By Marcia Pilgeram
Last week was a rough one. I’d finally found my “COVID-19 cool” and begun some outdoor entertaining on my deck, a couple of friends at a time, with a little wine. I had made plenty of dates for walks and hikes before fall set in. Then came the winds, robbing me of power for my frozen food supply for 20 hours. Next came those damn fires and smoke and burning eyes that annulled all attempts for outdoor fun. I spent the better part of an entire day sitting in my oversized leather chair, feeling sorry for all of us.
It’s not like I didn’t have countless projects that would appreciate my time and talents, like a garage yearning to be cleaned, a spice cupboard way overdue for some herb identification and purging. Honestly, there was no reason not to begin gathering tape and scissors for the annual wrapping of Christmas gifts that were long ago stashed under beds or forgotten in closets (longing to be discovered before, not after the holidays).
Not even reruns of Parts Unknown episodes, where our beloved Anthony Bourdain explores favorite haunts like Greece and Cuba, could spark any joy and shake me from my funk. Finally, I got off my butt and kicked my endorphins into high gear. I know what my endorphins like best: food!
Not actually eating it but the anticipation of planning, prepping, cooking and, finally, feeding others has always given me an undisputed high (evident by dog-eared menus and recipes from long-ago events for client and family celebrations alike, tucked into cookbooks and files throughout my home).
I have lots of friends and family with September birthdays, so it’s always been a busy birthday cake month for me. Lucky for me, carrot cake tops the list for several of them, so last week I spent a whole day prepping the ingredients before I got started with the actual baking.
Though popular in Europe, carrot cake was mostly unheard of in the U.S. before 1970. None of my vintage cookbooks include a recipe. The cake became wildly popular here in the ’80s and ’90s, when oversized pieces appeared on restaurant dessert menus everywhere. For a while, it seemed to me, the cake appeared on every bride’s wedding cake wish list.
It was also a favorite with me — moist and stable and easy to haul to the popular woodsy-wedding sites of the ’90s. I have lugged them to mountain tops, small lake islands and across swaying, swinging bridges, with few mishaps. Because of their density and moistness, carrot cake is also quite forgiving, so armed with a small metal spatula and an omnipresent piping bag filled with extra icing, I never had a cake I couldn’t fix.
Carrot cake is also a friend to substitutions, but make sure to start with the freshest carrots possible. I use a variety of dried fruit selections in my recipe. The only problem with dried fruit is that, well, it’s dry. So I steep the fruit in boiling water to soften it before whirring it up in my food processor. I like plenty of spices in mine, too, and since none of my progeny will put a bite of fruitcake to their lips, this cake is our middle ground, and they love it.
The most traditional icing for this cake is cream cheese buttercream, which tends to be a little too sugary (and blasé) for my palate, so last week I experimented with some novel ingredients to cut the sweetness.
If you’ve followed my column for any length of time, you know that one of my best friends happens to be butter. At any given time, you’ll find at least 25 pounds of this glorious gift, from contented cows, in my freezer (right now, I am worried about a holiday baking shortage, so I have stockpiled nearly twice that much). I have traditional butter, unsalted butter, Amish butter, Irish butter and, of course, lots of browned butter.
I truly have a penchant for browned butter, and I’m eternally grateful to the French chef who created beurre noisette or “hazelnut butter” (whether on purpose or accidentally by leaving the butter on the burner too long). It has a nutty flavor and texture thanks to the little bits of dark butter solids flecked throughout.
Besides the browned butter, I tried an addition of Guinness stout reduction in the cream cheese. While it wasn’t the flavor profile I was looking for, I did come up with some winning combinations (saving those for a future column and recipe). It’s no surprise that iconic Guinness can bring a lot to the table. Or maybe you just want to bring it to your lips while you’re baking the carrot cake. It may be a long winter so it’s time to stock up! Browned butter, Guinness… the options are endless.
This gem of a cake is well worth taking the time to prepare. You can substitute any dried fruits, such as mango, pineapple or coconut.
• 1 cup golden raisins
• 1 cup pitted dates, chopped
• 3 cups peeled and grated carrots
• 4 eggs
• 1½ cups vegetable oil
• 1 cup granulated sugar
• 1 cup light brown sugar
• 2 tsp vanilla
• 3 cups flour
• 2 tsp baking soda
• 2 tsp baking powder
• 2 tsp ground cinnamon
• 1/4 tsp ground cloves
• 1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
• 1/4 tsp ground allspice
• 1/4 tsp ground ginger
• 1 tsp salt
• 1 cup pecans, lightly chopped and toasted
• 3/4 cup butter (you will end up with about 1/2 cup finished butter)
• 2 packages, 8-oz. cream cheese, softened
• 2 packages, 16-oz. each of powdered sugar
• 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
Brown butter directions:
Melt butter in a small saucepan over medium heat; bring to a low simmer and cook, stirring frequently, until butter is browned and foamy with visible browned, solid bits — about 7-8 minutes. Set aside and stir a few times until cooled to room temperature, about 15 minutes, then chill in fridge or over ice until it thickens up.
Beat butter and cream cheese at medium speed with an electric mixer until creamy; gradually add powdered sugar, beating until light and fluffy. Add vanilla.
Preheat oven to 350. Place dried fruit in bowl, pour 1/2 cup boiling water over and cover tightly. Let steep for 1/2 hour. Drain and set liquid aside. Chop softened fruit by hand or in food processor. Mix with grated carrots.
Grease two 9-inch cake pans and line the bottoms with parchment paper. Flip the parchment so both sides are greased.
In a mixing bowl, beat together oil; sugars; add eggs, one at a time; and beat. Add the grated carrots and softened dry fruit and vanilla. Sift together the flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt and spices; gradually add to carrot mixture, sprinkle on “fruit water” and beat to blend well. Fold in chopped nuts.
Divide equally between the two cake pans and tap to settle. Bake on middle rack for 55 to 60 minutes.
While we have you ...
... if you appreciate that access to the news, opinion, humor, entertainment and cultural reporting in the Sandpoint Reader is freely available in our print newspaper as well as here on our website, we have a favor to ask. The Reader is locally owned and free of the large corporate, big-money influence that affects so much of the media today. We're supported entirely by our valued advertisers and readers. We're committed to continued free access to our paper and our website here with NO PAYWALL - period. But of course, it does cost money to produce the Reader. If you're a reader who appreciates the value of an independent, local news source, we hope you'll consider a voluntary contribution. You can help support the Reader for as little as $1.
You can contribute at either Paypal or Patreon.Contribute at Patreon Contribute at Paypal