Birthday cake!August 12, 2006
You’re thinking: If this is birthday cake, where are the candles? That’s very unfestive.
Even more unfestive is the fact that the birthday boy made it for himself. For shame, you say…. Look: He’s a cook, he insisted on making the cake himself. Plus, if I attempted to make a layered, homemade cake without the help of one Betty Crocker, it would be disaster. Anyway, a birthday boy gets what a birthday boy wants. He wanted to make his favorite — carrot cake — and I could only stand idly by… and of course, eat it.
Truly, this was the very best carrot cake I’ve ever had. And my co-workers — who got to eat the leftovers the following day — seemed to agree. It is the perfect balance of cakey, spicy sweetness.
If you care to replicate this feat without the help of a boxed cake mix, see my husband’s instructions. He tells you not only how to make this delicious carrot cake, but gives detailed directions on how to frost a cake. (For those who have slaved over a cake only to see it mauled by a disastrous frosting effort, this is a must-read.)
Not only do I cook, I bake. Baking is very satisfying; it’s actually what got me started cooking in the first place. I reflected on this while reading this month’s Details magazine (not a magazine of choice, but perfect for a waiting room). Michael Chabon writes that his first experience as a cook was making the coffee cake recipe on the side of the Bisquick box. It floored me — I think this same recipe was one of the first things I ever made in the kitchen. That, or the classic Duncan Hines Brownie Mix. What can I say? I came from a family of the culinarily unadventurous. Food in a box was a staple.
It wasn’t until years later that I rekindled my baking efforts. I wanted to learn to make things like pecan pie. (Who doesn’t?) In fact, it was getting praise from people about my pecan pie that really set me down the path of cooking and learning what makes things taste, look and feel good.
Most of the time when I bake nowadays, it’s sweets or breads. Honestly, it’s one of the easiest ways to “wow” a group of folks without putting in a great deal of effort. Besides, even in the middle of August, there’s nothing better than walking into a house where the air is warm and thick with a yeasty bread or sweet spice aroma.
A little about my carrot cake with cream cheese frosting…
As I mentioned in the Gourmet Burger entry, my wife and I were in London not long ago. One of the traditions I came to enjoy was high tea. The tea is great — but the real benefit of sitting down for an afternoon refreshment is “sweet.” By this I mean the myriad offerings of cookies, cakes, scones and other items.
I am a carrot cake-a-holic. (Other ‘holics, please respond: “Hi, Kendle.”) Since carrot cake was on the menu nearly every afternoon we sat down for tea, I ordered it on more than one occasion. I was pleased to find that the cake at tea was different from what I’m accustomed to. It wasn’t so different that I’d reclassify it as not cake, or unfamiliar, but its palette (warning: fancy “foody” word describing a combination of flavors) was interesting. The cake was less focused on being sweet; instead, the frosting was the carrier of the sweetener, and the cake really just held the spices.
Therefore, this recipe is a modification on an old recipe to hopefully accomplish a similar taste. Enjoy!
Carrot cake with cream cheese frosting
Two 9’’ cake pans (spring-forms are best, if you have them)
Shortening or butter to coat the pans
2 tbsp. flour
Food processor or grater
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour (preferably unbleached)
1 cup dark brown sugar
3/4 cup granulated sugar
4 large eggs
One 1 lb. bag baby carrots
1/2 cup crushed pecans
1 cup canola or vegetable oil
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter melted
1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1/4 tsp ground clove
1/4 tsp all-spice powder
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees F. In a non-stick pan, place pecans over medium heat. Gently toss them for about five minutes and then remove from heat. You want them slightly toasted to accent their flavor — but don’t burn them!
2. Grease and flour the cake pans. Coat the sides of the cake pans with butter or shortening. Get it all nice and lubed up. Then, take a tablespoon of flour for each pan and dump it in the middle of the pan. Turn and jostle the pan so that the greased areas are now coated with flour. This will minimize any sticking when removing your cakes later.
3. In a food processor, use the grating or shredding attachment to grate the bag of carrots. If you lack the machinery, replace the baby carrots with full-sized ones, and you can hand-grate them with a cheese greater.
4. In a mixer or large bowl, place the eggs, sugar and melted butter. Whisk together. Next, add the carrots, pecans and flour to the bowl. Ensure they are fully integrated into the mix (you can use your mixer, or elbow grease). Next, add the spice, baking powder and baking soda. Once integrated, slowly add the oil. At this point, you should have a nice cake batter. This is hard to describe, it is shiny and liquid more than solid. It should be relatively easy to pour.
5. Pour half of the mixture into each cake pan. Place them on the middle rack of the oven. (If you can’t place them on the same rack, it’s OK. We’ll switch their places later.)
