work slow; she works fast. I edit my words; she is a fountain of words. The Southern girl who grew up on a red dirt road doesn’t have the patience and the Big City girl does. I love that.

Life isn’t always what is perceived, is it? I laughed at myself when I looked back at Bon Appétit, Y’all to gauge the proportions for the recipe for the cupcakes. In the headnote that I wrote 5 years ago I scoffed at chefs using beets instead of food coloring, and here I am now using beets. See red velvet and think a bottle of red dye and instead, it’s all natural coloring. It’s not what you would think; it’s not what one would automatically perceive.

Life isn’t at all what is often perceived by not only others, but also ourselves, and life is always, always changing.

I’m thankful, not of misperception of course, but of changing life. That’s what keeps us alive and growing.

I’m thankful to have the opportunity to cook in cool kitchens. I’m excited and thankful about our summer garden. (We’ve got scads of okra started so I can test recipes for my next book — on OKRA! It’s a little single subject university press and I am SO excited.) I’m thankful for the many opportunities being presented to me. I am thankful I love my work. I am thankful for my friends, family, and loved ones.

Speaking of, I’m very thankful there’s someone more patient than me to spritz seedlings and help our young plants grow. I’ll show up right about when it’s time to shovel that heavy Yankee dirt and turn those houseplants into a garden.

Bon Appétit, Y’all

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Beet Red Velvet Cupcakes



  • 3 medium beets scrubbed
  • 1 cup canola oil more for the pan if making a cake
  • ½ cup + 2 tablespoons buttermilk
  • 4 large eggs
  • 1 ½ cups all purpose flour
  • 1 ½ cups sugar
  • ½ cup cocoa
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon fine sea salt
  • 8 ounces cream cheese at room temperature
  • 1/4 cup 1/2 stick unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 1 16-ounce box confectioners’ sugar
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1 cup chopped pecans for garnish, optional


  • Heat the oven to 350. Place the beets on a rimmed baking sheet and roast until tender, about 1 hour. Remove and let cool. Peel the beets and coarsely chop.
  • Place the chopped beets in the large bowl of a large food processor fitted with the blade attachment. Process until chunky, stopping to scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula. With the food processor running, add the oil and continue processing until very smooth. Add 1/2 cup buttermilk and eggs. Puree until smooth.
  • Add the flour, sugar, cocoa, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Pulse until well-combined. (If you have a large food processor you can continue in the processor, if not, sift the dry ingredients in a large bowl and add the wet ingredients from the food processor to the dry and stir until combined by hand. Don't be blaming me when your beet dribbles onto your kitchen counter if your processor isn't big enough.)

For mini cupcakes:

  • Line the tin with cupcake liners. Using a ice cream scoop, a spoon, or a liquid measuring cup, fill the liners no more than 2/3 full. (This is important!!) Transfer to the oven and bake until firm, about 10 minutes. Remove to a rack to cool.
  • Meanwhile, to prepare the frosting, in the bowl of a mixer fitted with the paddle or beater attachment, cream the cream cheese and butter on medium speed until smooth. Sift over the confectioners’ sugar. Beat until light and fluffy. Beat in the vanilla. If too stiff, add the 2 tablespoons buttermilk, 1 teaspoon at a time, to achieve the correct consistency. Transfer the frosting to a piping bag. Top with a kiss of frosting. Sprinkle with optional pecans. Serve within 2-3 days.

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Virginia Willis

Georgia-born French-trained chef Virginia Willis has foraged for berries in the Alaskan wilderness, harvested capers in the shadow of a smoldering volcano in Sicily, and executed the food styling for a Super Bowl commercial seen by over 160 million people. She is a James Beard award-winning cookbook author and chef for Food Network Kitchen. Virginia lost 65 pounds and has kept if off for over 3 years. Her health journey has been documented in Eating Well, as a cover story for Woman’s World, Allrecipes, and AARP. Virginia has embraced her new outlook on life and has become a cheerleader for those wanting to make their own life changes, “If a French-trained Southern chef can do it, you can, too!” Her cookbooks include Fresh Start: Cooking with Virginia My Real Life Daily Guide to Healthy Eating and Weight Loss; Secrets of the Southern Table, Lighten Up, Y’all, Bon Appétit, Y’all, Basic to Brilliant, Y’all, Okra, and Grits. She is the former TV kitchen director for Martha Stewart, Bobby Flay, and Nathalie Dupree; has worked in Michelin-starred restaurants; and traveled the world producing food stories – from making cheese in California to escargot farming in France. She has appeared on Alex vs America, The Rachel Ray Show, Food Network’s Chopped, CBS This Morning, Fox Family and Friends, Martha Stewart Living, and as a judge on Throwdown with Bobby Flay. Virginia has also been featured in the New York Times, the Washington Post, People Magazine, Eater, and Food52. She has contributed to Eating Well, Garden & Gun, and Bon Appétit, and more. Fans love her down-to-earth attitude and approachable spirit. Learn more about Virginia and Good and Good for You Living, a real life health and wellness approach for mind, body, and spirit that includes food, fun, and fitness at

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