What goes around comes around: classic carrot cake with cream cheese icing

'Life is just what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.' Or so the song goes. I thought, to help people (and myself) with New Year’s resolutions, I would make January healthy soup month.

But birthdays happen. When my friend Yelena asked me to help her celebrate her husband’s birthday I asked her, “What’s his favorite cake? “

“Well,” she replied, “I usually buy him a carrot cake from the grocery store, and he likes that.”

Whoa! Throw down the gauntlet! A store-bought cake for a birthday! Not while I live and breathe and have an oven.

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Warning: I’m winding myself up with a story here that may go in tangential directions, so skip to the recipe if that’s what you came for.

Yelena and her husband are part of a small meditation group that meets every week at our house. And it just so happens that carrot cake, a child of the seventies like me, was on the menu of the restaurant where I worked at the time. The restaurant was affiliated with an ashram near Woodstock, New York. That’s where I lived and worked and where all this meditation business started. In fact, our little group today is a direct descendant of it. So even though Yelena and Arkady were still living in Russia when I made this cake every day, it felt quite fitting to celebrate the occasion of Arkady’s birthday with it.

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Making it brought back memories of a time and place: How I learned to cook on the fly for total strangers who were willing to pay for it (!) How I cried every night with exhaustion on the two-minute drive home from work in the deep dark of mountain night. How living in what was essentially a monastery with twelve-hour work days has shaped my life. How I am a nature girl at heart though I now live in the city. How I miss the country, especially the quiet in the winter and the hush of pure snow.

Sometimes I lie on my back and look at the winter sky. It is twelve degrees out as I write this. The view is as close as I will come to a country feeling without taking half an hour to dress for it and another half hour to get there.

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Making this cake reminded me of some of the roads I have traveled and where I might go next: My evolution in the restaurant kitchen with a wonderful chef/mentor who lived down the road from the ashram. A painful chapter when I moved to Indiana to another ashram after my teacher died and how I wrenched myself away from an unhealthy and unhappy situation. The quirkiness of fate, which turned around, curtsied and gifted me a life partner.  A tear-filled journey to parenthood that resulted in the adoption of a beautiful boy who is now in college and blessed me with the best gift a mother could have hoped to receive. Ever. Once again, the road forks in the present, as I contemplate another chapter: I am excited at the prospects of what I could do next, but right now, I have no idea exactly what that might be.

All that. From a cake.

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Classic carrot cake with cream cheese icing

Carrot cake purportedly emerged in Britain as a creative solution to rationing (hence the oil). Somehow it caught on in the United States in the seventies, and you will find dozens of recipes for it, all pretty much the same. I’m not sure where ours came from, but I think it was from a girl called Maureen who knew what to do with a cake. The olive oil in the recipe supplies moistness and acts differently from butter in a cake. Butter, when it is beaten with sugar, forms tiny air bubbles that expand with leavening. With no air bubbles from oil, you need a little more leavening. The technical sciency explanation is that oil coats the flour proteins and reduces gluten formation, which makes the cake tender.

Makes 1 8-inch layer cake

2 cups all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

1 3/4 cups sugar

1 cup neutral-tasting olive oil 

4 eggs

Finely grated zest of 1 orange

3 cups grated, raw carrots

1 cup chopped pecans, toasted

3/4 cup raisins

Whole pecans for garnish

1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees F. Butter two 8-inch round cake pans and coat them with flour, tapping out the excess. Line the bottom of the pans with circles of parchment paper.(Or butter a 9 by 13-inch baking pan and bake for 40 to 45 minutes. Ice (or not) and cut in squares.)

2. Whisk the flour, baking powder, cinnamon, baking soda, salt and cloves together in a bowl.

3. Whisk the sugar and olive oil together in a large mixing bowl. Whisk in the eggs and orange zest. Stir in the dry ingredients with a rubber spatula and mix gently until evenly blended. Stir in the carrots, pecans and raisins and mix well. Divide the batter between the prepared pans and bake for 45 to 50 minutes, until a toothpick poked into the center of the cake emerges clean.

4. Allow the cakes to cool for 10 minutes in the pan. Turn them out on a rack, peel off the paper and leave until completely cool before icing.

Cream cheese icing

12 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature

3 ounces (3/4 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature

3 cups confectioner’s sugar, sifted if lumpy

Pinch of salt

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

1. Use hand-held electric beaters, the paddle attachment of a stand mixer, or a wooden spoon to beat the cream cheese and butter until smooth and creamy in a large mixing bowl. Add the confectioner’s sugar and vanilla and beat until smooth and creamy.

To finish the cake

1. Place one cake layer upside down on a large serving plate. Place four 2-inch wide strips of waxed paper under and around the edge of the cake (to keep the plate clean.) Brush away any loose crumbs. Spread about 1/3 cup of icing over the top of the cake and place the second cake layer, right side up, on top of it. Cover the top of the cake with more icing; then cover the sides. Decorate with whole pecans. Remove strips.

How to toast nuts: Heat the oven to 350 degrees and spread the nuts in one layer on a baking sheet. Toast for 5 to 7 minutes, until fragrant.

You might also like Carrot cake with coconut, walnuts and pineapple   (Simply Recipes)

Carrot cake with whole wheat and bananas   (101 Cookbooks)