If you’ve noticed any of my recent posts, namely my Thanksgiving desserts and my genoise with buttercream, you’ll notice that I’ve been on a minor baking spree for the past month or so. This past weekend was no different: I made carrot cake.
Carrot cake is a pretty cool thing, with an extremely long and rich history that I was completely unaware of until a few days ago. The ancestors of carrot cake were actually carrot puddings, popular in the Middle Ages, when sweeteners were expensive and scarce and cooks turned to carrots and sugar beets instead (carrots, by the way, have the highest sugar content of any vegetable aside from the sugar beet).
Carrots themselves probably originated in Afghanistan about 5,000 years ago, and were originally dark purple. Eventually, after hundreds of years of migration and a series of genetic mutations, carrots began appearing in a rainbow of colors such as yellow, red, white, and orange. It was the Dutch (well known for their botany during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries) who eventually crossed a traditional purple carrot with a bright yellow (and somewhat rare) mutated carrot from North Africa, and eventually bred the sweet, orange carrot that we are most familiar with today. It’s rumored that the color was meant to honor the Dutch royal family, namely, William I of Orange, however, I personally think it’s more likely that the carrot was bred for consistency and taste, rather than for politics.
But back to the cake. We have scattered bits of evidence from centuries-old cookbooks that mention carrots used as sweeteners in cake. In the United States, among the first mentions of it was on the menu of the Fraunces Tavern in New York City circa 1783. This cinnamon-spiced carrot tea cake (no frosting, mind you) was apparently served to George Washington on November 25, 1783 in honor of British Evacuation Day. (Though it’s widely rumored, I sadly can’t vouch for the validity of this anecdote.)
The popularity of carrot-laden desserts rose again during the early 20th century, particularly in Britain during World War II, where they were once again used as a replacement sweetener because of rationing. In the United States around this time, recipes for carrot cakes containing nuts or raisins began appearing, namely in the Chicago Daily News Cook Book, published in 1930, and in Prudence Penny's Cookbook, published in1939. Years later, in the 1950s, many people began making “tropical” carrot cakes containing pineapple or coconut, largely a result of the postwar Polynesian craze. By the 1960s carrot cake (no matter what you topped it with) became known as a healthful dessert, contributing once again to its ever-growing popularity.
Several sticks of butter, several packages of cream cheese, and a good cup and a half of vegetable oil later, I can say with certainty that carrot cake is not healthy, which is all the more reason to make sure that when you bake one, you do it right. It’s not a difficult cake to throw together (the recipe I use isn’t difficult anyway), but it does require a tiny bit of labor and love—specifically when grating the carrots. The best texture, I think, comes from very finely grated carrots (meaning, as fine as you can get them). That way, you don’t have any large, baked, dry carrot strips hanging off of your fork when you cut into it, and it lends a nice moisture and helps to keep a nice, fine crumb. I also add crushed pineapple to my carrot cake, something my grandmother used to do, which doesn’t add a tropical flavor so much as it contributes to the cake’s moisture and texture.
I also like my carrot cakes well-spiced, so I add a good dose of ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, and orange zest.
The cake is adapted from a Martha Stewart recipe, though I use a bit more butter and confectioners sugar in my frosting (Martha’s gets too runny for my taste—sorry Martha).
And for the marzipan carrots! Find instructional guides here (from Odense) and here (from Saveur). I use the back of a paring knife (the dull side, rather than the front of the blade) to sculpt the ridges in my carrots, and then I like to dust them with a tiny bit of “dirt,” which is actually unsweetened cocoa powder, and top them off with parsley sprigs or real carrot fronds. Or, if you’re a nut lover, you can always decorate the sides with toasted walnuts or pecans.
Makes 1 four-layer cake, serves 10 to 12
Unsalted butter, for pans
3 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for pans
1 cup chopped walnut pieces, toasted
2/3 pound (about 2 large) carrots, peeled
1 small can (8 oz) crushed pineapple, drained
3 large eggs
1/3 cup plain yogurt
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
zest from one orange
2 cups sugar
1 1/2 cups vegetable oil
1.5 tablespoons freshly grated ginger
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
Orange Cream Cheese Frosting:
3 (8 oz) packages of cream cheese (I used reduced fat), softened
2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed orange juice
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
4 cups (1lb) confectioners sugar
Heat oven to 300 degrees. Butter two 9-by-2-inch round cake pans. Dust pans with flour, and tap out any excess. Set pans aside.
Using the smallest holes of a box grater (or a microplane), grate carrots, yielding 2 cups. Place carrots, pineapple, eggs, buttermilk, vanilla, sugar, vegetable oil, and ginger in a large bowl; whisk until well combined.
In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and cinnamon. Using a rubber spatula, fold the flour mixture into the carrot mixture until combined. Fold in the toasted walnuts.
Divide batter between the two cake pans, and bake until a cake tester inserted into the middles comes out clean, about 40-50 minutes. Remove pans from oven, and transfer to a wire rack to cool, 15 minutes. Turn cakes out onto rack; let stand until completely cool.
Using a serrated knife slice each layer in half horizontally. To remove the top layer, tape a piece of parchment paper to the knife and slide it through the cake once more (where the cake’s been cut) in order to carefully slide the parchment between the cake slices. Carefully remove the tape/parchment from the knife, and lift the top cake slice from the bottom using the edges of the parchment.
For the frosting: Cream together the butter and cream cheese, add the orange juice and vanilla, and gradually add in the sugar. If the frosting is too soft, chill for 30 minutes in the refrigerator or until spreadable.
Place a layer on a cake stand or cardboard round, and spread 1/2-3/4 cup frosting over top. Place a second cake layer on top, and spread with another 1/2-3/4 cup frosting. Repeat with third layer and another 1/2-3/4 cup frosting. Place last cake layer on top, and spread the remaining frosting over the top and the sides of the assembled cake. Decorate with toasted nuts or marzipan carrots.