Cutting no Corners, the evolution of Carrot Cake from ‘war cake’ to ‘health food’, and secret geometry of Dick’s Carrot Cake.
The 1970’s was an entirely different decade on the Oregon coast. A time when more boats than cars were common in the coastal towns, where residents spent their days fishing and milling lumber. Where, after finishing their shifts, people gathered at the tavern to quietly contemplate their drinks. Though seldom and short, conversations would reference the exploding whale, fuel rationing, or the latest tourist from out of state, reaching for the pump handle as if to fill their own fuel tank. The odd sight of buckskin-clad, long-haired youth, spilling forth from Volkswagens, led to bewildered stares, and open-mouth amazement. Indeed, many younger people of the time introduced interesting notions of diet and behavior, as they sought change, and enlightenment. Interest in ‘health food’ was a new passion for these seekers, and by the end of the decade, vegetarian restaurants became less of an anomaly at the coast. Carrot cake, once considered a rich dessert, was now health food, just by virtue of its carrot contents. The people of the coast, in their frequent reveries of contemplation, would ask the difficult questions, such as, “How did carrot come to be an ingredient in cake?” and, “Why is carrot cake so delicious with cream cheese frosting?” Indeed the questions persist to this day, “Why does LifeSource have such an abundance of deliciousness, and who is the humble guardian of that amazing carrot cake recipe?” Asking these questions may lead us on an oddly winding path of discovery, yet will reveal only so much about the carefully guarded secret carrot cake recipe we all enjoy so much.
Early Morning Blues
At 2:00 am, dreams of vegetarian food were punctuated by the last notes of an elongated guitar solo, as it echoed forth from the neighboring tavern. Dick Grasmick, an ambitious young cook, arose from his slumber and began preparing for his morning shift at the vegetarian restaurant in Astoria Oregon. Honing his skills to cater to the new crowd of health-minded diners, Dick was always in search of new, healthy ways to prepare their beloved vegetables.
One evening, while dining with a friend’s family, Dick was presented with a slice of carrot cake to top off the meal. Dick recalls the aroma of the carrot cake was so delicious, he was immediately compelled to taste a bite. Knowing something this tempting was pure baker’s gold, Dick asked for the recipe. Though a treasured family recipe may seldom be shared, his friend’s mother decided to entrust the secret to Dick’s care. As we will learn, he has proven a worthy guardian. To this day, Dick’s carrot cake with cream cheese topping remains one of his most popular baked goods. There is an extra secret, known to few, that elevate certain cuts of the carrot cake to even higher desirability, but before it is revealed, let us discover the origins of such carrot-containing confections.
Humans have probably foraged wild carrots since before history, but the earliest known cultivation of carrots began in ancient Persia, as people cultivated the carrot leaves as food. These original carrots were not like the carrots of today, with only a thin white root, that was generally discarded. It is speculated that carrots were more likely used as medicine than food until humans began selecting plants with larger roots to cultivate. The name ‘Karota’ was mentioned in Greek literature, and ‘Karoton’ used to describe a more desirable form with larger roots. By this time, humans had been growing garden carrots, with larger and more colorful roots, for several hundred years. A drawing in the Juliana Anicia Codex, in the year 512 CE, shows a plant that we would recognize as a carrot today. The long, root was described as sweet-smelling, and edible when boiled. It becomes more apparent that the sweetness of the carrot was a significant factor in the plants widespread cultivation. Viking recipes call for the addition of carrots to chicken-beer stew, and even describe a sweet and rich combination of carrots, milk, eggs, honey, butter, and nutmeg, poured over bread crumbs, and oven-baked until firm, and brown. The result sounds very similar to a modern carrot cake and may be the first mention of use of carrot in an egg custard, or pudding. The word, cake had not yet been used to describe a sweet bread, but mention of carrot pudding in recipes became more prominent after the Viking era.
In A Booke of Cookrye (1591) there are instructions, “To Make a Pudding in a Carret root.”
Take your Carret root and scrape it fair, then take a fine knife and cut out all the meat that is within the roote, and make it hollow, then make your pudding stuffe of the liver of a gooce or of a Pig, with grated bread, Corance, Cloves and mace, Dates, Pepper, Salt and Sugar, chop your Liver very small, and perboile it ere you chop it, so doon, put it in your hollow root. As for the broth, take mutton broth with corance, carets sliste, salt, whole Mace, sweet Butter, Vergious and grated bread, and so serve it forth upon sippets.”
