19 October 2011

There it was

What is there to say about carrot cake? I don’t have much, except that it frequently makes me wonder why it’s so named if carrots can only be found through a magnifying glass. Some say it’s for the moisture that the carrots are drawn into the business, but I’m not into buying that. Plus, it’s always cinnamon or ginger or allspice or whatever that steals the show, or rather, takes the cake (note: I’m not anti-spices, I just find it rather confusing when carrot cake is pulled into gingerbread’s dress, that’s it). All in all, I like cake and I like carrots, but should I see a carrot cake in my vicinity, most surely I wouldn’t reach for it.

Not so long ago I attended one potluck party. Actually, it was a goodbye bash for me and a few of my colleagues at the bakery. I don’t quite know how to better explain this, so here goes nothing: a while ago I decided it is time for me to learn and try new things, so I quit my job this past September; got a collection of farewell gifts; remained unemployed for a few weeks; and as October started, came back for a tad longer, until this year’s end, to be precise. More about that in due time, for now there is another thing to tell. There in one corner of the long white-clad wooden table set with the edible provision sat one carrot cake -- and I was going to lay my hands on it. It wasn’t an impulse. I knew the cake would be there. I couldn’t wait to try it.

Months before the party, in truth, months before anybody would start talking about the party at all, I was given this recipe. I got it from Marijn. An official paper would describe Marijn as a retiree, but I don’t want to go down that route. I like to think of Marijn as a life volunteer. Having reached a certain age, she refuses to sit at home and do “nothing”. She would volunteer at the bakery every Wednesday for years making tartlet shells in numbers that on a given day would exceed a hundred, whisking lemon cream to the point you don’t remember you have arms and they can move, doing the dishes, grinding and sieving kilos of nuts, sorting out the macarons, and the like. We would be in that boat together, elbow to elbow. And despite being on the opposite sides of the age road, we sometimes called each other “sister”. One Wednesday past summer, Marijn came and gave me the recipe, a reaching gesture of her hand accompanied by the words, “This cake is so sticky, so full of carrot. It is so good – make it!”, or something very similar. I took a ruled piece of paper with the hand-written recipe, brought it home, studied the text very carefully, put it in a plastic sleeve, and forgot all about it. I don’t know what I was thinking, I don’t remember now. One thing is certain: I would not be writing about this carrot cake now if Marijn wouldn’t have brought it that evening, a farewell party for her too.

So there it was, resting on a glass cake stand, observing the ignorant me. It was impossible to see through the snowy cap of its cream cheese icing, but it looked different from the carrot cakes I’d seen before. It didn’t have the height or the volume of a normal, leavened, carrot cake. The one I was looking at was rather short, stubby almost. It didn’t seem cake-y at all. It didn’t taste cake-y either. Lugging no flour nor butter, the cake had only three vitals -- carrots, nuts and raisins. It was like a moist carrot granola bar, if there is such a thing, but only without the brick-like density of the latter. I think I want to say that the cake was nubbly, what with all those shreds of carrot and studs of nuts and raisins poking out from the cross section. In one swift brushstroke, it was what it’s called: carrot cake. It wasn’t a piece of beauty, but one bite had me like it quite a bit, so much so that I decided right there, almost a month too early, to make this sweetmeat for Anthony’s birthday, which I did this recent week.

I grated carrots; ground nuts; simmered raisins in some wine; beat egg yolks with lemon zest and sugar, and a dash of flour. I then whisked egg whites; combined the whole lot; and finally consigned it to the oven, waiting for it to emerge beautiful and graceful, ready to be coated with a sleek vanilla seeds-dotted cream cheese frosting. A few hours later, when the clocks were striking midnight, Anthony was Happy Birthday-ed with a manly piece of the confection. We had a friend visiting for a game night/pre-birthday drinks (hello, Charlie!), and with them two nibbling the cake all night long the said baked good was nearly gone by the early a.m. When I pulled out two remaining pieces from the fridge to be had with our late morning coffee, I was met with ferocious exclamations, Where is my cake? Why did you throw away Anthony’s cake? Yes, why did you throw away my birthday cake? My foot!

Nubbly Carrot Cake
Adapted from Marijn
Yield: 10-12 servings

Marijn’s recipe uses trail mix, the kind that contains four or five sorts of nuts and dark raisins. I prefer to choose for myself what nuts will go into the cake, so I use only two types – almond and walnut. I find dark raisins too sweet, which is why I sub white raisins for dark ones. I don’t grind them together with the nuts. I want the dried fruit plump and juicy, so I simmer the stuff in just enough white wine over lowest heat for about fifteen minutes. If there is any liquid left after that, I drain it.

Contrary to the original instructions, I didn’t add hot water to my cream cheese frosting, and I cut back the amount of sugar used. I also used fresh vanilla bean seeds in place of vanilla extract.

Lastly, don’t use a cake form smaller than 24- or 25-cm (9- or 10-inch) in diameter. This cake is meant to be short. There is just a smidge of flour, almost nothing to hold the stuff together, so if it’s tall it wouldn’t hold its own under the knife at all.

For the cake:
150 gr (5 oz) walnut, coarsely ground
150 gr (5 oz) almond, coarsely ground
200 gr (7 oz) coarsely grated peeled carrots
80 gr (2.8 oz) white raisins (see headnote)
zest of one medium lemon
120 gr (4 oz) sugar (divided use)
3 eggs, separated
50 gr (1.8 oz) flour

For the icing:
125 gr (4 oz) cream cheese
30 gr (1 oz) butter, softened
120 gr (4 oz) powdered sugar
seeds from ½ vanilla bean

1. Position a rack in the bottom third of the oven and preheat to 200 degrees Celsius (390 degrees Fahrenheit). Liberally butter a 25-cm round cake form. Flour and shake off any excesses.

2. In a large bowl, combine the nuts, carrots and raisins together.

3. In a medium bowl, rub the lemon zest into 60 gr sugar (use your fingertips), until the sugar is fragrant. Beat in the egg yolks until the mixture is pale. Mix in the flour. Add the egg-flour mixture to the carrot-nut mixture and stir well (the mixture will be thick and dry-ish, so use your hands, it’s faster).

4. In a separate bowl and at high speed, beat the egg whites to the consistency of shaving cream. Add the remaining 60 gr sugar, and continues beating until stiff peaks form, 2-3 minutes. Using a rubber spatula and working in two or three additions, carefully fold the egg whites into the carrot batter.

5. Pour in the prepared cake form and gently smooth out the surface. Slide into the oven and immediately turn to 150 degrees Celsius (300 degrees Fahrenheit). Bake until the cake starts to pull away from the sides of the form and a knife inserted in the center comes out clean, about 45-50 minutes. Let cool in the form for 10 minutes, after which turn out onto a rack to cool completely.

6. When the cake is cool, prepare the icing. In a medium bowl, beat the cream cheese, vanilla seeds, and the butter until smooth. Sift the powdered sugar, and beat on low speed until incorporated. If the sugar starts forming lumps, increase the speed and beat until smooth again. Spread the icing all over the top of the cake.

7. Store in the fridge, but bring to room temperature before serving.