The Coco Chanel of Carrot Cakes

Baking is, after all, a contemplative act. Form of meditation. Draws you closer to the earth. You get to cover your fingers with finely ground grain…marvel at the miraculous element in the life cycle of a good hen…savor the sweetness of fruits and nuts…finally again perform a yea-saying act of faith as you tuck the batter into your hot oven…then determinedly possess your soul in patience waiting for the outcome…ah! there’s the fragrance! it’s done!
Lucky we who bake.

The invitation was to “a little string quartet for my dad’s birthday” with “very light refreshment after…” Todd, my husband Bill’s closest friend, was turning eighty-six, and musician friends wished to honor him. I offered to make the birthday cake. How many people? Twentyish. “Dad loves carrot cake, Sylvia.” Wonderful. I have a superb carrot cake in my little The Birthday Cake Book* that served twelve. I’d just double the recipe. So far so good.

Not really. Cake baking is chemistry and chemistry (which I avoided in high school to my regret) can be dicey. After considering the caveats (one baking maven says never double a cake recipe!), I calculated measurements, made plans to bake. Comforted myself that this delectable cake—sunny carrots, crunchy walnuts, moist raisins, luscious pineapple…redolent cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice…mantled with lightly sweetened cream cheese, butter, sour cream—was perhaps my favorite of cakes.

The string quartet’s Hayden and Beethoven were glorious…but I would have appreciated the music more had I not been fretting. What will it be like?

When the time came, I handed around twenty-four pieces. After a few minutes, I was surprised as guests began coming up to me: “I love the texture, all the delicious bits…” “The spices are marvelous, so fragrant!” “Sylvia, usually I hate frosting, it’s always too sweet, but this is perfect…”  “Best cake I ever ate…” (admittedly that was my husband’s comment).


While a grand solution for a crowd, this big delectable cake is such a fine keeper why not make it on the week-end and savor it over several days? And the cake is versatile. Without frosting and just a few shakes of powdered sugar—toasted walnuts are not mixed into the cake but crunchily strewn on top–this rich cake is marvelous with morning coffee and afternoon tea.

It’s INCOMPARABLE baked as cupcakes. No need for frosting…

I asked my old friend the gifted artist Nan Wollman to make the cake for me.

“Yes I can make it. I can guarantee I will not think it’s the greatest ever. It is not chocolate. Offhand, there is a short list of desserts I love that aren’t chocolate. Rhubarb pie and your mothers’ bourbon pumpkin pie**. End of list.”

Nan did make it at her studio for friends. Her comment: “Moist, tasty. Sweet icing balanced the not so sweet cake…” Nan’s friends remarked: “The walnuts are my favorite part…”  “The icing is really good…” “I don’t usually like icing…”  “This is wonderful, and I don’t usually like carrot cake.” “I had two pieces…” “Beau left an empty plate, ‘That’s a lot of frosting!’ Then he had a 2nd helping. He loves it.” “Wow! this is really good…” “This is good and really rich…” “From my friend who said carrot cake is her favorite–5 stars!”

Actually I’ve come to regard this as the Coco Chanel of cakes—attention to detail gives it its star quality. Plan on a long hour for plumping raisins, toasting walnuts, finely grating carrots, processing pineapple. I’ve found a good time for this prep is after supper—everybody’s been fed, nobody will come to the door, robocalls are ignored. Then you just leave everything on the counter till morning and ingredients will be at their essential room temperature ready for baking.

How about the much-appreciated frosting? It’s a 20-minute breeze with a food processor or mixer. But the first time I was set to make it, our kitchen went dark…PG&E had a power outage. I’m here to tell you that you can make delectable frosting with cream cheese, butter, and sour cream by hand, but it’s arduous…

The well-wrapped unfrosted cake keeps in a cool place up to a week—that’s theoretical…it will keep if no one finds it. However, with each day, the crumb settles, and the cake—as flavorful as when freshly baked—becomes a tad more dense. Which is not a deterrent to enjoyment. Exception to the crumb settling is in cupcakes…kept in an airtight container, these cupcakes retain their lightness for at least three days (after that, ours are gone). If your weather is hot, keep frosted cake in the fridge.

The Ultimate Carrot Cake*** (24 servings)
1½ cups grade AA eggs (see Tidbits of Cake Baking Knowhow**** for how many eggs)
3 cups (12 ounces) roughly chopped walnuts
1 packed cup (5¼ ounces) large dark (Flame) raisins
1½ pounds unpeeled carrots, about 9 very large, scrubbed, ends trimmed, in 2- to 3-inch
2 20-ounce cans pineapple (crushed, diced, or sliced) packed in pineapple juice
About 1 tablespoon cold unsalted butter for the pan
1-1/3 cups sunflower (or safflower or canola) oil
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
2-2/3 cups all-purpose flour, lightly spooned into the measuring cup
1-1/3 teaspoons baking powder (for the 1/3, use a slightly rounded ¼ teaspoon)
1-1/8 teaspoons baking soda
¾ teaspoon salt
2¼ teaspoons cinnamon
¾ teaspoon nutmeg
¾ teaspoon ground allspice (or ground cloves, but allspice is incomparable)
2 cups granulated sugar, bash out any lumps

