Last week, I made this cake, and I think you should make it this week. Trust me, I think you’ll be glad you did. I bet there are a few carrots that are lounging around in your crisper – everyone does. I wanted to tell you more about it a few days ago, but things, here, have been a little busy. For one, we’re going on our honeymoon in a few days, and as all weeks leading up to a vacation go, this one is frenetic and busy.
Since we got back from Florida, you could find me doing either of the following two things: learning the ropes for this new part-time position I’ve accepted (it’s not food related, but I’m loving it and learning a ton), or reading Deborah Madison’s Vegetable Literacy. The latter has also been quite a thrill; I’ve been reading it the way one reads a novel, page by page, recipe by recipe. It’s part cookbook, part botany lesson, part gardening companion. For the record, and sadly, I do not garden since we live in a 650-square-foot apartment, unless you count watering my five-year-old jade plant, Harold (named for a children’s book character) once every four days gardening, in which case, yes, I certainly do dabble in the practice. Harold is a succulent and as far as plants go, you can have a black thumb and not kill it. And given how hot our current apartment gets, not even a sun-loving basil can make it through the scorching summer.
Were I given a small plot of land, I would, most certainly garden. And then I’d have a ton of the kind of questions that only occur to gardeners. Like, what do you plan on the perimeter and what do you plant in the center? Is it true that mint and horseradish need to be contained because, like weeds, they will take over every available inch of space, and, if necessary, push out other crops? Does sprinkling cinnamon around your tomato plans prevent squirrels from eating the tomatoes?
I have a feeling (though I am not on nightshades yet) that Madison will have an answer for all my questions. So far, the chapter on Umbilliferae has been thrilling. I’m still muddling through Chapter 2, but that’s mostly because my time management skills have been, well, sucky. Between the fifth Game of Thrones book, a book on introverts, a book club assignment, the New Yorker, and Madison, I’ve been bad at managing my reading time. [Hint: it’s all been monopolized by a certain George R. R. Martin.] But Madison’s book is really something special: beautifully photographed by Melissa Hamilton and Christopher Hirscheimer, it is gorgeously and thoughtfully written, without the twee and precious tone that a lot of food writing has these days.
In any case, this cake is something of a stand-out. It’s a carrot cake, which is something most of us are familiar with, but instead of the predictably standard raisins and hints of cinnamon and nutmeg, this cake veers in the direction of almond flour and lemon zest. It’s comforting in a way a carrot cake is, except while I’d make a traditional carrot cake in the colder months, this one is light and delicate, and is perfectly suited for spring brunches and picnics.
It’s also a cinch to pack and take wherever you’re going: instead of arriving to the table with a generous layer of frosting (which can be tricky to transport), the cake is lightly dusted with powdered sugar and served with a barely sweet, tangy and lemony ricotta cream on the side.
I brought the cake to our friends’ place for dinner, where it was a hit with everyone, including our friends’ four-year-old, though he refused to eat the barely-sweet ricotta cream. The adults, however, found the cream to be just perfect, spooning it generously over the cake, letting it run over the cake wedges in a drippy, delicious mess, which was half the fun. The other half was – of course – eating it.
Carrot Almond Cake with Ricotta Cream
Adapted from Vegetable Literacy by Deborah Madison, which was generously sent to me by Ten Speed Press
Here’s where I tweaked the recipe: I used regular almond meal, regular cake flour, and orange carrots, because that’s what I had on hand and everything turned out beautifully. I’m sure that the cake taste even better (and looks even more captivating) if you follow the recipe to the letter of the law, but I couldn’t find blanched almond meal in my neighborhood – I’ll try again soon.
Don’t worry about not having the exact ingredients Madison calls for here, for this cake is pretty forgiving. The book didn’t specify on how finely the carrots should’ve been grated, however, I took that to mean, not coarsely shredded, but also not so finely grated it turned to mush. Since I used my food processor to get the almond flour mixture incorporated, I wound up using the same (unrinsed) bowl to grate the carrots on the “fine” attachment, but you can definitely grate by hand.
Normally, I have homemade ricotta on hand, but this time I was out, and I had Trader Joe’s in the fridge, which, as far as purchased ricotta goes, is actually quite decent. I mixed that with the crème fraîche, instead of the sour cream, and it was utterly delicious, but sour cream will work beautifully as well.
For the Cake:
4 tablespoons (57 grams) unsalted butter, plus more for the pan
1 1/2 cups (150 grams) finely ground almonds, preferably blanched
Finely grated zest of 2 lemons
3/4 cup (150 grams) plus 2 tablespoons (25 grams) granulated sugar, divided
1 1/4 cups (138 grams) unbleached cake flour
2 teaspoons (8 grams) baking powder
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
4 large eggs, room temperature
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
Scant 2 cups (6 to 8 medium) finely grated carrots, preferably yellow
For the Ricotta Cream:
1 cup ricotta cheese
1 cup crème fraîche or sour cream
2 tablespoons mild-tasting honey
Finely grated zest of 1 lemon
Confectioners’ sugar, for dusting
Make the Cake:
Position the baking rack in the middle and heat the oven to 375 degrees F. In a small pot (or in a microwave) melt the 4 tablespoons of butter and set it aside to cool.
In a food processor fitted with a blade, pulse the almonds with the lemon zest and 2 tablespoons of the sugar until combined. Butter a 9-inch springform pan and dust the sides with some of the almond mixture. In a large bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt.
Using an electric mixer, beat together the eggs and the remaining 3/4 cup sugar on high speed until pale, foamy, glossy, and thick, about 5 minutes. Reduce the speed to low and add the remaining almond mixture, the almond extract, and finally the flour mixture, incorporating it until well mixed. Pour the cooled melted butter over the batter and then, quickly, fold it in. Fold in the carrots.
Scrape the batter into the prepared pan, smooth over the top, and place the cake in the center of the oven. Lower the heat to 350 degrees F and baking until the cake is springy to the touch in the center, lightly browned, and is beginning to pull away rom the sides of the pan, 35 to 45 minutes. Let cool completely in its pan, then release the spring and slide the cake onto a platter.
Make the Ricotta Cream:
While the cake is cooling, place the ricotta, crème fraîche, honey, and zest either by hand or with a mixer until smooth. Taste and adjust the ingredients for flavor and texture: i.e. you might want a little bit more sour cream or a citrus pop from the zest. As the cream sits, it will thin out, forming a lovely sauce for the cake. The tang of the sour cream is a perfect complement to the carrot flavor in the cake.
Just before serving, dust the cake with confectioners’ sugar. Serve with the ricotta cream on the side.
Makes one 9-inch cake.