Wherever I go travelling, if my chosen coffee shop serves carrot cake, you can be sure I’ll return. With it’s delicious lemon tangy topping, this moist cake is irresistible.
Sometimes, though rarely, I get fed up with the confines of my writing room and head out to a local coffee shop to spend a solitary hour or two over a couple of cups of coffee, pondering the next recipe for my latest blog, or currently, the final touches to my new eBook.
I’ve never quite understood the business rationale whereby coffee shop owners allow us patrons to use their space as an office, while stretching a single coffee over hours. I try to be fair and consume my portion of coffee and cake, and if the place is really busy, I move on, mostly because I find it hard to concentrate among the noise and bustle. Frequently, I see other patrons sitting for hours over an empty cup with nary a glance from the staff. Normally, this doesn’t bother me (much!), but when space is limited and someone is hogging a prime corner, leaving me to stand while drinking my coffee, or when they shout into their mobile on conference calls, then I fume at their thoughtlessness.
A newsletter from a dining society that is gracious enough to have me as a member, gave me a clue as to the pervasive nature of this selfish habit. Back in the mid 1600s, a London coffee house proprietor concluded that too many people were turning up simply to read the shop’s free newspapers, he decided to charge people a regular fee. The gentlemen’s club was born.
Pall Mall and St James’s Street were the beating heart of London’s clubland, with White’s known as the first and oldest surviving members’ club in the city, opening its doors in 1693. Boodle’s, just a block away from The Ritz, dates back to 1792. I have dined there splendidly with my fellows. It was founded by the prime minister of the day and perhaps named for his butler. Nearby in Mayfair, very close to Claridge’s Hotel, the Savile Club was established in 1868 by a group of the most distinguished writers and artists of the time. I was a guest there last year. Suffice to say, one can read all the right newspapers free of charge and never a laptop or cell phone will be seen to disturb the members peace.
As far as I know, none of them serve carrot cake with afternoon coffee, so I digress. But my second favourite coffee shop in Toronto is one of the local Balzac’s chain, whose carrot cake is sublime. Costa, the second largest coffeehouse chain in the world, and the largest in the UK, is a creature of a quite different nature. I would say they are more downmarket even than Starbucks, and many of their shops are noisy and cluttered. But the one saving grace used to be their carrot cake, crusted with walnuts and topped with a delicious icing. In some of their shops with a patio, I have been known to linger with my laptop, and benefitting from the sugar rush of my cake, I feel I have written some brilliant lines. I may have to forgo this pleasure on this UK trip, for the latest check on their menu shows that carrot cake is not longer a regular offering.
Carrot cake’s origins are obscure, but there’s an English recipe for ‘pudding in a carret [sic] root’ from a book published in 1591. Since carrots are sweet, they may have been used as a substitute for sugar, beyond the purse of most peasants of the day. Louis XVI’s former chef included a recipe for ‘gâteau de carottes’ in a book which reached England in translation in 1824. Another recipe from the same period comes from a Swiss housekeeping school in Kaiseraugst, near Basle. According to the Culinary Heritage of Switzerland, an online encyclopedia, it is still one of the most popular cakes in the Alpine country, especially for children’s birthdays. In the UK, carrot cake became popular again when sugar was rationed in WWII. It’s still as popular today.
- 14 oz / 400 g cake and pastry flour (all purpose flour in US)
- 2 tsp baking soda (bicarbonate of soda)
- 1lb 4oz / 550 g granulated sugar
- 5 large eggs
- 16 fl oz / 450 ml canola oil
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 2 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
- 1/2 lemon zest, grated
- 1 lb 3 oz / 525 g carrots, grated
- 5 1/2 oz / 150 g shelled walnuts, chopped
- Vegetable spray
- 24 oz / 700 g soft cream cheese
- 1 cup butter, unsalted, very soft
- 14 oz / 400 g / 2 3/4 cups icing sugar
- 1 tsp lemon zest, grated
- 1 1/2 TBSP lemon juice
- 1 TBSP vanilla extract
Preparation and cooking
- Preheat the oven to 355°F / 180°C. Spray the inside of a 10 in springform cake tin with vegetable spray. If you think your cake might stick to the sides, line the tin with a vertical strip of cooking parchment, to just stick above the rim.
- Prepare all the ingredients for the cake. Peel and grate the carrots. Chop the walnuts. Set these two ingredients aside.
- Put the flour, sugar, salt and baking soda into a bowl and mix the dry ingredients. Then break in the eggs one by one, mixing all the time. Add the vegetable oil and mix together until you have a smooth batter. Add the flavourings and mix in. Then stir in the carrots handful by handful and half the walnuts until they are thoroughly integrated. Spoon the mixture into the cake tin.
- Bake for 75 mins, or until a wooden toothpick inserted into the middle comes out clean. Remove the cake from the oven and set aside to cool for 30 minutes, then carefully remove the cake from the tin and set aside to finish cooling on a wire rack.
- Prepare the icing. Using a blender, beat the butter and icing sugar in a bowl until well mixed. Add the cream cheese little by little. Then add the flavourings and beat in.
- Spread the icing over the top of the cake with a flexible spatula. If you like, you can extend the icing around the sides, though more thinly than on the top. Decorate with the other half of the chopped walnuts. Best served at room temperature. The cake will keep, covered, in the fridge for up to 5 days.
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This is Nigel’s 289th blog on Gentleman’s Portion. The SEARCH function at the top works really well, if you want to look back and see some of his previous stories. Here is the link to Market to Table: The Cookbook, a bargain at $11.50. The link to Gentleman’s Portion: The Cookbook is now live, even better priced at $9.99 or £9.99.
Categories: Simply food