6. Bake for 30 minutes, then switch the pans to the opposite side or other rack. This compensates for any hot zones in your oven and ensures the cakes cook evenly and will be done at the same time.
7. Bake for another 30 minutes. At this point, you can check both cakes for doneness by sticking a toothpick in the center of the cake and then removing it. If the toothpick comes out clean, without any batter attached, then remove from the oven. If it comes out sticky, then let it bake for another 5 minutes and keep testing every 5 minutes until your toothpick comes out clean.
8. Let the cakes sit in their pan for about 45 minutes before removing. Once that time is up, gently remove them from the pans and let them continue to cool for another 20 minutes. The cake should barely be warm when you begin to frost.
1 8 oz block of cream cheese at room temperature
5 tbsp. unsalted butter at room temperature
1 tbsp. sour cream
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 1/4 cup confectioner’s/powdered sugar
1. Really, this is very simple. Using a mixer (or very strong arms and patience), whisk together the butter, sour cream and cream cheese. Once they seem to be developing a bit of volume, add the vanilla extract and powdered sugar. Voila!
How do I frost a cake?
Honestly, frosting is the sole reason I hated making cakes for a while. While I’m not the fussiest person when it comes to how something edible looks, I did hate how cakes I had slaved over looked like disasters after my attempted frostings. Here are four mistakes I often made. I hope you can learn from them!
1. Don’t frost a hot cake. The idea of a warm, frosted cake sounds great. But when the cake is moist, steamy and yummy like that, it tears. The frosting will grip on to it and tear bits of cake off, like a shark biting into a surfer’s arm. I’m not kidding you. Your cake will look like it was swimming in shark-infested waters.
It is a million times easier to frost a cool cake than a warm one. So, let the cake cool.
2. Slow down. Just chill. Find that Zen place and take it slow. If you try to rush this, you’ll end up frustrated.
3. Cut yourself some slack. I used to set my standards too high. I envision a professional-looking cake and then think I can do that. Well, the truth is you most likely can’t — unless you have some very cool cooking equipment. Professionals have little cake pedestals that spin their cakes for them and make frosting pretty snappy. They can just run their frosting-covered spatula along the cake and it creates uniform coverage. They also have nifty tools that give the sides of their cakes pretty designs as they turn. And they have industrial amounts of frosting, so if there’s a thin spot, they reach out and spackle on some more. We’ve got limited resources and, in my case, limited patience and talent for perfection.
So, don’t worry about going for a Perfect 10. Remember, this sucker is about to be scarfed down by some happy people. They’re not going to remember that imperfection on the back side you’ve been trying to mold for 45 minutes. Trust me. No one has ever complained that my cakes aren’t perfect looking.
4. Don’t lift that knife! This is the biggest technique lesson: Once you start frosting, don’t lift your spatula or knife until you’re done. Remember that shark and the surfer victim. If you start pulling your knife away often, the cake will come up with the frosting. You’ll be surprised: You’ll get much more even and better coverage if you just keep swirling your spatula around on the cake.
So here is the technique:
1. You need to work with flat surfaces on your cakes. Odds are, your two spicy, yummy cakes lack that. What to do? Thinly slice the top as flat and evenly as you can to give it an even work surface. Place the cake flat-side up.
2. Take about a quarter of the frosting and drop it in the center of the cake that will be the bottom layer. Using a spatula or knife, spread the layer evenly over the top of the cake. No need to coat the sides, that comes later. You can do this easily and quickly by resting your spatula on the cake and spinning the plate in one direction. Think of yourself as a bad DJ in some rave in the 90’s.
3. With the filling now spread out, take the second cake and place it on top of the frosting, with the flat side facing up at you.
4. Now you’re going to need a bit of faith in me for this next step. Take ALL — yes all — of the remaining frosting and dump it on top of the cake. I know you don’t believe me. I didn’t believe the experts who said to do it this way either. I thought: Shouldn’t I save some for the sides? Wrong! Put it all on top, brother. Since following this advice, my cake frosting skills have been a million times better.
5. Go DJ on the cake! Take your spatula and spin the serving plate. You’ll get huge globs coming over the sides and spreading everywhere. Once there is a thin layer on top and the sides start to accumulate frosting, slide your spatula to the side slowly so that the blade is facing down, and continue to spin the plate. You’ll start to see the sides get coated. There likely will be some excess in places and on the plate. I scrape up this excess and use it do some gentle (think shark biting surfer!) spackling of the thin and bare spots. If you have multiple bare or thin spots, be sure to wipe your knife off before you attack the next location.
I hope your cake looks good. Some people add pecans or walnuts to the side. I personally just like it as is. Enjoy!