Monday, 6 July 2009

The Oxford carrot cake

Recipes often remind me of the first person I made them for. 

Years ago, I baked a carrot cake --which I think of as an iconic Anglo-Saxon dessert-- for Clemence, my sister's best friend. She had stopped to visit us in London on her way to Oxford, where she was planning to occasionally study and primarily perfect her knowledge of British ales for a few months. Before I sent her off to a shared student house where I had no doubt she would be eating beans on toast for weeks on end, I wanted to show her some good, old-fashioned baking love. She said she felt like something sweet and comforting but I thought a French dessert might strike an inappropriately nostalgic note. What I wanted, you see, was to send her off full of bold, American-style optimism that she would have a smashing time in Oxford. So I settled on a carrot cake.

I remember it requiring more effort than I expected, mostly because of the grating of the carrots (and my knuckles in the process) and the length of the ingredient list. Eager to use up the various spices I had bought specifically for that recipe, I baked the cake a few times in the following months. And then I forgot all about it

That is until my sister, on her recent visit to London, spotted a slice of carrot cake at one of the omnipresent sandwich high-street chains. She examined the packaging carefully, mulling the purchase, and then she absentmindedly mentioned that Clemence still talks about the carrot cake I baked for her years ago.

I cannot exaggerate the thrill her statement provoked. My humble carrot cake, years down the line, still living in the memory of a good friend. What more could a cook ask for? I don’t care about surpassing anyone’s recipe. I cook out of an overwhelming desire to make loved ones feel special. And there was proof, undeniable proof that, sometimes, it works. 

When my sister asked what the carrot cake fuss was all about anyway, I gently pried the cellophane-wrapped slice from her hand and put it back on the shelf. You watch, I said.

For 12 mini carrot cakes or 1 very fat loaf (Use a round pan if you feel like the batter won't fit in the loaf pan)

From Jamie Oliver's Cook with Jamie 

285g (2 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
285g (10 ounces) soft brown sugar
5 large eggs
170g (6 ounces) self-raising flour
1 generous teaspoon baking powder
115g (4 ounces) almond powder (any other kind of nut powder would work well, in particular hazelnut)
115g (4 ounces) shelled walnuts
1 generous teaspoon cinnamon
a pinch of ground nutmeg
1/2 a teaspoon ground ginger
285g (10 ounces) pealed and then coarsely grated carrots
Zest and juice of one orange

115g (4 ounces) mascarpone
225g (8 ounces) full-fat cream cheese
Zest and juice of one organic lemon (better go organic there since you're using the zest)

Preheat the oven at 180 degrees. Beat the butter and the sugar together until the mixture turns pale yellow and fluffy. You can do this by hand or in a food processor, but I have also been known to use my Kitchen Aid mixer although it's not one of its standard uses. Separate your eggs and beat the egg yolks in, one by one, then add the orange zest and the juice. Stir in the flour, baking powder, almond powder and all the spices. Finally add the carrots and the walnuts.

Whisk the egg whites with a pinch of salt until they form glossy white peaks (that is definitely better done with an electric whisk unless you enjoy wrist cramps). Then carefully fold the egg whites into your batter, making figures of eight with a wooden spoon. When the mixture is homogenous, scoop the mixture into your previously buttered tin and cook for roughly 50 minutes for the loaf (more like 30 minutes for mini cakes). turn it out and let it cool for at least 15 minutes on a rack. (otherwise your icing will melt as you spread it)

Get on with the icing. Beat the mascarpone and the cream cheese together until there are no lumps. Add the lemon zest and juice. Spread the icing on your cake (s) using a round knife or a flat wooden spoon. Decorate with walnut halves.

1 comment:

  1. On this chilly July day in London, my tastebuds are yearning for a taste of these!