Carrot cake carries a lot of baggage. Thirty years after it appeared in every stripped-pine health-food cafe in the land, it still comes with a side order of sandals, beard, dungarees and, whisper it, the Guardian. None of which is a bad thing (well, apart from the dungarees), but it is hard to think of any recipe so entrenched in a certain time and lifestyle.
At its best, it is a good cake, too. Packed with nuts and cinnamon, open textured and wholesome, it is decadent, with a thick layer of sweet frosting and crunchy walnuts, and a surprisingly high calorie content. It is amusing the way it still carries a notion of healthy eating, despite the fact that this recipe is about as 'healthy' as a triple-decker choc-nut layer cake. Still, if a handful of grated carrot between eight makes you feel superior to someone eating sachertorte mit schlag, then fine.
If you were to grab this cake and drag it into the 21st century, there is little you could do to improve it. At its best (freshly baked and moist), it deserves to be in every patisserie. I have tried to make it lighter and succeeded, but I failed to make it any healthier. I have dumped the tin of pineapple that pops up in recipe after recipe. I have updated the topping, too, to get rid of the butter and introduce mascarpone, which absolves the cake of its 'buttercream' topping without bowing to the health police. I have also splashed out on the walnuts. Having said that, my recipe is not a world away from the traditional versions, because if it was it wouldn't be carrot cake. However, it is exceptionally moist and keeps for a good few days.
Sometimes, you wonder if the carrots really matter that much. Beetroot cake sounds weird, but it is a possible alternative, as are parsnips. The root vegetables are there to add texture rather than flavour, and to open up the 'crumb'. They are, I suspect, also present to allow us to pretend we aren't really eating a fat slice of gateau.
The most sublime version I have eaten was not in any health-food cafe or even in a garden centre (the current hiding place of this Seventies treat), but at a London bakery called Baker & Spice. Their cake is deep, thick and moist. And if it comes with an Eaton Square price tag that is because it is very good and in a very expensive part of town.
This bird has flown a long way and is not, as I have always assumed, a leftover from the flower-power era, but one that dates back to wartime, when butter was rationed and carrots were dug from everyone's back garden. The icky topping was added later, no doubt to distance the recipe from its ration-book connotations. Quite when the pineapple crept in I don't know, but I am pretty certain it was principally there to keep it moist for days while it sat between the vegetable samosas and the red bean and sweetcorn salad. Then again, there was a time in the Sixties when some people added pineapple to everything.
This is just one of what I call the 'lost cakes', those that we have abandoned in favour of the ubiquitous chocolate truffle cake. A quick roll call will include Battenburg, Madeira, poppy-seed, pound cake and, perhaps the most forgotten of all, seed cake. All of these teatime treats deserve an outing now and again, not just because they are delicious when well made, but maybe for their instant ability to transport us, tardis like, to another time and place. Even if that place does have a distinct whiff of patchouli oil.
Carrot cake with mascarpone and orange frosting
250g self-raising flour
half a tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp ground cinnamon
pinch of salt
200ml sunflower oil
250g light muscovado sugar
juice of half a lemon
For the frosting:
200g Philadelphia cream cheese
150g unrefined icing sugar
zest of a medium orange
a handful of walnut halves
Set the oven at 180C/Gas 4. Butter two 22cm cake tins and line each with a disc of baking parchment.
Sift together the flour, bicarbonate of soda, baking powder, cinnamon and salt. Beat the oil and sugar in a mixer until well creamed, then introduce the beaten egg yolks one by one, reserving the whites for later. Grate the carrots into the mixture, then add the lemon juice. Roughly chop the walnuts and add them. Fold the flour and spices into the mixture with the machine on slow. Beat the egg whites till light and stiff, then fold tenderly into the mixture with a large metal spoon (a wooden one will knock the air out).
Divide the mixture between the cake tins, smooth and bake for 40-45 minutes. Test with a skewer. The cake should be moist, but not sticky. Leave to settle for 10 minutes, then turn on to a wire cooling rack.
To make the frosting
Put the icing sugar, mascarpone and Philadelphia into the bowl of an electric mixer. Beat till smooth and creamy. Mix in the orange zest.
When the cake is cool, sandwich the halves together with about a third of the frosting. Use the rest to cover the top and sides. A rough finish will look appropriate. Cover with walnut halves.
To store The cake will keep for several days in the fridge, wrapped tightly in clingfilm, but bring it to room temperature before eating.
Variations For a beetroot version, use the same quantity of peeled, raw beets. Many people like to add sultanas. For this recipe you need 75g. Swap the walnuts for the same quantity of pecans if you wish.
An alternative classic frosting
This classic frosting tends to set a little more firmly than the one above. Avoid refrigerating it if you can.
250g cream cheese
250g unrefined icing sugar
half a tspn vanilla extract
Make sure the butter is at room temperature. Beat the cream cheese and butter until smooth, then gradually add the icing sugar and vanilla extract. Beat till light and fluffy. Use to fill and cover the cake, then top with walnuts or pecans as you wish.