There are recipes that every family keeps close to their hearts. Sometimes they are the source of mystery and intrigue, the ingredients closely guarded, the procedure taking days. "I heard she stirs counterclockwise for hours without stopping," someone might whisper at the table. Then there are recipes that just slip themselves into your lives and acquire the comfort of a well- worn tee-shirt. They may not be complicated but the smell wafting from the kitchen is the smell of home. This is one of those recipes.
The year I was born, Gourmet Magazine published a feature for a children’s birthday party, which included little croque-monsieur sandwiches and a carrot cake topped with marzipan bunnies. My mother saved the article and for my birthday party she made the carrot cake, 3 layers sandwiched with apricot preserves and covered in cream cheese frosting. She even crafted little bunnies to sit on top of the cake with tufts of carrot tops for grass, and marzipan carrots to go around the sides. The cake was such a hit, she made it the next year, and the year after that, and after that...
For my entire life I have celebrated my birthday with the same exact cake. Ok, well, there was one year when I was about eight and insisted on an ice cream cake, but that was only a temporary moment of rebellion. I am, after-all, a creature of habit. When I went away to camp for the first time, my mother made sure a carrot cake was delivered to my dormitory. After scouring Beirut bakeries for days, I conceded carrot cake was unheard of in the Middle East and attempted to make my own in a very tiny kitchen with a broken oven. These days I make my own birthday cake and even though I am way too old for a cake decorated with small animals, I still make them if I have the time, resulting in many late nights sculpting marzipan and some funny reactions from friends. However, if you make fun of my cake, you may not get any, and then you will be very sorry.
The folded, stained issue of Gourmet is a testament to the strength of the recipe (it's also a prized possession, since Gourmet's online archives don't go back that far). Despite my fiddling with the measurements, I still make it generally as written, at this point I know it by heart. Everyone has their own idea of what carrot cake should be, but for me, this is it. Chock full of carrots (a full 4 cups), absolutely no pineapple or raisins. The cream cheese frosting recipe always makes too much but I make the whole amount everytime, and steal spoonfulls from the fridge all week. Hey, it’s my birthday after all. This year, here I am once again, grating carrots, stirring batter, the smell of warm cinnamon reminding me of the inevitable passing of years. So here’s to twenty-ahem years and counting, may there be many more bunny-topped cakes to come.
Carrot Cake for Birthdays
I've had this exact cake for my birthday for almost every year of my entire life, if that isn't tried and true than I don't know what is. My mom always used carrots with their tops still on because she said they were fresher and the carrot tops could be used as garnish, but I'll admit I just use regular carrots as long as they are fresh. And yes, I still sculpt the marzipan bunnies, too. Adapted from Gourmet.
2 cups flour
2 cups sugar (I prefer brown, but white sugar is fine)
2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp each cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg
1/4 tsp cloves
1/4 tsp salt
1 cup vegetable oil
4 cups grated carrots
1/2 cup walnuts, optional (I never include them, but if you want to...)
1/2 cup apricot jam
cream cheese frosting (recipe follows)
marzipan and food coloring for bunnies, if desired
1. For the cake layers: Preheat the oven to 350 F. Line 3 eight-inch round pans with wax paper, grease and flour the pans.
2. Sift together the flour, sugar, baking soda, spices, and salt. In a large bowl, beat the eggs until frothy, then add the oil in a stream, beating to combine. Gradually stir in the flour mixture just to combine. Fold in the carrots.
3. Divide the batter between the 3 prepared pans, bake for 25-30 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean. Let cool in pans for 10 minutes, then invert onto a rack to cool completely.
4. To assemble: Peel the wax paper away from the bottom of the cake layers. Place 1 cake layer on a platter and spread with half the apricot jam. Top with a second layer, and spread that with the remaining jam. Top with the final cake layer. Frost the top and sides of the cake with cream cheese frosting. If desired, sculpt bunnies and carrots out of marzipan. Arrange bunnies around top of cake, with carrot tops as grass, and place carrots around side of cake.
Cream Cheese Frosting
Some of the best stuff on earth. Using cold cream cheese and softened butter prevents any lumps.
1 lb cream cheese, cold
1 stick (8 tbl) butter, softened
4 cups confectioners sugar, sifted
2 tsp vanilla
1. With an eletric mixer, beat together the cream cheese, butter, and vanilla until smooth and combined. Add the powdered sugar in 3 additions, beating only until sugar is incorporated (do not overbeat). Store in the refrigerator.
*Alterations: Over the years I fiddled with this recipe many times and if you're watching your calories I have found it is plenty moist with only 3/4 cup oil and with the sugar reduced by 1/4 cup; also whole wheat pastry flour does very well.