A million years ago, when I was in high school, I used to make carrot cakes and zucchini bread all the time. It was the Seventies, and one simple way to gain hippie cred as a baker (not to mention impress the opposite sex) was to reproduce these down-to-earth desserts whose defining ingredients are, somewhat counterintuitively, vegetables. Most of the carrot cakes I’ve ever consumed have been pretty decent, so I’ve long inferred that it’s not exactly rocket surgery to make one. It seems, though, that the cake can veer off a fairly forgiving path at one of two main forks: 1) it can be too dry; and 2) the frosting can be too sweet.
Overcoming the dry part is easy. Make sure you have enough liquid, and don’t overbake the cake. Duh. The frosting is a bit trickier, but not much, really. Have a care when adding sugar, and taste it along the way. A little lemon juice can ameliorate a heavy hand with the sweetener, but it’s better to get it right on the first go.
This past weekend, one of my high school pals was celebrating her 60th birthday, and I volunteered to make her a pair of birthday desserts. One was the internationally famous Tarta de Santiago (although I chose not to adorn it with the St. James cross stencil). The other was the old standby carrot cake, the likes of which I had pumped out with some regularity when I was far more hirsute and far less corpulent. Back in the Internets-free day, I relied upon a recipe from Joy of Cooking, or maybe the Betty Crocker cookbook that my mom gave me when I moved out. While Betty Crocker’s tome has long since disappeared, some edition of Joy of Cooking is usually close to hand, and I suppose I could have gone back to that, but I wondered if, in the last 40-ish years, there might have been another, more captivating recipe turned loose on the public.
Dorie Greenspan is a brilliant writer, an excellent cook, and a lovely person, so when I saw her recipe, I knew I had a foundation from which I could work. To be sure, the muscle memory of having made dozens and dozens of carrot cakes had not been entirely lost, but I wanted a starting point. The roadmap I ultimately followed deviated from hers but slightly; I used gluten-free flour because one of the dinner guests expressed a preference. To my delight, the flour didn’t diminish the cake’s moist finish. And while Dorie’s recipe (and, in fact, many other recipes) called for 1.5 cups of oil, I used a combination of olive oil and buttermilk to give the finished product a bit more tang. Olea Farm’s Lemon Blush olive oil is a house favourite; it’s a blend of EVOO and oil from lemon zest. [You should check out all their infused oils.]
Also, Dorie’s cake is a multi-tiered affair, but I opted for the simpler single-layer cake of my youth. You have to cook it a fair amount longer, but it’s pretty forgiving. Don’t stress.
Because my friend is a big fan of peacock feathers, I topped the cake with a sheet of printed icing in addition to the cream cheese frosting. It seemed to be a hit, and it didn’t detract from the flavour of the cream cheese frosting, so rock on. It’s a bit on the pricey side, so you can feel free to omit this step, but it looked really cool.
2 cups/240g Bob’s Gluten-Free 1-to-1 Baking Flour
2 teaspoons/10g baking powder
2 teaspoons/14g baking soda
2 teaspoons/12g ground cinnamon
¾ teaspoon/4.25g salt
3 cups/150g grated carrots (you can grate the carrots with a box grater, in a food processor fitted with a shredding blade, or just be lazy and buy them pre-shredded, as I did this time)
1 cup/125g coarsely chopped walnuts or pecans
½ cup/75g moist, plump golden raisins (or dark)
12 oz./340g/1.5 cups sugar (I used turbinado)
1 cup/250ml Olea Farm Lemon Blush olive oil
½ cup/125ml buttermilk
4 large eggs
8 oz./225g cream cheese, at room temperature
1 stick/8 tablespoons/113g unsalted butter, at room temperature
¾ pound/350g (2¾ cups) confectioners sugar
1 tablespoon/15ml lemon juice
1½ tablespoon/25ml vanilla extract
1 or 2 peacock feather frosting sheets, optional
For the cake: Preheat the oven to 350°F (175°C). Grease a 10-inch by 14-inch by 2-inch cake pan; flour the insides and tap out the excess if you plan on serving the cake on a platter rather than from the pan.
Whisk together the flour, cinnamon, baking powder, baking soda, and salt and set aside. In another bowl, stir together the carrots, chopped nuts, and raisins.
In a third bowl, combine and beat the sugar and oil until smooth. Add the eggs one by one and continue to beat until the batter is even smoother. If you are working with a mixer, reduce the speed to low; if you’re working by hand, switch to a large rubber spatula, and gently stir in the flour mixture — mix only until the dry ingredients are moistened. Then gently mix in the carrots, chopped nuts, and raisins.
Slide the pan into the oven. Bake the cake for 60 to 75 minutes, rotating the pan front to back at the midway point. The cake is ready when a knife inserted into the center comes out clean; the cake should just have started to pull away from the edges of the pan. Transfer the pan to a cooling rack, cool for 10-15 minutes. If serving on a platter, turn out onto rack to cool to room temperature. (At this point, the cake can be wrapped airtight and kept at room temperature overnight or frozen for up to 2 months; thaw before frosting.)
For the frosting: Working with an electric hand mixer, beat the room-temperature cream cheese and butter together until smooth and creamy. Beat in the lemon juice and vanilla extract. Gradually add sugar and continue to beat until the frosting is velvety smooth.
Frost the cake. Should you decide to use the peacock frosting sheets, follow the instructions in their packaging. [Basically, you lift the printed frosting sheet(s) off a non-stick page and place it/them on the cake.] Pop it all into the refrigerator for 20 minutes or so to give the icing a chance to set.
Serve to your delighted guests. Or hog it all to yourself, no matter to me. But be aware: due to the oil, buttermilk, cream cheese, butter, sugar, et al, it’s got a fairly robust caloric count, so this should be an occasional treat, not a standby for the weekly dinner menu.