Preparing the ingredients:
Eggs: remove from the fridge and set aside in their shells to bring to room temperature.
Walnuts: heat the oven to 350 degrees (it’s a good toaster oven job). Spread walnuts on a baking sheet in a single layer and toast until you can smell them, 5 to 6 minutes—don’t wander away because they toast quickly. Stir, set aside, turn oven off.
Raisins: cover with boiling water, set aside.
Carrots: fit the finest grating blade on your food processor or use a hand grater with small holes to render carrots into fine wisps. Squeeze out all juice, measure 4 firmly packed cups. Turn into a very large bowl, cover with a damp cloth to keep moist.
Pineapple: make pineapple “sauce” by turning contents of the cans into your food processor, process for 10 seconds or until the texture of applesauce. Turn into a sieve and press out as much juice as you can (a refreshing treat for the baker!)—you want the consistency of very thick applesauce. Measure    1-1/3 cups, add to the carrots.
When the raisins are plump, drain off water and add to the carrots.
With your hands—rubbing between fingers–mix carrots, raisins, and pineapple until blended, breaking up clumps. Keep covered with the damp cloth.
To the oil in its measuring pitcher, add the vanilla, stir to blend.
Into your sifter or a large fine sieve, turn the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, and allspice. Sift or shake into a medium bowl then use a whisk to finish blending.
Prepare a 9 x 13 x 2¼-inch baking pan by smearing unsalted butter all over the bottom (not sides). Cut a sheet of baking parchment or wax paper to fit the bottom, press it in, smear butter all over.

Baking the cake:
All ingredients must be at room temperature. If necessary, eggs can be warmed in their shells in a bowl of warm water.
Arrange the oven rack so the pan will be in the center of the oven. Set oven to 350 degrees–325 if using convection (ideal for baking cake).
Break the eggs into a large deep bowl. Use a portable or standing mixer on medium speed to beat the eggs until blended. Continue beating while sprinkling in the sugar 1 heaping tablespoon at a time. Continue beating while drizzling in the oil-and-vanilla. Continue beating on next-to-highest speed for 3 more minutes. The mixture will be thick but not as thick as if it contained butter.
Spoon over half the flour mixture, beat on lowest speed just until blended in. Repeat with the remaining flour.
With a large flexible scraper, scrape batter clinging to the sides and bottom of the bowl and blend into the rest. Spread the carrot mixture over the bowl. Using the scraper and great big strokes (to incorporate air), fold in until thoroughly blended.
Smooth the batter into the pan, pushing it slightly up into the corners.
Sprinkle the walnuts evenly over the top—easiest if you start at the furthest end and sprinkle forward. Place the cake in the center of the oven.
Set a timer for 45 minutes—the cake is baked when a cake tester or toothpick comes out clean from the center and the cake bounces back when lightly tapped in the center–and you can smell it! Temperature is 205 – 210 degrees.
Remove from the oven and cool in the pan 20 minutes. Then free the cake by running a table knife around the sides of the pan (avoid touching the cake). Lay a generous sheet of wax paper on top of the cake, place a large tray or baking sheet on that, carefully flip over (it’s surprisingly weighty! such richness!). Gently pull the buttered bottom paper off the cake, center a large cooling rack over the cake feet up, flip over again so the cake rests fully on the rack. Return any walnuts to the top. Cool completely out of a draft, about 2 hours.
To store unfrosted, lay a sheet of foil on top to cover the cake, lay a tray or baking sheet on the foil, flip the cake over onto the tray, set the clean cake pan back on the cake, turn it over again, smooth down the foil, pressing out air, and keep in a cool place till frosting.

The secret of this delectable frosting is the sour cream…
Lightly Sweet Cream Cheese Sour Cream Frosting (Generous 4 cups)
All ingredients at room temperature:
16 ounces (block–not tub–style) full fat cream cheese, broken into smallish chunks
16 ounces unsalted butter, in smallish chunks
2 cups (about 18 ounces) confectioner’s sugar, sifted free of lumps
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1-1/3 cups (most of 1 pint) full fat sour cream (before measuring, stir in the carton to blend)
Place the cream cheese and butter in a food processor or mixing bowl. Pulse or beat on medium speed until blended and smooth. Add sugar by the heaping kitchen spoonful, then add the vanilla. When smooth, add the sour cream and pulse 5 times or beat just until blended in—do not overwork or the frosting will thin out.

To make by hand: turn cream cheese and butter into a deep bowl (I set it in the sink, found that easiest for up-and-down arm movement). With a pastry blender, first break up firm clumps then blend the two together. Next use a large rubber scraper to slowly mix in the sugar, then the vanilla. To smooth out the minuscule nubbins, send the mixture through the finest blade of a food mill or push through a sieve. Now use the scraper to blend in the sour cream, not working it overmuch. Collapse, then pat yourself on the back!

