Saturday, February 6, 2010

A Carrot for Your Sweetheart?

So, Valentine's Day is a week away. What are you getting your sweetheart this year?

Roses are predictable, but a bouquet of unexpected fragrant blossoms of all kinds is special (especially if someone reads into each blooms "hidden meaning"). In a perfect world, a roaring fire and fragrant flowers, candlelight, cheese fondue and cubes of a fresh, crusty loaf of bread (mmm Wave Hill Pain de Campagne...or Bouchon's baguette), and a nice bottle of Napa Cabernet or a Bordeaux would make me a blissfully happy person.

But. what if you want to send your sweetheart some sweets? I personally love chocolate, but it's just so...expected (plus, good chocolate can be hard to find when you don't live in a big city). Plus, when you are trying to stay away from sugar 'cause it just makes you so cranky and tired, something a bit less sweet is much preferred. For those who seek some sweetness with their "healthy" meal, why not settle on something in between? At L'Ecole Friday, we challenged ourselves with this exact dilemma. When we already have a Chocolate Souffle, A Trio of Pot de Cremes, a Caramelized Pineapple and Lemon Tart, and a Pumpkin-Chocolate Cake, what is an appealing special addition for our pre-Valentine's diners? Carrot cake!

I am a huge fan of carrot cake. I love its versatility: bake it in muffin tins for a breakfast treat; in a loaf pan for tea time; in cake pans for standard round layer cakes, or spread it super thin on half-sheet pans for mini layer cakes. Plus, the hearty carrot, raisin, coconut, walnut studded batter lends some "substance" to the batter, tempering the roller coaster the sugar, butter/oil, and white flour sends your blood sugar on. Slathered with a cream cheese frosting (you can vary the sweetness or cheesiness of the spread, depending on your liking -- or when you want to eat your treat!), it is a beautiful combination of sweet and tart, creamy and cakey, sweet, fruity and nutty.

For this dessert, I used Dorie Greenspan's recipe from her BAKING: From My Home to Yours cookbook, and was quite delighted with how it came out. The cake before baking is very much loaded with the carrot/raisin/coconut/walnut addition, but as it bakes, the baking soda and powder help the batter rise right above, resulting in a very moist and flavorful and airy cake. I probably added a little more carrot than she did, and baked the batter in two half-sheet pans (supremely thin!) for about 10-15 minutes in a convection oven at 300 degrees. I also subbed out the lemon in the frosting for vanilla extract. Next time, I would tweak a couple of things - add some more raisins, and cut down on the butter (or increase the cream cheese) in the frosting and DEFINITELY cut down on the amount of confectioners sugar, as this frosting was WAY too sweet for my liking.

Bill's Big Carrot Cake

Yields 1 9" layer cake - 10 servings
For the cake:
2 cups all purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
¾ teaspoon salt
3 cups grated carrots (about 9 medium carrots - I got away with 7 large - you can grate them in food processor fitted w/ a shredding a blade or use a box grater)
1 cup coarsely chopped walnuts or pecans
1 cup shredded coconut (I used sweetened)
½ cup moist, plump raisins (I like dark!)
2 cups sugar
1 cup canola oil
4 large eggs
For the frosting:
8 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
1 stick ( 8 tablespoons) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 pound or 3 and ¾ cups confectioners’ sugar, sifted
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice or ½ teaspoon pure lemon extract
½ cup shredded coconut (optional)
Finely chopped toasted nuts and/or toasted shredded coconut (optional)
Getting ready:
Position the racks to divide the oven into thirds and preheat the oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. Butter three 9-x-2-inch round cake pans, or two 18" x 13" half sheet pans, flour the insides, and tap out the excess. 
Whisk the flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon and salt. In another bowl, stir together the carrots, chopped nuts, coconut, and raisins. Working with a stand mixer, preferably fitted with a paddle attachment, or with a hand mixer in a large bowl, beat the sugar and oil together on a medium speed until smooth. Add the eggs one by one and continue to beat until the batter is even smoother. Reduce the speed to low and add the flour mixture, mixing only until the dry ingredients disappear. Gently mix the chunky ingredients. Divide the batter among the baking pans. Bake for 40-50 minutes, rotating the pans from top to bottom and front to back at the midway point, until a thin knife inserted into the centers comes out clean. The cakes will have just started to come away from the sides of the pans. Transfer the cakes to cooling racks and cool for about 5 minutes, then run a knife around the sides of the cakes and unmold them. Invert and cool to room temperature right side up. The cakes can be wrapped airtight and kept at room temperature overnight or frozen for up to 2 months.
Working with a stand mixer, preferably fitted with a paddle attachment or with a hand mixer in a large bowl, beat the cream cheese and butter together until smooth and creamy. Gradually add the sugar and continue to beat until the frosting is velvety smooth. Beat in the vanilla extract. 
Put one layer top side up on a cardboard cake round or a cake plate protected by strips of wax or parchment paper. Frost the first layer generously. Use an offset spatula or a spoon to smooth the frosting all the way to the edges of the layer. Top with the second layer, this time placing the cake stop side down, and frost with the remainder of the coconut frosting or plain frosting. Top with the last layer, right side up, and frost the top- and the sides- of the cake. Finish the top with swirls of frosting. If you want to top the cake with toasted nuts or coconut, sprinkle them on now while the frosting is soft. Refrigerate the cake for 30 minutes, just to set the frosting before serving.
This cake can be served as soon as the frosting is set. It can also wait, at room temperature and covered with a cake keeper overnight. The cake is best served in thick slices at room temperature. It can also be kept at room temperature for 2 to 3 days. It can also be frozen. Freeze it uncovered, then when it’s firm, wrap airtight and freeze for up to 2 months. Defrost, still wrapped, overnight in the refrigerator.

No comments: