Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Living Up to a Memory

When we were kids growing up, we had a breadman (and a milkman, but that's another story).  Three times a week, the truck with the big windmill painted on the sides would pull up and out would come the Awrey Bakery delivery man with his big tray hanging from straps on his shoulders.  With a large family, he always had 2 or 3 loaves of bread to leave with us.  But he also brought up an assortment of cakes, pies, and cookies to hawk.  Sometimes, Dad would let us choose a treat.  That was my first introduction to carrot cake.  It was pale orange-gold with white frosting in a small 8 inch square foil pan.  It would get cut into 6 very even pieces and everyone got just one.  There was to be no fighting over the cake and with 5 children plus Dad, there were certainly no leftovers.  That one piece was heaven, or so I thought.

In retrospect, it wasn't a particularly good carrot cake.  It had no texture, no visible carrots, no nuts, no raisins, and a overly sweet white frosting.  It was the idea that it was a special treat that made it taste so good.  Funny thing, I don't think I ever understood that carrot cake was really made from carrots, and that cake did nothing to educate me.

Some years later, I was determined to reproduce that sweet treat, so I started with a cookbook.  It was a real surprise to find out that carrot cake should be packed with sweetness from real carrots and fruits, and contrasted with the bitter bite of fresh nuts.  The sour tang of cream cheese on top elevated it to a new level.  At the time, my brother and I lived together.  He may not remember all the trial and error that we tasted in getting to the ultimate, but eventually I arrived at a cake that we both declared perfect!

Fast forward 20 or 30 years.  I was visiting my brother's family in Indiana, and we all went out to dinner.  When the orders were taken for dessert, the conversation came 'round to the carrot cake option.  John expressed that it was his favorite cake, and his wife interjected that she never had and never would bake him a carrot cake.  Apparently, he had told her many times over the years that I made the all-time best carrot cake.  The wise woman he married knew that she could never compete with or live up to a memory.  It really didn't matter whether my cake was good or not, nor if hers was.  It was all about the memory.

Over the years, I've made a lot of carrot cake.  I've improved the frosting, taken it from a simple square snack cake to an elegant layer cake, gussied up the presentation.  But the recipe itself hasn't changed.  I'm still making the same cake that I worked out in the 1970's.  You just don't mess with a good thing.

Recipe after the jump - click on 'Read More'.

My Best Carrot Cake

This recipe makes 1 layer - either a 9 inch square or a 10 inch round.  You double or triple the batch depending on how many layers you are making.  If you use 8 inch pans, 2 batches will make 3 layers.  You don't even need an electric mixer for this cake.

Dry Ingredients
1 cup sifted all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
1/2 cup raisins
1 1/2 cup shredded carrots

Wet Ingredients
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup light brown sugar
2/3 cup vegetable oil
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla

Preheat the oven to 350F.
Line the pans with parchment paper, then grease and flour them.

Combine all of the dry ingredients in one large bowl.  Tossing the fruit and nuts in the flour mixture will help them stay suspended in the wet batter during baking.

Whisk together all the wet ingredients in another bowl.

Fold the wet mixture into the dry mixture, and stir to mix completely.

Divide the batter evenly among the prepared pans.  Bake 30-35 minutes.

My Best Cream Cheese Frosting

This has a much higher ratio of cheese to butter & sugar than most recipes. I like that the frosting is REALLY cheesy!

Since there is a low proportion of sugar, the firmness of the butter and cheese are critical. Temperature is very important for the spreading consistency of this recipe. "Room temperature" varies greatly, depending on where you live, what season it is, and where you set your a/c or furnace. My house is a constant 81F in the summer. 'Room temp' at my house is nearly melted butter - not good for frosting a cake. "Soft" is subjective - your idea of soft butter is not the same as mine.

Remember, this is baking. Baking needs to be much more precise than cooking. So even thought it sounds a bit fussy, it only takes about 3 seconds to take the temp of your butter.

Second important tip - overbeating is the worst thing you can do to a frosting this high in fat content. Do not use a whisk - use a paddle attachment. And beat things until just smooth and combined - no longer, or you'll have a gluey mess.

Finally, remember, this is me, SilverSage. You all know my recipes are going to be a bit fussy, so just do it right!  Anyhow, I let you off easy on the carrot cake.

This makes enough to frost and fill a 3 layer 8 inch cake or a 2 layer 10 inch cake.  If you're making something different, adjust accordingly.

24 ounces cream cheese, cold
6 ounces unsalted butter, softened to cool room temp (68F)
1 1/2 tsp vanilla
1/2 tsp lemon juice, freshly squeezed
2 1/2 cups confectioners' sugar
pinch of salt
1-2 cups chopped walnuts, depending on the size of the cake

Cut the cheese into large chunks (about 8 per package) and let it sit on the counter for just a minute while assembling the other ingredients. Do not let it soften to room temperature. If you get delayed, put it back in the fridge and chill it before continuing.

Beat the butter, cheese, lemon, salt, and vanilla in a large bowl with a paddle attachment, until well combined and smooth.

Carefully beat in the sugar until smooth. Do not overbeat!

If necessary, chill until firm enough to spread.

Fill and frost the cake, then press chopped walnuts into the sides.

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