Everyone has a favorite carrot cake, and almost everyone has what they consider THE BEST carrot cake recipe. But I’m here to insist that my carrot cake recipe IS the best, or, at least, my very favorite.
“Carrot cake is now as American as apple pie,” wrote Irma Rombauer in “Joy of Cooking” (Simon & Schuster Inc.; 1931). And I don’t know who doesn’t love carrot cake, moist and cinnamon-y and flecked with orange shreds of carrot that add tenderness and sweetness. Some people have their own preferences on additions — pineapple, raisins, coconut, nuts — but almost every carrot cake is glossed with the perfect accompaniment of creamy, tangy cream cheese frosting.
The carrot cake — which, like most cakes, likely evolved out of a steamed pudding — has found its place in the hearts of many and shows up at birthdays, holidays and even weddings. Its vegetable element makes it justifiable to eat (carrots are good for you); but beyond that, it’s just really good.
Oftentimes, carrot cake, with its orange-ness, spiciness and cream cheesiness, is associated with fall, but spring turns my thoughts in its direction. I consider carrot cake, along with other cakes like strawberry shortcake, one of the cakes of spring.
I began baking carrot cakes A LOT many springs ago, when the need for both carrots and their tops for pet house rabbits sent me weekly to the local farmers market. I rewarded the workers at the farmers market stand with freshly baked carrot cupcakes. It was a gesture of appreciation that turned into (nearly) a demand for the treats on a regular schedule.
My farmers market friends’ cake expectations gave me the excuse to dabble in carrot cake making, developing and adapting a recipe over the years to end up with what I consider an ideal version. It began as a recipe for “Double Carrot Bread,” from a little old spiral-bound book called “Fresh-From-the-Oven Breads” by Miriam B. Loo (Current, Inc.; 1982). The recipe had one unusual ingredient — carrot baby food! I discovered in baking this sweet quick bread that the baby food enhanced the carrot-y taste and moistness. I decided the bread was really more like (or could be) a great carrot cake. I made this adaptable recipe my own with some changes and additions, butI’ll always credit the original … recipes almost always come from somewhere (and someone) else.
For this recipe, I increased the amount of vegetable oil, added canned pineapple (a must!), and threw in toasted walnuts. I occasionally added coconut (optional) or even a little orange zest. And as much as I like raisins, I never added them to the cake, because, for some reason, I believe raisins serve a better purpose elsewhere. The cake really didn’t need to be frosted, but, if there is a situation that potentially involves an application of cream cheese frosting, I say forge ahead with that.
I took the cake from its initial loaf status and made it as a layer cake a number of times, as well as various interpretations of cupcakes, including mini loaves and cakes baked in mini pie tins and dolloped with frosting to look like whipped cream. I baked and shared the cakes for all seasons.
But it is spring that really invites me back to carrot cake. I want to embellish it with icing and even a dusting of green-tinted coconut “grass” like my mother did when she was selected to be the “Room Mother” bringing treats to my little elementary school. I want to top the cakes with jelly beans, like she did, or, even better, gummy or marzipan mini “carrots” (you can find anything on Amazon these days).
I’ve strayed from “my” recipe only a few times to try others. One, from a friend (her own prized version she’d played with over the years) was a thinner batter, warmly spicy, baked in a round springform pan to make a thick layer and topped with a cream cheese frosting lightly sweetened with brown sugar. It was delicately textured and so flavorful, I thought it was almost better than mine.
But I’m still inclined to not throw out the baby food nor the recipe. My “secret-ingredient” carrot cake, still on demand, will be what I continue to roll with this spring and beyond. And, fortunately, the recipe makes enough that I can hold a few cupcakes back for myself.
Rebecca Howard grew up in Kansas and currently writes the food blog, “A Woman Sconed.”Farmers Market Carrot Cake Simple Cream Cheese Frosting