To prepare frosting in advance, cover tightly and refrigerate up to two days. Bring to room temperature before spreading. Or if you want to pipe it, do have it chilled.

To frost the cake, without jostling the nuts, spread frosting evenly over the top and sides. Keep cake in a cool place till serving.
I read that this cake freezes well if tightly wrapped, retaining quality for 2-3 months. I wouldn’t know about 2-3 months…in this house, cupcakes have kept their sterling quality a long month…haven’t the will power to keep this cake longer.

The Ultimate Carrot Cupcakes (Makes 36)
I say two carrot cupcakes and a cup of strong coffee make the perfect breakfast.                                          To bake: line three 12-cup muffin tins with cupcake papers. Figure out how you’re going to place the three pans in your oven…two on one rack, one on another…
Prepare ingredients as above.
At baking time, heat the oven to 370 degrees. (Baking small cakes at a higher temperature than sheet cake results in greater loft…chemistry again.*****)
Mix the batter as above. Divide among the cups, filling nearly full. Sprinkle with the walnuts.
Stagger the pans in the oven as best you can—close to the center. Set a timer for 18 minutes—they’re done when you can smell the cake and a cake tester or toothpick comes out clean from the center of several cakes; temperature is 205o-210 o.
Cool 5 minutes before gently lifting cupcakes from the pans and setting on a cake rack to finish cooling.
When cold, shake confectioner’s sugar through a sieve over the cakes. Kept in a closed container, they’ll retain their texture for three days that I know of…

Coco Chanel Carrot Wedding Cake
Earthy yet refined, this carrot cake is ideal for a wedding cake. As a matter of fact, years ago I baked carrot cake for a country wedding…unexpected, guests laughed with delight: “Carrot cake? Wow! What fun!” Fun and delectable.
Apologies for not giving specific instructions for such a cake—there are myriad wedding cake instructions on the internet. For fiftyish guests, start by obtaining a large serving table. The day before serving, bake two 8 x 12-inch cakes. On The Day, fit the layers together the narrow or the long way, securing with frosting. Make triple the frosting recipe so you’ll have lots for piping–and frost as one voluptuous sheet cake…you’ll have a whiz of a time decorating the large canvas!
Don’t forget paper doilies beneath.

*Illustrations by Brooke Scudder, Chronicle Books, 1993. Gorgeous and useful, now cheap from Crazy it’s out of print.

**Ma’s recipe for Winter Squash/Pumpkin Pie is in The Kitchen Garden Cookbook.

***Adapted from “Old World Carrot Cake with Sour Cream Cheese Frosting,” The Birthday Cake Book.

****Tidbits of Cake Baking Know-how
Why must ingredients be at room temperature? Because then when beaten they can trap and hold air which, when released by the oven’s heat, results in a light fluffy crumb.
Number of eggs: this recipe’s 1½ cups are from 5 “Jumbo” or 6 “Extra-Large” or 7-1/2 “Large” eggs.
Egg grades: AA whites are “thick and firm”…A whites are “reasonably firm” (USDA quotes).
Sunflower oil?: in cake, oil (as compared with butter) gives a light fine moist crumb—also contributes to long-keeping. I find sunflower oil the palest and subtlest of the cooking oils. While olive oil can make marvelous cake, its distinctive flavor is not a team player…
Why toast the walnuts? When you taste the cake, you’ll see. It’s amazing.
Use golden raisins instead of dark? Indeed. They’ll add their rich flavor—it’s just that dark orbs show up most handsomely.
Why process crushed pineapple to “sauce”? You’ve tasted moist applesauce cake, yes?  In what the Japanese call a happy accident, I came upon a brand of organic “crushed” pineapple which, to my surprise, had the consistency of applesauce. The cake it made was markedly lighter than when the pineapple pieces were in smallish bits.
Why sift dry ingredients? To remove any lumps from flour or spices, to incorporate air, to gently blend.
Why not butter the sides of the pan? Bare metal gives the batter something to cling to on its way up, thus cake rises to maximum height…a table knife easily frees baked cake from the sides.
Why add sugar a tablespoonful at a time? This assures crystals will be completely absorbed.
Pan sizes: 9-inch (by 1½-inches) round pans and 8-inch (by 2-inch) square pans have a 7-cup capacity serving 12… 9 x 13 x 2-inch pans have a 14-cup capacity equal to two 9-inch rounds or two 8-inch squares.
How to double ingredients in a cake recipe:
baking powder ~ after increasing, for every 1 teaspoon, remove 1/8 teaspoon…
baking soda ~ after increasing, for every 1 teaspoon, remove ¼ teaspoon…
spices ~ instead of doubling, increase 1½ times…
salt ~ instead of doubling, increase by ½ time….

***** accessed September 4, 2021.

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