Gardening and baking are quixotic hobbies. Both involve set ingredients with multiple variables that mean things can go horribly wrong. The gardener’s refrain is “You should have seen it last week”, usually to a visitor who has just missed the best show the roses have ever given before they go over. The baker’s refrain is “The last one I made came out perfectly”. And so it is with my first blogged item in a while – Dan Lepard’s Carrot, Orange and Pistachio cake, which I have renamed the Levantine Carrot Cake. It is the most cherished one’s favourite cake and well worth making.
The reason for my rename will become clear later on. The use of the baker’s refrain in this instance is because this cake is an old staple and frustratingly I made one earlier in the week for a raffle which came out beautifully, whereas this one has a few flaws. The silver lining ? I can warn you against them! Fortunately I found an old picture of one I made a few years ago (and my challenge to you is to spot which one is which), so you can see what a lovely one comes out like.
So why the Levantine rename? Well Dan Lepard has pimped up the standard carrot cake recipe by adding some classic middle eastern ingredients – tahini, pistachios and pomegranate molasses. The tahini and molasses used to be hard to come by but once Yotam Ottolenghi made Middle Eastern cuisine so fashionable they are now available in most supermarkets, including our local Morrisons which frankly is a miracle given how awful it is for so many other things. Dan offers black treacle as an alternative to Ponegranate Molasses – but don’t go there. The pomegranate flavour add a special edge and the tahini contributes a nutty tang to the cake that make it little bit different to a normal carrot cake. So special in fact that when I entered one in the village show carrot cake section it was dismissed by the Women’s Institute judge as “Not a quite a proper carrot cake” – resulting in second prize only. Pffftttt ….. ignore her my dears. This is a must try for anyone who likes carrot cake but fancies a change.
Now normally this is where I go into some historical context on the cake, so here goes.
Carrots used in puddings have been around a while as they are very sweet (they contain more sugar than apples) which makes them an ideal ingredient for a pudding. There are medieval records of various puddings and the Arabs and Indians have a version of carrot halva which is delicious.
A cake version can be found in 18th and 19th century cook books which usually involve boiling and pureeing the carrots first which I can’t say sounds very pleasant. The first recognisable recipe appears in 1926 though there is some evidence it originally comes from the Central European baking tradition via the jewish emigration to America from Eastern Europe.
It is said that it became popular in the UK during World War 2 courtesy of food shortages and rationing. The Ministry of Food (which sounds almost stalinist to modern ears) was very keen on carrots as a sweet and nutrient rich ingredient to many recipes. You can find their leaflets here. There is also a great list of wartime recipes here, including one for Carrot Scones which might be worth trying one day. The National Trust also published this recipe which just shows how careful you had to be on the ration when you compare it to my luxurious beast!
The modern popularity seems to date from the 70’s where it was seen as a healthy alternative to normal cake. I suspect this was part of the whole rediscovery of whole foods at the time. Wholemeal bread, which was despised and abandoned as a ration food after the war (they called it the “national loaf”at the time), was making a come back in the 70’s as well. Interestingly that is when I first came across it in a school recipe book when I was at the International School in Hamburg – courtesy of an American parent. I didn’t try it then because the recipe was all in American cups, but I am sure I could find the book in my mother’s bookcase given she never throws anything away (that war theme is coming back again!) to see if it is any good.
So what are the danger points of this is cake?
- It is a very wet mixture and you need to err on the side of over baking or else the end result is a quite claggy sponge. I have achieved that a few times unfortunately.
- Also for some reason cream cheese frosting seems to be flummoxing me at the moment either making it with the ingredients too cold resulting in lumps or too warm resulting in the ooze I have tried to disguise here by artful photography.
Cream cheese frosting is trickier to get right than it seems.
- you need the butter softened or else it will form lumps
- ….but not too softened or else the mixture will split
- the cream cheese needs to be full fat and firm, and the same temperature as the butter or else the mixture will form lumps or split
- if the final whipped product is too soft you will get an ooze as you ice the cake, so if you think it is too soft before icing, pop it into the fridge for 30 minutes to help it set a little.
Otherwise it is quite a simple cake. There are quite a few ingredients which take time to assemble, and you need to whisk egg whites for folding at the end to add lightness to the sponge. Last but not least it helps if you don’t forget to add some vital ingredients as I did once when I noticed the big bowl of grated carrots on the worktop just as all the tins had gone into the oven (fortunately a rescue operation was quickly executed otherwise we would have had carrot cake without the carrots!).
- three 8 inch victoria sandwich tins
For the cake
- 75g tahini (avoid putting any of the oil in as this has a very over powering flavour)
- 125ml sunflower oil
- 3 tbsp pomegranate molasses
- zest of 3 oranges
- 225g light soft brown sugar
- 3 medium eggs
- 200g grated carrots
- 100g chopped pistachios (hold some back for decorating)
- 175g plain flour
- 2 1/2 tsp baking powder
- 1/2 tsp ground cloves
- 1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
For the cream cheese frosting
- 400g full fat cream cheese
- 200g softened unsalted butter
- finely grated zest of 1 lemon
- juice of 1 lemon
- 200g icing sugar
- heat the oven to 180C/160C fan
- line the bottom of the sandwich tins
- whisk the tahini, oil, molasses, sugar, and orange zest together until smooth
- separate 2 of the eggs setting the egg white aside
- whisk the egg and egg yolks into the sugar and oil mixture
- stir in the carrots and pistachios
- sift the flour, spices and baking powder together and stir into the main mixture
- whisk the egg whites until stiff and fold carefully into the mixture
- divide the mixture evenly into the 3 tins (I weigh them!)
- bake for 30 to 35 minutes (Dan Lepard says 25 to 30 but I think it needs longer)
- allow to cool in the tins
The cream cheese frosting
- combine the butter, half of the cream cheese frosting, lemon zest and sugar and beat until it is smooth
- add the remaining cream cheese and whisk until light and fluffy
- add half the lemon juice and check the taste, then add the remainder to taste and whisk in
- divide the cream cheese frosting into 3
- assemble the layers
- chop some pistachios and sprinkle on the top of the cake,
- using a zester get some strips of orange and arrange artfully on the top
Put the cake back in the fridge for an hour at least to allow the frosting to set.