These puddings are mostly based on incorporating organ meats, but a trend toward sweeter, breads and cakes begins to become evident in later recipes:
“Acetaria: A Discourse of Sallets” – John Evelyn 1699
“26. Pudding of Carrot. Pare off some of the Crust of Manchet-Bread, and grate of half as much of the rest as there is of the Root, which must also be grated: Then take half a Pint of fresh Cream or New Milk, half a Pound of fresh Butter, six new laid Eggs (taking out three of the Whites) mash and mingle them well with the Cream and Butter: Then put in the grated Bread and Carrot, with near half a Pound of Sugar; and a little Salt; some grated Nutmeg and beaten Spice; and pour all into a convenient Dish or Pan, butter’d, to keep the Ingredients from sticking and burning; set it in a quick Oven for about an Hour, and so have you a Composition for any Root-Pudding.”
“Let them eat Kage”
The word, Cake is Scandinavian in origin, from Danish ‘Kage’ and Swedish, ‘Kaka,’ the word made its way into the English language as a term descriptive of shape rather than ingredients. “Cake” referred to any little lump of cooked dough. Gradually, as sugar became more prominent in the recipe, Cake began to refer to sweetened dough. With the addition of icing, comprised of butter and sugar, popularity of sweetened Cake followed the growing availability, of sugarcane grown by the colonies in the mid 1700’s.
From the 1699 recipe above, the origin of modern carrot cake becomes clear; carrots, milk, cream, butter, eggs, spices, and plenty of sugar, combined with bread and cooked in an oven, then 50 years later, glazed with another layer of butter and sugar, the modern carrot cake was born.
In her New York Cookbook (1992), Molly O’Neill mentions an occasion when George Washington was served a carrot tea cake at Fraunces Tavern in lower Manhattan. The date: November 25, 1783. The occasion: British Evacuation Day.
O’Neill offers an adaptation of that early recipe, which was printed in The Thirteen Colonies Cookbook (1975) by Mary Donovan, Amy Hatrack, and Frances Schull. It is quite close to the carrot cakes of today.
“George Washington’s Carrot Tea Cake”
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 Tbsp ground cinnamon
- 2 tsp baking soda
- 1 tsp salt
- 3/4 cup vegetable oil
- 2 cups sugar
- 4 eggs
- 2 cups grated carrots
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
- Spray a Bundt pan with cooking spray.
- In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, cinnamon, baking soda and salt.
- In a large bowl, combine the oil, sugar, eggs and carrots, and mix well.
- Add the flour mixture and stir until smooth.
- Pour the batter into the prepared pan.
- Bake until a tester comes out clean, about 1 hour.
- Cool in the pan 2 minutes, then turn the cake out onto a rack to finish cooling.”
In the Oxford Companion to Food, writer Alan Davidson believes that carrots were used in Europe to make sweet cakes. These were a predecessor to the carrot cake. Because sweeteners were rationed during the Second World War carrot pudding was seen as an alternative in the UK. Later on, carrot cake was seen as a ‘health food’.
Since World War II, there has been an association of carrots to good eyesight. The oft repeated trope holds that carrots are good for night vision, and therefore people associated carrots with eye health. The idea that carrots could improve night vision was a result of strategic British press releases during world war two. The British did not want Germans to discover their new radar technology, so they fabricated the story about British pilots’ acquiring exceptional night vision from their diet of carrots. Do carrots affect vision? Yes, Beta carotene, which gives the red-orange pigment found in carrots, is an anti-oxident, and is converted to Vitamin A inside the body. A lack of vitamin A can cause decrease in night vision ability, however extra vitamin A does not improve already healthy night vision. Yet the perception of carrots as a health food persisted, even decades after the end of the war.
When did cream cheese icing appear? The earliest American print references to frosting carrot cake with cream cheese are from 1960’s Some Eastern European cultures have cream cheese cakes, and it is possible the topping could have developed from this.
Carrot cake began to become very popular in the United States in the 1960’s which coincided with the addition of cream cheese frosting. The substitution of cream cheese for butter in the frosting, meant a thicker frosting layer that didn’t melt away as one enjoyed the cake. Also, cream cheese contains protein and offers more nutritional value than butter alone, while retaining the fat component that provides saitiety as well as aiding the absorption of vitamins, and beta carotene from the color in the carrots. The fats, sugar, and sweet fiber of the carrots makes carrot cake a very satisfying dish.
