Saturday, April 3, 2010

Oh Carrot Where Art Thou?

I have been craving carrot cake since last summer. I have no idea why I haven’t gotten around to making one except that I always seem to baking for someone else. I adore carrot cake, moist, flavorful and another culinary excuse to have cream cheese frosting. I haven’t made carrot cake in years and for the life of me couldn’t remember my recipe so I set out with my trusty laptop to find one. Every single recipe I found contained massive amounts of white sugar, loads of oil and very little or worse yet, no actual carrot at all (baby food? Really? I didn’t even like that stuff when I was a baby, well except for blueberry buckle but that’s another story for another time). I found there are two extremes when it comes to carrot cake, uber-healthy or sugar laden and not much in between and none of it screamed decadent holiday dessert to me. I even consulted The Cake Bible I received as a birthday gift and to my utter disappointment, found Rose’s recipe using whole wheat flour to be lacking for my purposes. So the challenge had been set, I needed to put together an actual carrot cake that would make my tummy sing.

Many of the recipes I looked at were not actual carrot cakes, they were quick breads or muffins with a little bit of carrot and a ton of sugar baked in a cake pan and frosted with cream cheese icing. Carrots are naturally sweet and masking them under piles of sugar seemed wrong to me. Also, if I wanted carrot bread I would just make carrot bread. I wanted cake. Too many of the recipes called for extended mixing times AFTER the flour had been added. Hello! I want cake, not bread and over mixing causes gluten production, which makes bread.

So I started with what I knew… I knew I wanted carrot to be the star player and not merely an add-in. I knew I wanted walnuts but no raisins or coconut. I knew I didn’t want to taste vegetable oil or end up with a heavy brick that sat in my stomach hours after consuming it. I knew I wanted it moist, flavorful and decadent just like my Gram used to make. The last thing I should mention is that I ultimately decided on cupcakes instead of a 9x13 or layer cake. Why? Just cuz, that’s why. I gathered my ingredients and hit the kitchen…

You’ll notice a few things different about my version of carrot cake, most notably (I think) the absence of vanilla and a significant reduction in sugar and oil. I love vanilla. Vanilla is my friend. Vanilla has no place in this cake. Vanilla would be wasted in this cake. The cinnamon and ginger are such strong players that they would completely swallow 1 or 2 teaspoons of vanilla. Save the vanilla for the frosting. There is no white sugar in this cake. The frosting has more than enough white sugar in it to satisfy the sweetest of sweet-toothed people. I used a combination of brown sugar and unsweetened, crushed pineapple and its juice to sweeten the cake. I swapped out most of the oil for plain yogurt. Lastly, I used salted butter because that’s what most people have on hand. What did all of this produce? Actual cake. Carrot cake where you could see the carrots, walnuts and pineapple in the finished product. Cake that feels like cake in your mouth not bread. Cake that is savory and slightly sweet and yummy and a perfect vehicle for cream cheese frosting!

Carrot Cake

2 c Walnut halves and pieces or halves, your choice, toasted, cooled and chopped to size
1 lb of carrots, peeled and grated
2 ½ c AP flour, I prefer King Arthur
½ t salt
1 t baking powder
1 t baking soda
2 t cinnamon
½ t freshly rasped ginger (use 1 t if powdered)
¾ c brown sugar
½ c melted salted butter
¾ c + 2 T plain yogurt
3 eggs
8 oz crushed, unsweetened pineapple in juice, drained- reserve juice
2 T of the reserved pineapple juice
1 recipe Creamy Cheesy Cream Cheese Frosting
Pulverized, toasted walnuts for garnish optional

I started by toasting walnuts and yes, it’s worth the extra step. I had a one-pound bag of walnut halves and pieces. I toasted half of the bag on an un-greased cookie sheet in a 350* oven for 10 minutes while I peeled and grated a pound of carrots on the larger side of my box grater (yes it matters, the smaller side turns them to mush). I ran my knife through the walnuts to make them the size I wanted, which is to say in small chunks.

In a large bowl whisk together the: flour, salt, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon and ginger. Using your hands, toss the carrots and nuts into this mixture. You really need to do this part with your hands to ensure that everything is evenly distributed and the carrots are well coated with the flour. By tossing the ingredients at this stage, you don’t end up developing gluten by over mixing once the wet ingredients are added.

In a separate bowl beat together the oil, yogurt and sugar until smooth and no traces of sugar remain. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Stir in the pineapple. Pour this mixture over the flour and stir just until combined. I found my mixture to be a little too thick at this point and added 2 T of the reserved pineapple juice.

I used my handy-dandy ice cream scoop to portion out the cupcakes (this recipe made 2 ½ dozen). Bake at 350* for 18 minutes, allow them to cool in the pan for a few minutes before removing them to a wire rack to cool completely. You could easily bake this in any cake pan you wish.

Creamy Cheesy Frosting*

8 oz cream cheese, room temp.
1 stick of salted butter, room temp
1 lb box Confectioner’s/10x sugar
2 t vanilla extract
1 t lemon juice

I start by creaming the cream cheese and butter together in my kitchen aid. Once they are mixed and smooth I add the sugar and flavorings. I start on the "Stir" setting so I don't get covered in powdered sugar and then kick it up to 8 and let it go for 5 minutes. Too thick? Add about a tablespoon of milk. Too thin? Pop it in the fridge a bit and it will firm up.

I used a Wilton tip for the frosting swirls and toasted, pulverized walnuts to finish them off. There are a few tips I can give you that I find help me immensely. Before I start frosting I divide the cupcakes into 2 pans that are sturdy enough to be able to carry over to the fridge. When using tips to frost I find that in addition to the soft consistency of the frosting, holding the tip directly over the cupcake and NOT at any kind of angle gave me the best look. I frosted 4 at a time and then stopped to pat on the walnuts. When one pan was done it immediately went into the fridge to firm up. Firming up the frosting BEFORE transporting is the key to your cupcakes arriving as beautiful as they were freshly frosted in your kitchen.

*Squirrely wrath!


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