Remember carrot cake? I was reminded of my love of carrot cake when I was getting a quick lunch with my family at a sandwich-pastry shop we had never patronized before, called Carrot Top, located in a different area of Manhattan from where we live. It took us awhile to find the place. We were directed by locals, but I miss-heard the name and was looking for Carrot Patch. (Carrot Patch had the aura of healthy, from farm-to-table eating.)
Once at Carrot Top (not Patch), we ordered our sandwiches (not organic in any form), and as we were eating, noticed signs and testimonials all over the shop that their carrot cake was the best. A glass display case was filled with all kinds of pastries, pies, cakes, including, yes, the tempting carrot cake. The cake was a taste challenge that we needed to take on, so we ordered slices.
As I ate the homey, two-layer, coarse-grain cake, taste memories of my mother’s cake were coming back to me. Carrot-Top’s cake was good, but it was NOT my mother’s. Yes, it had nuts, shredded carrots, the thick layer of creamy frosting. But something was missing. Where was the coconut and crushed canned pineapple like my mother’s? Once home, I searched my files of Mom’s recipes. No could find! I called both my sister Kay and sister-in-law Stephanie to see if they had her recipe. Thankfully, both had saved it and sent it on.
Not only did Kay have the recipe, but she had scanned the original recipe card in Mom’s own handwriting: Margrette’s Carrot Cake. What a treasure! Granted, my mother did not invent the recipe nor did she develop it, but once she had hand-written it on a recipe card, the recipe had become hers and her creation. I love having recipes personally written by my mother in my recipe files.
Using vegetables in cakes is nothing new. I have enjoyed pumpkin, beet, tomato, and sauerkraut cakes to name a few, but carrot cake seems to have won out with the general population. I began to question why, beyond the sheer comfort. The answer may be that carrots are by nature very sweet, in fact the second sweetest vegetable after sugar beets. Carrots have been used as a sugar substitute since the Middle Ages. The pudding-loving Brits began using carrots as a sweetener for puddings during the World Wars when sugar was rare and expensive. And they continue to use it in sweets.
Now a timeless classic, carrot cake has been around at least since the early 1970’s. The carrot-laden spice cake is moist and flavorful, so apropos for that granola/hippie era. Sweetness is contributed by the carrots as well as both granulated and brown sugars, but it is the brown sugar that adds the depth of flavor. While oil or butter may be used as the fat ingredient, cooking oil is more common. Of course, an authentic carrot cake cake must include plenty of cream cheese icing.
Today, carrot cake is found in all shapes and sizes. Baking in a single layer or sheet pan, as my mother‘s recipe calls for, is the most practical for cutting and serving. From this original single-layer version, the cake moved to two and three layers, then to the Bundt pan for a round, undulating cake with a hole in the center. At a hot new restaurant a few years ago, I had the pastry chef’s version of deconstructed carrot cake: mounds of carrot shreds that had been stewed in a sugar syrup; thick, cracker-crisp pieces of spice cake piled like Tiddily Winks; and mounds of cream cheese frosting, all arranged on a dessert plate. I assembled the cake as I ate—it was not comforting.
So armed with my mother’s recipe, I headed to the kitchen.
Margrette’s Carrot Cake
The most time consuming part of this recipe is grating the carrots. The fine grate option on your grater works best. Or, for grated carrots in a flash, use a food processor,
Prep Time: 20 minutes
Bake Time: 45 to 50 minutes
2-1/2-cups all-purpose flour
2 cups granulated sugar
1 cup firmly packed brown sugar
1 tablespoon baking soda
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon salt
1-1/2 cups salad oil
4 eggs, lightly beaten
2 cups shredded fresh carrots
1-1/2 cups chopped walnuts or pecans, toasted
1-1/2 cups shredded coconut
1 can (8-oz.) crushed pineapple, undrained
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
For Cream Cheese Frosting:
1 package (8-oz.) cream cheese, softened
1/2 cup butter, softened
1 package (16-oz.) confectioners’ sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees F. Grease and lightly flour a 13x9x2-inch baking pan. Combine flour, the sugars, baking soda, cinnamon, and salt in a large bowl and stir with a wire whisk to combine. Add oil and eggs and beat well. Fold in the carrots, nuts, coconut, pineapple, and vanilla until well combined.
2. Pour batter into the prepared pan. Bake 45 to 50 minutes, or until a cake tester or toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool on wire rack.
3. For Cream Cheese Frosting: In a large mixer bowl, beat the cream cheese and butter until smooth. Slowly add the confectioners’ sugar and beat until smooth. Beat in the vanilla. If the frosting is too thick, add a drop or two of milk to thin to desired spreading consistency.
4. Once the cake is cool, spread the top of the cake with Cream Cheese Frosting. Cut into squares. Makes 16 servings