Carrot cake’s popularity increased even more in the 1970s, being seen as a healthy, whole food at the start of the whole-foods movement.
By this time, Dick had outgrown the town of Astoria, and had been hired to a new position at Willamette University, in Salem. He set out to introduce his carrot cake to the students. He carefully crafted, and blended the ingredients, and poured the now enormous quantity of batter into many baking pans. As he removed the pans from the ovens, Dick could tell by the aroma, that this would be a perfect way to introduce himself to this new audience of eaters. However, upon tasting a nibble, Dick realized he had made a grave omission. Though the cake was somewhat sweet from the carrots, Dick had somehow forgotten to add sugar to the recipe, and the many pans of cake were not at all fit to be presented to the students. Reaching new heights of colorfully expressive language, Dick immediately set about to re-make the recipe correctly, and despite the mistake, he was able to complete the process in time to serve the dessert. As he gazed at the student diners, the smiles of appreciation were ample indication that Dick’s Carrot Cake was a resounding success. So successful was this recipe, that Dick became a legend at the university, and was granted his own parking spot into perpetuity.
After several years in the university kitchen, Dick wanted to seek a less stressful work environment, one in which he could wear a tie-dyed t-shirt that complemented his baker’s apron. Dick had been eyeing a baker position at the newly-remodeled LifeSource Deli kitchen, but once the university learned of his imminent departure, they did their best to persuade him to remain, not leave, stay, or at very least, share his carrot cake recipe. The begging, pleading, and tears were difficult to ignore, but the attempts to glue Dick’s sneakers to the kitchen floor were thwarted by the ample layer of flour he had liberally applied to his shoes throughout his tenure as baker. Employing the latest techniques in espionage, other cooks at the university tried to peer over Dick’s shoulder at the recipe, only to discover that Dick had committed the recipe to memory, and would leave no trace of documentation. Upon his departure, a great cloud of gloom descended upon the students, and it was only lifted when Dick revealed he would continue baking the carrot cake at LifeSource. To this day, the legend continues in the appreciative whispers of the students, though they now must venture out of the dorms to obtain their beloved carrot cake. Dick has been granted his own parking spot at LifeSource, and now enjoys a luxury known to very few, the option of two different parking spots in Salem.
“An Oil-Based Cake”
When asked about why his particular carrot cake recipe is so good, Dick mentioned it is an oil-based recipe. Basing a cake recipe upon oil shortening instead of butter, has a significant effect on the moisture and crumb of the cake. This excerpt from The Cake Blog, explains in detail:
“Fat in cake plays a diverse set roles; it provides moistness, aeration (leavening), flavor, texture and tenderness.”
“I was pleasantly surprised by the oil cake. I expected it to be moist, which it was; the oil cake was definitely the moistest of all of the cakes. But what I found interesting was that the oil cake was as tall and light as the shortening cake. I had expected the oil cake to be more short and dense since oil doesn’t hold air pockets as well as butter or shortening, but this was not the case. This cake did have a slightly coarser, more open crumb than the butter cake but the texture was by no means unpleasant. I also expected the oil cake to taste flat, yet it had a pleasant neutral vanilla flavor that tasted quite similar to the butter cake.” https://thecakeblog.com/2012/05/is-butter-better.html
When enjoying a slice of Dick’s Carrot Cake, one will notice the large size of the crumb (the individual particles that constitute the cake,) and the ample moisture of the confection. These features are both the result of using oil as shortening.
Enhanced Desirability VS Non-Euclidian Baking Geometries?
A secret shared among certain Dick’s Carrot Cake enthusiasts, is desirability of the pieces of cake cut from the corners of the baking pan. These corner pieces seem to have an extra caramel flavor, and slightly more firm texture than the mid-pan pieces. This secret is possible, only because Dick decided to abandon his original inclination to cut the sides off the carrot cake, a common practice among bakers seeking uniformity. This fortuitous decision meant the corner pieces could easily be identified by the rounded edges, and dedicated fans would now salivate as they eyed the display case in search of the treasured corner slices.
Now that this secret is out, I ask Dick if it is possible to make more corners than the usual four. He looks at me with a raised eyebrow, as if to ask what kind of imaginary, non-Euclidian baking pan I had in mind. It occurs to me this six, eight, or twelve-cornered pan of my imagination, may be as difficult to obtain as Dick’s treasured carrot cake recipe, carefully recessed, tempting yet elusive, in the corners of the mind.