"Life, people learned, was not easy. Life was not cake. Life was not a carrot cake."
My parents often recount to me their “first times” with classic American gastronomy – their first time going to a Western grocery store, their first time getting a bucket of fried chicken from KFC, and among others their first time eating the countless number of American sweets so different from the desserts of Southeast Asia. Everything from Oreos, bread pudding, packaged Hostess pastries, and especially their primary encounter with carrot cake.
I saw it for the first time during one of our ritual Thursday night dinners at Hometown buffet - they each took one of the wedges of cake frosted in hydrogenated buttercream, encrusted in chopped walnuts, and topped with those flamboyantly piped “you-don’t-want-to-know-how-much-food-dye-is-in-here” green and orange carrots. I didn’t like the cake because I particularly enjoyed the taste (especially the mass produced version of low-brow buffets) – I liked it because everyone else did. We were a carrot cake family, even if one of us would have secretly preferred the soft serve ice cream in those styrofoamy kiddy cones.
But eventually, just like my childhood aversion to mushrooms, sauteed onions, and sushi, good carrot cake became an obsession– a revelation even, no doubt due Ina Garten. When I first started baking from scratch, her recipe was one of the first things I tried, and was the antithesis to the bland, sticky, plastic wrapped cakes my dad frequently picked up from the gas station at 3PM each afternoon.
It quickly became a staple at every July 4th, Mother’s Day, and Easter dinner – an obsessive demand for homemade carrot cake. I grew to despise making it, because grating a pound of carrots by hand is a laborious pain in the ass. Even still, for every family occasion or large dinner it must make an appearance. I probably shouldn’t say it, but I imagine there might be better recipes looming around on the internet, filled with pineapple, perhaps a bit of coconut, and more other nuanced and intricate flavors. But this is the first one I turned to (Ina Garten has that magical power, or is it her SEO minions at work?), and has now become our definitive recipe. It’s the carrot cake I’ve come to love - unabashedly plain and reeking of cinnamon, ethereally moist from an obscene amount of oil in its base, and laden with the purest of cream cheese and butter frosting punctuated by our addition of candied orange. It is the family’s carrot cake
THE FAMILY CARROT CAKE
adapted over the years from Ina Garten
2 cups sugar
1 ½ cups vegetable or canola oil
2 teaspoons Cinnamon
½ teaspoon Nutmeg
1 ½ Teaspoons vanilla
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups of flour
1 pound of grated carrots
1 ¼ cups Raisins
1 ¼ cups chopped Walnuts
¼ cup of flour
cream cheese frosting
2 sticks of butter, softened
12 oz cream cheese, softened
one pound powdered sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
pinch of kosher salt
1 orange, zested
1 cup of sugar
1 cup of water
1 navel or blood orange, thinly sliced
2 carrots, peeled into flat shavings with a vegetable peeler
Mise en place: cake layers
In a mixer fitted with the whisk attachment (or you can do this by hand), whip the eggs and sugar on high speed until thick, pale and voluminous. With the mixer still running, pour in the vegetable oil in a steady stream until you have basically made a sweetened mayonnaise. Stir in the vanilla, cinnamon, and nutmeg.
By hand, fold in the baking soda, salt, and flour until just combined. Fold in the grated carrot. Toss together the raisins and walnuts with the remaining ¼ cup of flour, and fold them into the batter. Divide the batter between two 8 inch cake pans that have been greased and floured before being lined with parchment paper. Bake for 30-45 minutes until a toothpick comes out clean. Let the pans cakes cool for 5 minutes before inverting them on a cooling rack. Allow to cool completely before frosting
Mise en place: cream cheese frosting
In a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, beat the cream cheese and butter on medium low speed. Slowly incorporate the sifted powdered sugar one spoonful at a time until you have a smooth frosting. Add in the vanilla and salt. Beware of whipping on high speeds to avoid air bubbles in your frosting - you want something thick and dense.
Mise en place: garnishes
In a small saucepan, combine the sugar and water and bring to a boil. Add the thinly sliced oranges. Simmer on medium heat for 15 - 20 minutes until the rind of the orange is tender. Add the carrot shavings and simmer for an additional 5 minutes. Set aside to cool.
If your cakes have large domes on top, gently trim off any excess to flatten them. Take the first layer and flip it upside down on your serving platter so the bottom is facing up. Spread a thin layer of the frosting on top, followed by the orange zest. Place the second cake layer on top, again upside down so the bottom is facing up.
For the crumb coat, use your offset spatula to spread the thinnest layer of frosting possible on the outside of the cake, making sure there are no exposed areas. Let chill in the refrigerator for 15 minutes. Once the crumb coat is firm to the touch and not tacky, finish frosting the rest of the cake with the rest of the icing. Garnish with the candied orange and carrots, and golden raspberries.