Unlike many bakers, I didn’t grow up baking at my grandmother’s knee. In fact, my most regular activity in my granny’s kitchen was drying the dishes (can you even qualify that as a skill? – ‘oh her baking is delicious’ ‘you haven’t seen anything, just watch her dry up’). My granny was of the generation who appreciated convenience foods – like most grandparents she would insist my sister and I take multiple biscuits, usually Hobnobs or chocolate digestives, from the biscuit tin, and I remember her plopping a third of a supermarket cheesecake onto both of our plates and refusing to listen to our half-hearted protests. I don’t think cooking was ever her passion, she just did it because if she didn’t who would, but she did have a repertoire. That included a tinned-fruit trifle sprinkled with hundreds and thousands and her perfect carrot cake with cream cheese topping.
While I didn’t inherit my granny’s features, mind you these are the strongest genes across my whole extended family as my dad, aunt, sister, and two of my cousins all look like her, she did pass down this carrot cake recipe which for years was recorded on a couple of scraps of paper in faded pen. My mum kept it in a plastic wallet to save it from the cream cheese splatters and has now typed it up so we have a digital copy, something my granny’s generation would have never imagined. Now, her recipe is going a step further – it’s on the internet. Quite the whirlwind tour for a humble carrot cake.
Carrot cake is a staple across Britain and the US. Introducing the concept of a cake made with a vegetable to my French boyfriend however made me stop and ponder how this vegetal delight came into being (although, I’ve just told Gaylord that there is a recipe for carrot cake in ‘The Art of French Cookery’ from 1827, so look at that, the French copying the Eengleesh! Sometimes I wonder if our relationship is a microcosm of the French-British political rivalries of the last 1000 years).
Carrot cake: a history
The evolution of carrot cake is not a straightforward timeline by any means – and that is without us going into the eternal debate of where did cake come from? – but sweetened carrots appear to have originated in the Middle East during the tenth century, apparently as a medieval Viagra for the elite. Migrating to Europe along with the spices now inherent to British cuisine, sweetened carrots evolved into carrot pudding which, naturally, included pig’s liver (not dissimilar to the history of mincemeat – offal can always be found somewhere).
Over the next 500 years, carrot pudding became carrot cake – a drier, sweeter dessert to serve with tea, and was famously revived with rationing during the Second World War. Sugar was strictly rationed, yet carrots were in excess. Carrot propaganda took hold, if you can believe such a thing, and everyone loaded their plates with carrots to improve their eyesight after it was announced that the RAF had excellent night vision all thanks to carrots. There was even an ‘apricot tart’ made with, yes you’ve guessed it, carrots.
The 1970s-carrot cake exported from the US was as much a fashion trend as Black Forest Gateau and bell-bottom flares, and this version came with the now infamous and sugar-packed cream cheese frosting. While I cannot say if my granny ever tried war-time carrot cake, her recipe imitates the flavours from the USA, complete with this new-fangled cream cheese frosting.
The best kind of frosting
Cream cheese frosting is an ingenious creation, a step behind Google and electricity if you will, as its salty tang deliciously complements the warmth of spices and that sticky stodgy crumb.
The US enormously capitalised on this delicious combination, and along the way the ‘fall brand’ of spiced pumpkin lattes, cinnamon sticks and maple syrup swept across the pond.
No one can deny that root vegetables have found their soul mate when it comes to maple syrup. This is why, instead of just freshening the cream cheese frosting with a little lemon zest in the style of my granny’s recipe, I also incorporated the flavours of autumn, spiking it with maple syrup and cinnamon. While it’s still light and moussey, there is now a homely warmth that just sings of autumn’s arrival.
Carrot cake is a classic – a simple pleasure, and one which Jessie Cave planned to eat more of as a new year’s resolution. My granny’s recipe has stood the test of time, and I’m very proud to be sharing it with you now, with a few tweaks from yours truly. I’m sure she wouldn’t mind. That said, I hope she approves of my drying up.
Carrot cake with maple cream cheese frosting
- 175 g unsalted butter
- 2 eggs separated
- 175 g soft brown sugar
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 2 tbsp warm water
- 175 g flour
- 1 tsp baking powder
- ½ tsp mixed spice
- 50 g mixed nuts I used pecans, pistachios and macadamia nuts
- 175 g grated carrot
Maple Cream Cheese Frosting:
- 150 g cream cheese
- 40 g unsalted butter softened
- ½ tsp cinnamon
- ½ tsp vanilla extract
- 50 ml maple syrup
- Zest of ½ lemon
- 100 g icing sugar
- 1 carrot and 1 tbsp sugar for the optional carrot garnish
- Preheat the oven to 180°C/160°C/350°F. Grease and line a 20cm/8 inch springform cake tin or 15cm/6 inch tin if you have one.
- Melt the butter in a saucepan over medium heat or in a covered bowl in the microwave. Separate the eggs and mix the yolks with the sugar, vanilla and melted butter. Add the warm water and as you stir, the mixture will emulsify.
- Mix together the flour, baking powder, mixed spice, salt and nuts. Add the grated carrot and stir together.
- Make a well in the centre and pour in the liquid ingredients and beat together thoroughly.
- Whisk the egg whites until they are standing in soft peaks. Fold them into the cake batter and pour it all into the lined cake tin. Pop the tin in the oven and bake for 40 minutes until an inserted skewer comes away clean. Leave to cool in the tin.
- For the frosting, combine the cream cheese and softened butter in a mixing bowl, add the cinnamon, vanilla, maple syrup and lemon zest and sift over the icing sugar. Beat to combine and put the icing in the fridge until the cake is cool enough to frost.
- Wash and peel the carrot, then peel the whole thing into ribbons. Toss the ribbons in 1 tbsp sugar and leave to macerate. The carrot ribbons will soften and can be used as a jazzy eye-catching garnish.
- Cover the cake in maple cream cheese frosting then garnish with carrot ribbons.