Tuesday, 27 August 2013

carrot cake; the western cousin

a slice of ilona's carrot cake
when it comes to cake making, some vegetables are self-conscious. the courgette for instance has a proclivity to immerse itself leaving only softness and moisture as its imprints. but then there are root vegetables like beetroot and carrots that are not cowed. they give cakes an earthiness and are not shy of spices like ginger, cinnamon and nutmeg.

i have always loved carrots. the pakistani carrot is terracotta orange. i would often eat them raw when mama or my dadi would slice rounds to add to a mixed vegetable bhujia. when i was six i discovered gajar ka murabba, a candy sweet condiment of thin carrot batons gently simmered in a simple syrup infused with whole green cardamoms. the sugar would permeate the membranes and make the carrots limp. this condiment is preserved in a memory as the flavour of a carrot caramel. i helped myself to one too many and felt quite poorly afterward. perhaps this is what explains their absence in my life after that brief encounter in my phoopi’s kitchen.

the quintessential carrot dessert for me is gajar ka halwa. it is made with an abundance of grated carrot simmered in sugar and milk until they disintegrate into a mash. bruised cardamom pods give it a floral fragrance. oftentimes khoya is crumbled and stirred through to make it even richer.  this spring mama and i warmed some of her homemade halva and shared it straight from the pan. i love that she adds blanched almonds and sultanas, and sometimes a squiggle of cream.  

unfortunately i am yet to learn how to make gajar ka halwa, and so to fill its absence i turn to its western cousin carrot cake. some would say that an approximation is impossible but for me it is the pairing of cream cheese frosting with carrots and the soft crunch of walnuts that is reminiscent of plates of hot gajar ka halva with a cool thick streak of cream. the walnuts in the cake soften and have a similar texture to that of the blanched almonds that lose some of their firmness to the moisture in the halva.

mama’s version is adapted from the fete and gifts family circle set of recipe books that she found in one of the old bookshops in islamabad. she uses a combination of sweeteners and plenty of orange zest to brighten the cake. i made this cake for afternoon tea and as a belated birthday treat for asma who is the force behind darjeeling express. it keeps beautifully and tastes better a day or so after it is made. o ate several slices despite declaring that he does not care for carrot cake. and another guest at tea ate a fair sized wedge despite not usually being a fan. so i guess what i am saying is that this recipe can even win over those who are dubious of carrot cake. 

ilona's carrot cake and some writing
i think its winning qualities lie in balancing the sweetness. this may sound counter intuitive but the cake itself is not very sweet.  unlike its american counterparts it is finished with a slim layer of frosting. i also prefer not to sandwich it. an oily savoury nut like the walnut goes toward does its bit in mellowing the sweetness. it is at its best at room temperature accompanied by a strong cup of cardamom laced assam tea. 

{ilona’s carrot cake}
adapted from fete and gift, family circle set of recipe books

two hundred and thirty grams flour
two teaspoons bicarbonate of soda
two teaspoons baking powder
half a teaspoon ground cinnamon
half a teaspoon grated nutmeg
half a teaspoon all spice
one teaspoon fresh grated ginger
one hundred and ninety-five ml sunflower oil
one hundred grams golden caster sugar
four eggs
eighty-five grams brown sugar
one hundred and fifty grams golden syrup
one hundred grams walnut
grated zest of an orange
three hundred and fifty grams grated carrots

preheat the oven to one hundred and eighty degrees celsius. grease and line a twenty-one cm deep loose-bottomed round cake tin. set aside.

sift the dry ingredients (flour, spices and raising agents) in large bowl. place the oil, sugars, eggs and golden syrup in a large mixing bowl and beat until combined. add the dry ingredients to the wet mix and beat for twenty to thirty seconds. roughly chop the walnuts and add to the cake batter along with the grated carrots and orange zest. fold into the batter until well incorporated and evenly distributed.

scrape the batter into the prepared cake tin and smooth the top. bake for thirty minutes at one hundred and eighty degrees. then lower the heat to one hundred and seventy degrees and continue to bake for another forty to fifty minutes or until a skewer comes out clean.

let the cake cool briefly before removing it from the cake tin to a wire rack.   
cream cheese frosting
two hundred and fifty grams full fat cream cheese
sixty grams butter at room temperature
two hundred and fifty grams icing sugar
grated zest of an orange
a handful of walnuts

beat the butter until soft and creamy. then add the cream cheese and beat until smooth and incorporated. add the icing sugar in small increments beating between each addition. stir in the grated zest. frost the cake when it is cool and decorate with a crown of walnuts. 

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