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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

Beet Red Velvet Cupcakes

Author: Virginia Willis


  • 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.

Please be nice. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without permission is prohibited. Feel free to excerpt and link, just give credit where credit is due and send folks to my website, Thanks so much.

Please note that this post may contain affiliate links.

Virginia Willis

Georgia-born French-trained Chef Virginia Willis’ biography includes making chocolate chip cookies with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, foraging for berries in the Alaskan wilderness, harvesting capers in the shadow of a smoldering volcano in Sicily, and hunting for truffles in France. She is talent and chef-instructor for the digital streaming platform Food Network Kitchen. Her segments feature authentic and innovative Southern cooking. She was the celebrity chef at the Mansion at Churchill Downs for the 143rd running of the Kentucky Derby. Virginia has spoken at SXSW, cooked for the James Beard Foundation, and beguiled celebrities such as Bill Clinton, Morgan Freeman, and Jane Fonda with her cooking — but it all started in her grandmother’s country kitchen. Recently, her work has been inspired by her weight loss success story, Virginia has lost 65# and kept it off for over 1 1/2 years! “If a French-trained, Southern chef can do it, you can, too.” She is the author of Fresh Start; Secrets of the Southern Table; Lighten Up, Y’all; Bon Appétit, Y’all; Basic to Brilliant, Y’all; Okra; and Grits. Lighten Up, Y’all won a James Beard Foundation Award of Excellence in the Focus on Health Category. Lighten Up, Y’all as well as her first cookbook, Bon Appétit, Y’all, were finalists in the Best American Cookbook for the International Association of Cookbook Awards and were also named by the Georgia Center of the Book as “Books Georgians Should Read.” She is the former TV kitchen director for Martha Stewart Living, 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 Food Network’s Chopped, CBS This Morning, Fox Family and Friends, Martha Stewart Living, and as a judge on Throwdown with Bobby Flay. She’s been featured in the New York Times, the Washington Post, People Magazine, Eater, and Food52 and has contributed to Eating Well, GRLSQUASH, Culture, Garden & Gun, and Bon Appétit, and more. The Chicago Tribune praised her as one of “Seven Food Writers You Need to Know.” Her legion of fans loves her down-to-earth attitude, approachable spirit, and traveling exploits. Her culinary consulting company, Virginia Willis Culinary Enterprises, Inc specializes in content creation, recipe development, culinary editorial and production services, cookbook writing, media training, spokesperson and brand representation, and public speaking. Virginia is on the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Blue Ribbon Task Force, the Atlanta Community Food Bank Advisory Board, as well as the Community Farmers Market Advisory Board. She is a food and hunger advocate for No Kid Hungry and a premier member of the No Kid Hungry Atlanta Society. She a member of The James Beard Foundation, Chef’s Collaborative, Georgia Organics, and Southern Foodways Alliance.

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