IF dessert drama (not family drama) is your goal this holiday season then Carrot Cake should be your dessert. Everyone is opinionated about this vegetal cake. There are devout haters, purists, accoutrement adders, and ones who have sadly never had a deliciously moist piece of carrot cake. Without fail, there is always a lengthy discussion whenever carrot cake is served.
At the Lehail house, we have a carrot cake tradition. Carrot cake is the go-to dessert for special occasions like birthdays, Christmas, and even when beloved relatives visit. Here’s a fun fact: Usually cakes are named for famous people who like them. Carrot cake is often called a Queen Anne’s cake in England and is named after Queen Anne’s lace, the flower which is in fact a wild carrot.
Our so-called tradition started about twenty-five years ago, when a cousin’s wife, let’s call her Anne (see what I did there?), made carrot cake for a few family functions. Her sheet-style carrot cake fed a huge crowd of carrot cake newbies. It had a delicious cream cheese frosting and toasted walnuts. Anne was a ‘baked goods sharer’, unfortunately she did not divulge her masterful recipe.
My parents raved about it. And when I was old enough to bake they suggested I learn to make carrot cake, just like Anne. No pressure, right? I was unsuccessful for many years. There were carrot cakes that tasted like baking soda (yuck), dry versions, and ones with horrid golden raisins (yeah, what was I thinking?).
The recipes I tried did not work for me. Part of the reason was because they all tasted boring. I realized I craved something with a complex flavour like Gajerala that would be easy to make, easy to love, but not so easy to recognize. Plus, elements of playful surprises in the tangerine coloured batter. To me, the best sweets lately have had a vegetable or fruit as the star ingredient.
Carrots, I believe, can be a fantastic dessert ingredient: they add natural sweetness and moisture. But don’t worry, I am not about to go on a healthy dessert kick here. (It’s the festive season after all). I still think carrot cake mandatorily needs a thick layer of cream cheese frosting.
For those of you that have not eaten Gajerala or Gajar ka Halwa, it is an Indian style carrot confectionary. Gajar (carrots in Punjabi/Hindi) are finely grated and simmered in milk for hours until the carrots and milk mesh into a smooth deliciousness. Naturally sweet and vibrantly coloured from the carrots, rich and sticky from the sweetened milk and almonds and laced with cardamom.
This confectionary takes me right back to my mom and her temple friends working together to create Gajerala for weddings and religious holidays. They would grate the carrots, sauté them in homemade ghee, adding loads of milk and spices and then would stir the mixture every few minutes to ensure it did not burn. Next they would make the Khoa, an icing of sorts that is made with milk, sugar, and a bit of lemon. This like the Gajerala was an arduous process that required time and patience. The process, I suppose, was worth the end-product.
My Ultimate Carrot Cake with Cardamom Icing doesn’t mask the carrot with cream-cheesiness. The vegetable speaks up, which you’ll notice when you see its bright colour. It has the best flavours of Gajerala, with the subtle spice notes. Is moist and rich. The frosting mimics the flavours of Khoa. The best part, there is minimal work involved.
Here’s a few tips: When grating, make sure the carrot shreds are extra fine. You don’t want huge chunks of carrots in your soft piece of cake. I personally, use the food processor to grate my carrots. Carrot cake tastes best the next day after the flavours have settled and have gotten friendly with one another. The Lehail family, especially my brother, will only eat substantially delectable carrot cake with cream cheese frosting when it is COLD, like refridgerator cold. Plus, he requests a huge scoop of pomegranate arils on the side. Confession: When I make it, I eat it for breakfast.
While you’re in the kitchen prepping to bake yummy goodies for the holiday season, try your hand at this carrot cake. This carrot cake is full of flavor and will melt in your mouth, without being mushy. Pinky promise. Be warned: you are going to fall in love with this cake. Coup de foudre and delicious with a cup of steaming chai.
Ultimate Carrot Cake with Cardamom Icing
2 cups granulated sugar
1 1/2 cups vegetable oil
3 eggs or Egg replacer equivalent of 3 eggs, already prepared
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon cardamom
Pinch of ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
2 1/4 cups grated carrots
1 cup chopped walnuts
1 cup raisins
½ cup sweetened grated coconut
½ cup pistachios
Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Prepare two 8-inch round baking pans or one Bundt pan (my current favourite). Beat the sugar, oil, vanilla, and eggs/egg replacer in mixer until it is a light yellow. In a separate bowl sift together flour, spices, baking soda, and salt.
Using a mixer on low speed, slowly add in the dry ingredients. Mix until just combined. Fold in carrots and walnuts. If using optional ingredients, folds those in as well. Pour batter into prepared pan(s). Bake for 55 to 60 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean. Allow the cake to cool completely on a wire rack.
Cardamom Cream Cheese Frosting
1 package cream cheese (8 oz)
1 stick butter (8 tablespoons)
4 cups Confectioners icing sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon Himalayan Sea Salt
1 small pinch ground green Cardamom
Place room temperature butter, cream cheese, salt, cardamom and vanilla into mixer and blend for one to two minutes on medium until fully incorporated. Add powder sugar, one cup at a time, until frosting is light and creamy. Frost cooled cake liberally with frosting. Leftover frosting can be frozen.