There are three carrot cakes in my memories.
I ordered the first carrot cake with a broken English more than ten years ago. It was Summer 2002, it was my first holiday abroad with friends, a quiet August carved out from my University exams of July and September. We were four adventurers with backpackers and Ireland was our America. We found ourselves in a remote village on the Dingle Peninsula, I can not remember the name but I clearly remember as it was yesterday a downhill road that sloped down towards the sea, with a double row of colorful houses on both sides. Before taking the bus to reach out hostel we sat in a local cafe, with wooden walls painted in white and a second-hand bookshelf in a corner. I ordered a slice of carrot cake, generous and dense, with a thick layer of lemon cheese frosting. Of that cake I can still taste the warmth of spices, so different from the cakes I was used to, comforting and entrancing.
The second cake was one of my creations. Autumn 2003, a few weeks before my graduation. My best friend Laura and I were going to graduate in a few days. We went to Florence to search for a suitable dress for the great occasion, the last thing to do before the big day. In a crowded city bus I took out a plastic tupperware from my bag with a few squares of walnut and carrot cake, which I had prepared the day before. That cake had the taste of achieved goals and friendship, it was thick and moist, it made me travel through time and space back to put Ireland holiday.
The third carrot cake marks my first trip alone to London. It was Fall 2008. I wandered with dreamy eyes in Notting Hill listening to the film soundtrack. I entered humming a song into a bookstore, which then became my favourite bookstore in London, Books for Cooks, I bought more books and magazines than you could actually tuck into my suitcase and ordered a slice of carrot cake. I sat on the back at a tiny table and I savoured my cake and my independence slowly.
Of that cake I remember the bits of dried apricot that dotted the moist crumb and the delicate sweetness of carrots, juicy and fresh. I remember with sharp details that moment because that was a moment of conquest, my English was improving from the first carrot cake ordered, I felt comfortable in my shoes, I was proud of myself for those two days when I could visit London all by myself.
Now there is a fourth carrot cake. The official reason I baked this cake is that I was searching for a new recipe to use Ventura almonds, but it actually summarizes all my memories of the previous three cakes, bringing the warmth of spices, the rich and moist texture given by nuts, the sweetness of the candied fruit, orange instead of apricot. Almonds give body to the cake, they blend perfectly with the sweet and delicate taste of carrots and make it rich and fragrant. The recipe is based on a traditional carrot cake from the North of Italy which I found on this book, La cucina trentina. I completely renew the look and feel of the cake adding warm spices, vegetable oil, candied orange peel and spelt flour.
The frosting is quite unusual and I am shamelessly proud of it. The night before make a good amount of labneh, a kind of cheese which is obtained by adding a pinch of salt to the yogurt and leaving it to drain overnight. It has Middle Eastern origin, it is usually shaped into balls and seasoned with olive oil and spices. I’ve eaten it alone, on a warm Arabic bread, with hummus… then I finally realized I could bring to the sweet side, and I added a tablespoon of icing sugar, lemon zest and vanilla essence. It is finally a wholesome cake frosting with a pronounced yogurt taste. What’s not to love in it?
- 4 eggs
- 150 g of raw cane sugar
- 250 g of carrots pealed and finely grated
- 75 ml of vegetable oil
- 100 g of blanched almonds ground
- 100 g of spelt flour
- 15 g of baking powder
- 1 teaspoon of orange powder or grated zest of an organic orange
- ½ teaspoon of grated nutmeg
- ¼ teaspoon of salt
- 50 g of blanched almonds chopped
- 50 g candied orange peel diced
- 800 g of whole yogurt
- ½ teaspoon of salt
- 1 heaping tablespoon of icing sugar
- Grated zest of one lemon
- ½ teaspoon vanilla essence
- 50 g of candied orange peel
- 50 g of shelled almonds
- Mint or lemon verbena leaves to decorate
Start the day before and make labneh to frost the cake. Stir salt into yogurt and then pour it into a colander, previously lined with two layers of cheesecloth. Stash it in the fridge until the next day to drain over a bowl.
Now it's time to bake the cake. Preheat oven to 180°C. Beat the egg yolks with the sugar, then add the finely grated carrots and the vegetable oil. Sieve the spelt flour with the ground blanched almonds, baking powder, orange powder, nutmeg and salt and fold into the beaten eggs.
Mix in the chopped blanched almonds and the diced candied orange peel.
Whip the egg whites until firm and gently fold into the cake batter.
Grease and dust with flour two 24 cm round spring form cake pan. Divide the batter evenly and bake for about 30 minutes until golden.
Remove the cakes from the pan, let cool and make the frosting. Whip the drained labneh with icing sugar, lemon zest and vanilla essence, then spread generously half of it in between the two cakes and half over the cake. Decorate with shelled almonds, candied orange zest and a few leaves of fresh lemon verbena. Leave it in the fridge for a few hours before serving.
The next time I’ll try a different frosting, a decadent chocolate spread, maybe next Autumn. A pinch of cinnamon along with the nutmeg, ground almonds and almond flakes as decoration. You can also try to make this cake gluten-free by substituting spelt flour with potato starch or cornstarch. I will try this version soon, I think it will come out just as soft.
I will leave you with some links to read and I’m going to lock myself in the kitchen, cooking for my birthday picnic which will be on Sunday. But you’ll probably hear more about it soon.
- A gluten-free carrot cake from Venice, apparently the city which gave birth to the cake. A Nigella’s recipe for BBC Good Food. This modest disc is not much to look at – apart from a glorious golden-ness – but it is divine to eat.
- How to make home-made labneh by Dirty Kitchen Secrets. Who’s better than Bethany to show you the little secrets?
- My favourite bookstore in London, Books for Cooks, Notting Hill’s famous cookbook shop, crammed with thousands of tasty titles and equipped with a squashy sofa for cookbook junkies in need of a long read. Cookbooks are put to the test in their café at the back of the shop, while cookery classes take place in the demonstration kitchen upstairs.