I can’t say that I have always been a fan of carrot cake. Growing up, the idea of a cake with a vegetable component didn’t sound very appealing to me. And coupled with the fact that most carrot cakes I had tried were on the dry, dense and healthy-tasting side, I couldn’t really understand what all the fuss was about. But in recent years, fellow foodie friends have steered me onto the path to carrot cake heaven with their favourite recipes, and now I am a true believer.
I gladly present to you three tried-and-tested recipes …
Carrot Cupcakes with Cream-Cheese Icing by Nigella Lawson
How could one possibly resist one of these little beauties? Small and dainty, snow-capped with a luscious cream-cheese frosting, these carrot cupcakes are elegant in looks but not pretentious in taste.
I have a fond affection for Nigella’s baking bible, How to be a Domestic Goddess, and this recipe is one which I have returned to on many occasions. The cupcake is light and sweet, simply fragranced with a touch of cinnamon and citrus zest. And decorating these petite cakes with a cream-cheese frosting and miniature carrot gives me the temporary thrill of participating in the current cupcake revolution, except that I am cheating with shop-bought marzipan carrots and there is no requirement to learn any piping skills. These cupcakes may not land you a spot on Cupcake Wars, but they certainly bestow the maker with a certain sense of pride and achievement.
One oddity about this recipe is that Nigella calls for the zest of half a lemon and half an orange or satsuma in the cake batter, and then for lime juice in the cream-cheese frosting, thus requiring you to use three different citrus fruits but not the whole of each fruit. I would recommend simply using the zest of either a whole lemon or a small orange and, to that end, using the juice of your chosen fruit in the cream-cheese frosting. A small simplification on my part but one which makes me feel better about reducing waste in the kitchen.
The addition of walnuts (a whopping 100g in this recipe) is arguably not a necessary inclusion in this cake. Having made these cupcakes with and without the walnuts, my preference would tend towards the latter. Sure, the walnuts add some texture and depth to the cake, but I find that they can overpower the delicate flavour of the carrots, quickly turning what could be a moist and sweet cupcake into something resembling more like a nut bread. This is not a criticism – hubby commented that he liked the addition of walnuts because the cake was then “not too moist”. One guest didn’t even realise that it was a carrot cake – not even the marzipan carrots gave it away!
Despite this recipe being one of my favourites from How to Be a Domestic Goddess, if I had to offer one criticism, it would be the cream-cheese frosting. No matter how many times I have followed Nigella’s recipe, my frosting has always turned out to be thin and runny, thus requiring more cream cheese to thicken the mixture. Maybe it is the brand of cream cheese I am using (Philadelphia) or the type of icing sugar available where I live. What has worked for me recently has been to simply beat the cream cheese until smooth, and to then add some icing sugar, tablespoon by tablespoon, until the desired sweetness is achieved, balanced by a squeeze or two of lemon juice.
That aside, these little carrot cupcakes are a delightful treat.
Carrot Cake with Orange Cream-Cheese Icing by Rachel Allen
One of my favourite past-times is chatting online with my foodie friends. We talk about a whole manner of things, mostly food-related, frequently veering off-topic but somehow always circling back to the matter at heart. Recently, the folks were sharing photos of their pantries and a competition ensued over who had the smallest kitchen, with delightful photos uploaded to give everyone a glimpse into the lives of a friend in a distant land. It’s great when a group of like-minded people, complete strangers in the real world, can bond so quickly over the topic of food. Sadly, my recent work commitments have meant less play time at the computer, something which I hope is only temporary. But I draw much knowledge from my foodie friends and am always grateful for their recipe ideas and tips. Some time ago, a discussion was held on favourite carrot cake recipes, and one recipe which got a frequent mention was Rachel Allen’s version from her book, Bake.
Rachel Allen is an Irish culinary figure whose cookbooks exude charm, simplicity and warmth. Some love her, some hate her. Others have never heard of her. I find her books to be a welcome addition to my kitchen; her homely and family-friendly recipes resonate with me, something which I think is important when choosing a cookbook. In my case, I have chosen all 8 of her cookbooks, each one as delightful as the next. Whether you are a working professional or a stay-at-home parent, her pared-down recipes help you to get a tasty dinner on the table without too much fuss. Her baking recipes, in particular, are among my favourites and this carrot cake is no exception.
It might then sound strange to start with a critique of this recipe, but if you fall within the category of those who eat with their eyes, you would be disappointed to find that this is a rather soft and delicate cake, such that a piece of cake is likely to hit the plate in pile of crumbles rather than as a neat, solid slice. This could be due to me leaving out the nuts from the cake which would otherwise lend it some stability, or perhaps warm weather could be a contributing factor since I have only ever made this cake in spring/summer? But plate presentation aside, and onto the positive aspects of this recipe, this is perhaps one of the best carrot cakes I have ever eaten. Despite what you see in the list of ingredients, the cake is surprisingly light and moist, redolent with a lovely mix of ground spices which makes it a perfect pairing with a cup of tea.
The orange cream-cheese icing lends an appropriate sweetness to the cake, but similar to Nigella Lawson’s recipe discussed above, it is a rather soft and runny icing and I would suggest fiddling with the recipe a little to get the desired texture and sweetness. Also, unless you like to be generous with the icing, I would suggest halving the amounts specified for the icing as I have always found that the recipe produces more than you would need for one cake.
Bake is a wonderful collection of sweet and savoury recipes for the passionate baker, and this recipe alone makes the book worth a place on your bookshelf.
Carrot Cake with Orange Cream-Cheese Icing
Recipe adapted from Bake by Rachel Allen
For the cake:
140 ml (5 fl oz) vegetable oil
200 g (7 oz) light muscovado sugar or light brown sugar
300 g (11 oz) grated carrots
100 g (3.5 oz) raisins
75 g (3 oz) pecans or walnuts, chopped (optional)
180 g plain flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
pinch of salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon mixed spice
For the orange cream-cheese icing:
250 g (9 oz) cream cheese (cold, from the fridge)
50 g (2 oz) butter, softened
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
275 g (10 oz) icing sugar (or to taste)
zest of 1 orange
marzipan whole carrots or chopped walnuts
Preheat the oven to 150°C (300°F). Grease and line a 13 cm x 23 cm loaf tin (5 x 9 inches).
In a large bowl, or the bowl of a KitchenAid, beat together the eggs, oil and sugar until it is pale and thick. Add the flour, baking powder, salt, baking soda, ground cinnamon, nutmeg and mixed spice. Mix until well combined. Stir through the carrots, raisins and nuts (if using). The batter will be quite liquid but don’t worry about this. Pour the batter into the loaf tin and bake for about 1 to 1.25 hours, or until a skewer inserted into the middle comes out clean. Leave the cake to cool in the tin for about 5 minutes before removing it to a wire rack to cool completely.
To make the cream-cheese icing, beat the cream cheese and butter together in a medium bowl. Add the vanilla extract, icing sugar and orange zest and mix to combine. The icing should be quite thick. Spread the icing over the cooled cake and serve as is, or decorate with some marzipan carrots. You could also sprinkle over some chopped walnuts.
Carrot Cake by Betty Bossi
It came as a bit of a surprise to me to learn that carrot cake was popular in Switzerland, mostly because I always associated this succulent cake with the US, the land of indulgent and tempting sweets. But according to Alan Davidson’s The Penguin Companion to Food, the origins of carrot cake can be found in Europe in the Middle Ages when carrots were used as a sweetener in cakes and desserts, with a revival in Britain after World War II when the Ministry of Food distributed recipes for carrot cakes and puddings. Perhaps it was the Americans who corrupted the austere reputation of carrot cakes by introducing the wonderful pairing with cream-cheese frosting? Whilst those on the other side of the pond (and Down Under) prefer the sweetened and frosted versions of carrot cake, the Europeans are a bit more subdued, preferring most of their cakes un-iced, nevermind with a cream-cheese frosting.
Having said that, the Swiss do have a tendency towards the twee. If you have noticed a common theme throughout these photos, it would be the presence of these ever-so-cute marzipan carrots which are traditionally used to decorate carrot cakes. There are many rules in Switzerland, and this particular cake-decorating rule is one which I am happy to abide by. Commonly found in the supermarkets, you can purchase these marzipan decorations as little whole carrots or carrot halves, depending on your preference for sugar.
In Switzerland, the region of Aargau used to be the main source of carrots for the country and several versions of “Rüeblicake” abound, Rüebli being the Swiss-German word for carrot. But the recipe which has been frequently recommended to me, one which has been passed down from generation to generation, comes from Kuchen Cakes & Torten by Betty Bossi, a character I have mentioned previously in my earlier post on Swiss Christmas Walnut Cookies. I was first introduced to this cake by my charming Swiss neighbour who regularly cooks from her tattered, but much loved, editions of spiral-bound Betty Bossi cookbooks. After dinner one evening where she had effortlessly created an eggplant curry with coconut relish, she brought out this cake, still warm in its loaf tin, and proceeded to cut generous slices as her guests looked on eagerly, secretly hoping they would get a piece with a marzipan Rüebli. One can only warm to the notion of a tried-and-tested family favourite and I, ever the shameless recipe requester, was excited to recreate this classic cake at home.
This is a fairly substantial carrot cake, in part due to the ground almonds which contributes to its density, but the ground almonds also keep the cake wonderfully moist, meaning that the cake will keep well for up to a week and even improve after a few days. But if I were to compare it to the other two recipes above, this Rüeblicake is perhaps something I would more prefer to sit down to at breakfast than for dessert, if you know what I mean. It is nevertheless an enjoyable recipe, a wonderful introduction to Swiss baking.
Recipe adapted from Kuchen Cakes & Torten by Betty Bossi
350 g (12.5 oz) plain flour
7 g (2 teaspoons) baking powder (usually 1 sachet, if they are sold in sachets where you live)
250 g (9 oz) raw sugar (or light muscovado sugar, light brown sugar, or caster sugar)
1 pinch of salt
3/4 teaspoon ground cardamon
2 pinches of freshly ground nutmeg
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
250 g (9 oz) carrots, grated
250 g (9 oz) ground almonds
zest and juice of 1 lemon
200 g (7 oz) butter, melted and cooled
Marzipan whole carrots, optional
Preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F). Grease and line a loaf tin. The recipe calls for a 30 cm long loaf tin which may not be commonly found outside of Europe. My suggestion is to use whatever loaf tin you have, making sure that when you fill the tin, leave about 2.5 cm (1 inch) between the batter and the top of the tin. Use any remaining batter to make small muffins. I found this recipe to be enough for a loaf tin measuring 13 x 23 cm plus one mini-loaf.
In a large mixing bowl, or the bowl of a KitchenAid, mix together the flour, baking powder, sugar, salt, ground cardamon, ground nutmeg and ground cinnamon.
Add the carrots, ground almonds, and the zest and juice of the lemon.
In a separate bowl, beat together the melted butter and eggs. Then stir this mixture into the batter.
Pour the batter into the loaf tin and bake for about 65 minutes, or until a cake skewer comes out clean. If you are using marzipan carrots, remove the cake after about 50 minutes and insert the marzipan carrots into the cake as in the photo. Return the cake to the oven and bake for a further 15 minutes, or until a cake skewer comes out clean.
This cake keeps pretty well for about a week, either wrapped in foil or under a covered cake dish.
It wasn’t initially my intention to prepare a post with three carrot cake recipes. With a hectic full-time job, it has been a little tricky fitting in time here and there to work on my blog. So faced with a back-log of recipes and photos to publish, I found it intriguing that I had a couple of carrot cake recipes in the pile. It wasn’t obvious to me before, but clearly I am fond of carrot cakes. But which one?
None of the above-mentioned cakes made me not want to eat more. But one which I feel has been a cherished contribution to my repertoire would have to be … Rachel Allen’s carrot cake.
Although I ought to update the photo for this particular cake … the ones above were taken about a year ago and they are a bit “in-your-face”, me thinks! I had made the cake to take to a friend’s place for afternoon tea and, therefore, didn’t have the liberty to cut and slice the cake for a photo session (which incidentally took place in the few minutes before I had to head out the door).
Despite this course of carrot cake sampling, I have already made notes of a few new carrot cake recipes to try in the very near future. But if you have a favourite carrot cake recipe which you would like to suggest, I would love to hear from you!