It’s been a strange Fourth of July this year: the poison of the Trump era has made it harder than ever to summon positive feelings for the United States. Still, I’ll use the occasion to celebrate happy days in the past and hope for happier ones in the future, with some close family members and numerous friends in the USA firmly in mind.
I lived in California for a couple of years in the early 1980s and one of my fondest memories is of whiling away hours at Printers Inc., a bookshop-plus-café that was a kind of prototype Borders. Long before Starbucks had started to expand outside Seattle, Printers Inc. served really good coffee and superb brownies and carrot cake. Cake lovers would invariably spot some book they liked, while those in search of a book, with equal inevitability, would be entrapped by the aroma of fresh coffee and cake.
Sadly, I never did get the recipe for the best carrot cake I ever had, baked by Gigi Ellis, the wife of my boss at Fairchild, and I lost touch with Frank and Gigi decades ago. So this recipe, which is close to the Printers Inc. version, comes from the cookbook I bought at the time, a model of Californian eclecticism entitled San Francisco à la Carte. I’ve turned everything metric, because I just don’t see how you can bake accurately using measuring cups, or indeed why you would want to when digital scales are cheap, accurate and generate less washing up.
The quantities here will work for a single cake in a 23cm x 23cm square tin. That will do for 16 small portions (or 8 very generous portions, or whatever you pick in between). If you prefer, you can use more than one tin, which avoids the tricky process of slicing the cake in half, at the price of leaving you with an internal crust that you don’t really want.
Make the cake:
- 250g carrots (weight after peeling)
- 250g plain flour
- 300g sugar
- 10g baking soda
- 4g salt
- 3g cinnamon
- 3 eggs
- 150g corn oil
- Preheat oven to 175℃.
- Grease the bottom of your cake tin, line it with baking paper, then grease the bottom and sides.
- Mix together the flour, sugar, baking soda, salt and cinnamon. There’s no need to sift the flour.
- Peel and grate the carrots.
- Beat the eggs (I use a stand mixer). Add the oil and beat until the eggs and oil have combined into a smooth mixture.
- Add the flour mixture to the egg and oil mixture and beat until smoothly combined.
- Add the carrots and stir until they’re evenly distributed.
- Pour the whole mixture into your baking tin, ensuring that you spread it evenly including the corners.
- Bake for 30 minutes – use the usual skewer test to ensure that it’s done. I’m always surprised by the way the cake can be really raw at 25 minutes and just fine at 30. By the way, some people like their carrot cake sticky: if you’re one of them, make sure the skewer *does* come out with some mixture sticking to it.
- Cool in the baking tin for 5-10 minutes and then on a wire rack.
Make the frosting:
- 200g cream cheese
- 50g butter
- 150g icing sugar
- Vanilla essence to taste (optional)
- Beat these together thoroughly until very smooth.
- Cover and leave in the refrigerator: especially if it’s summer, the frosting will be very runny and you want it to hold its shape when you spread it.
Assemble the cake:
- 90g pecan halves
- Reserve 16 of the best pecan halves for decoration (this will use around 40g). Chop the remainder into small pieces.
- Transfer the cake from the wire rack to whatever you’re going to serve the cake on: cake plate, board, tray or whatever.
- With a long knife, slice the cake horizontally into two approximately equal parts. Take the top half off and set aside – I do this by sliding a plastic chopping mat between the two halves, sandwiching the top half between the mat and a wire rack and lifting it off.
- Spread half the frosting over the bottom half. Scatter the chopped walnut pieces evenly across the cake.
- Put the top half of the cake back into place.
- Spread the remaining half of the frosting over the cake and decorate with remaining pecan halves, in whatever pattern takes your fancy.
It’s probably a good idea to chill the cake at this point, because the frosting really is quite liquid. Take it out of the refrigerator half an hour or so before serving.