Wednesday, April 13, 2011

What I Learned From Carrot Cake

On Sunday, for reasons that I still don't know, I had the sudden urge to make a carrot cake from my America's Test Kitchen cookbook. I really can't explain it. I had a pound of carrots in my fridge that were originally earmarked for a stew or maybe some mirepoix. But no, they were going into a cake. Once I had the idea, I was committed. And in making the cake, I learned some things along the way, as you'll soon see.

The first step of making a carrot cake is grating the carrots. But I had one glaring problem. I didn't have a grater available. "But wait," I can hear you say, "what about a food processor?" Yeah, I don't have one of those either. So I had to figure out a way to get all my carrots (pictured below) into manageable pieces. Suddenly, it hit me. I could use a vegetable peeler! The end result wouldn't be as good, since the pieces would be larger than the "strands" produced by a grater, but it would work reasonably well. Right?

Well, there was only one way to find out. I started peeling my carrots. And peeled. And peeled. And started to get angry at my carrots. And then started to get angry with myself for stupidly trying to peel this many carrots. (As as you can see below, there were a lot of carrots.) I nearly peeled off a finger as carrots slipped from my hands. Eventually, I pulled out the cutting board and my knife and started to cut the carrots into pieces after once I couldn't peel them anymore. After what seemed like an eternity, not to mention very orange hands, I was able to get through all of the carrots.

The carrots before I cut them.
The carrots afterwards.

From there, I proceded to combine the dry goods in a bowl. I mixed my flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg, salt, and cloves together. Here's where I made a bit of a mistake. The recipe calls for 1 teaspoon of baking soda and 1 1/4 teaspoon of baking powder. After portioning my flour, I accidentally put in 1 1/4 teaspoon of baking soda. I realized my mistake quickly, and tried to scoop out some of the baking soda with a 1/4 teaspoon measure. I don't think I was quite so successful, but I wasn't going to throw out the whole mix just because of it.

Next came the beginning of the batter. I put my eggs, brown sugar, and white sugar into my stand mixer and started it up. According to the recipe, the idea here was to whip air into the eggs to make it fluffier, which sounded fine in principle. I ran the mixer until it was creamy, then started to add oil. The intent was to make an emulsion of the oil and the egg/sugar mixture. Unfortunately, it didn't quite succeed. There was a ring of oil around the top of the batter, and no matter how long I ran the mixer, it wouldn't emulsify.

I resigned myself to my fate and started to incorporate the dry ingredients. The instructions said to do it in two batches and to whisk by hand. I started to do this, but quickly realized that the batter was getting thick and clumpy, making whisking difficult. I moved the batter back to the stand mixer, put on the whisk attachment, and kept it running. As I added the second half of the dry ingredients, the batter got drier and drier until it resembled more of a dough than a batter.

This led to an interesting time when I had to incorporate the carrots. The recipe says to "gently stir in the carrots." But the dough was so thick, there was nothing gentle about it. I had to push the carrots in forcefully with my spatula, hoping to make as even a mixture as possible. I thought adding in a little bit more oil might help loosen it, but it didn't help much. I was stuck with a clumpy, somewhat dry mixture that had carrots in there somewhere.

Then I had the challenge of putting the dough into pans. The recipe called for a 13 x 9 pan, which I didn't have around. I instead opted for 2 8x8 pans, attempting to divide the "batter" equally between them. This took quite a bit of effort as I had to scoop it out with my spatula instead of "pouring" it out as the recipe suggested. This resulted in the pans below.

I put them in the oven for 25 minutes, 10 minutes less than the original recipe called for. I wanted to make sure that the different pan sizes wouldn't result in an accidental overcooking. I rotated the pans a few times, reset the timer over and over, and after a total baking time of about 40 minutes, I pulled out the carrot cakes that you see at the top of this post.

I was supposed to wait two hours before removing the cakes from the pans, but I just couldn't wait. After an hour, I cut a piece of the cake and ate it. To my surprise, despite all the problems I had while making it, the cake tasted really good! The pieces of carrot were slightly larger than I would have liked, but it looked like the peeler did a reasonably good job. I ate about 1/5 of a pan of cake that night. I put the second cake into the freezer once it had cooled completely, and put the first cake into a Ziploc bag. I went to sleep that night thinking I had a success on my hands.

But this isn't the end of the story.

The next day, as I was eating my lunch, I grabbed a piece of my carrot cake to have for dessert. I bit into it, expecting to be rewarded with a sweet, carroty experience. What I got instead was an incredibly saccharine aftertaste in my mouth that I hadn't noticed the day before. Thinking it was maybe an isolated piece of the cake, I had another piece. The same aftertaste lingered in my mouth, and there was nothing I could do to get it out. My success had now fizzled into a food that left a bad taste in my mouth for hours.

I don' t know what caused the change in taste from Sunday to Monday. Maybe it had been there all along, but my desire for carrot cake on Sunday overrode it. Maybe the moisture in the Ziploc bag had caused the sugar to crystalize again. Maybe the slightly warm cake masked some of the intensity of the sugar. Or maybe it was supposed to taste that way, but without the cream cheese frosting that was supposed to accompany it, the sugariness couldn't be cut.

Whatever the reason, it taught me an important lesson, especially when applied to cooking large batches of things for myself: Before calling something a success, make sure it still tastes good the next day.

I tend to make large quantities of food because often, reducing the recipe is more hassle than it's worth. This usually results in me eating most of the food myself. I'm the only one in my apartment who can eat most of my baked goods because my roommate doesn't eat gluten. I can give friends of mine some of it, but not always. So if I'm going to have an entire cake to eat alone, it had better taste good for a couple of days after I make it. Otherwise, it's a bit of a waste.

Oh, and what did I do with the rest of the carrot cake? I ate it. Sure, it sometimes left a bad taste in my mouth, but I eventually dealt with that by over-spicing my dinner on Monday night. But that's a story for another time.


  1. so now you need a grater and a mixer
    or maybe a food processor
    Oh and the mix up of baking powder and soda may account for the taste.
    It sounds like you were short on liquid what size eggs did you use?

  2. Large eggs. And both baking powder and soda were in there, I just was a bit off on the baking soda. Probably 1/8 too much.

  3. What an adventure! I would say that "at least you know for next time", but you didn't really figure out what made it taste like it did the next day.

  4. 1) why didn't you just go out and buy shredded carrots? your fingers would have thanked you.
    2) cmon, you know your baking chemistry better than that. why didn't you add cream of tartar to neutralize? to form 1 1/4 tsp baking powder, you could have just added 5/8 tsp cream of tartar; the remaining 5/8 of baking soda could contribute to the 1 tsp required so you'd just need to add 3/8 tsp. sure it's not double acting but it's something.
    3) i bet you could have used mayonnaise and added sugar to it to replace the broken emulsion (you are essentially just making mayonnaise with the oil and beating of the eggs).

    lesson: get smaller teaspoon fractions. see if you can find alternatives to broken intermediate steps before forging ahead.