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Cakes and Loaves, Sweet

Carrot, walnut and raisin cake with ricotta frosting

The moment I meet someone new, and tell them I enjoy cooking, is always an interesting one. I’ve met many people who love food as much as I do, and have no troubles talking about it for hours on end; most are far better cooks than I am, and I’ve been able to learn a trick or two from them. At times, though, I find myself facing the classic, seemingly simple, much-dreaded question: “What’s your favourite recipe?”.

Silence usually ensues. It’s one of those awkward questions I haven’t yet figured out – a bit like “how are you?”. Where I come from, a long answer is the norm: if you reply with a brief “I’m fine, thanks”, most Italians will assume something’s wrong with you. It took me ages to realise no British person really expects you to tell them how you’re doing. Just smile, mutter “I’m alright”, and fire the question back at them, so they can play their part in the spiel.

Ask me what my favourite recipe is, and my brain will overthink the hell out of your question. You’re not really expecting me to name a recipe, are you? In fact, you probably hope I don’t, so we can go back to talking about the weather, what we do for a living, and how we should all get another drink. And if you are expecting me to answer: will you think I’m a fraud when you realise my signature dish only takes half an hour to make, and is not even Italian? Will you regret asking, when you confess you don’t know how to make potato gnocchi, and I begin explaining the recipe in painstaking detail? Will you treasure the scrap of paper on which I’ll write the recipe, promising it’ll change your life – or will it last as long as a walk to the next bin?

The most popular variation on the theme is “what’s your favourite cake?”, which is worse still. Cue all of the above, plus an extra layer of uncomfortable. My favourite cake? That’s a decision I don’t know how, or even want to make. You’re the type of person who asks people what their favourite film, book or album is, aren’t you? I hate to break it to you: anyone who can come up with one, definite, lifelong favourite on the spot is lying. Or will think of fifty more options straight after, and spend the following half hour wishing they’d given you a different answer. I will tell you all about the cakes I love, if you promise you won’t ask me to choose one; it’s hard enough for me to narrow it down to five, but here goes.

Boopshis - Sachertorte

I love Sachertorte, because it’s the richest, most fulfilling cake I know of; the combination of dark chocolate and apricot jam is the stuff dreams are made of, the stuff reality should involve more often (like, every day). It’s hard to find in London, and by no means easy to make, but you need to try it at least once in your life.

I love plain, homemade chocolate cake, too. It’s a simpler pleasure, but no less cherished for that. Just like ricotta and amaretti tart, it reminds me of home, loved ones, and happy days gone by.

Ricotta and crushed amaretti tat

I love Saint Honoré – have you ever heard of it? I have to ask, because it’s not that common in the UK; in some European countries, though, it’s the patisserie cake par excellence. It’s a staple at my family’s birthday celebrations; cutting it up can be as challenging as negotiating for world peace. Everyone must have a profiterole on their slice; everyone wants the chocolate curls in the middle, but there’s never enough of those to feed us all. And don’t you dare complain that your slice is too big, for the love of God.

I love millefeuille. A messy bastard, this one; every forkful unleashes a sandstorm of pastry crumbs and icing sugar, landing everywhere and anywhere but on your plate. There’s no way you can eat millefeuille with grace, and you should never, ever wear dark clothes while you do it. The lashings of custard cream between the sneaky pastry layers are worth all the effort, though.

Carrot and walnut cake with ricotta frosting

I love carrot cake. I’d never tried it before moving to London; it’s uncommon in Italy, and the idea of putting carrots in cake batter used to sound to me like one of those sneaky tricks mothers use to get kids to eat their greens. That couldn’t be farther from the truth; now I’m crazy about it. I can’t get enough of it.

My recipe is adapted from Donna Hay’s original. I’ve toned down the sugar, used walnuts instead of pecans, and made the frosting with ricotta instead of cream cheese, to suit my personal taste and the ingredients I had in my cupboard. I have a proven track record of failed recipe tweaks, but this one’s special; in fact, I’ve rarely gotten a cake this right first time. That is to say, “I wish I could pat myself on the back and tell myself how great a job I’ve done” right. “It vanished in less than five minutes when I brought it to the office” right. And, most of all, “I’ll never eat store-bought carrot cake again” right.

Carrot, walnut and raisin cake with ricotta frosting

(serves 8 – 10)

Carrot and walnut cake with ricotta frosting

Ingredients

For the cake

  • 180g brown sugar (no more than 200g if you don’t want it overly sweet)
  • 185ml vegetable oil
  • 3 eggs
  • 225g plain flour
  • 1½ teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • ½ tsp ground ginger
  • 3 medium-sized carrots, grated
  • 80g chopped walnuts
  • 80g raisins

For the frosting

  • 250g ricotta
  • 50g icing sugar, sifted
  • 1/2 – 1 tbsp lemon juice

Recipe (adapted from Donna Hay’s Carrot Cake recipe)

  • Place the sugar and oil in a bowl, and whisk them together with a hand mixer.
  • Incorporate the eggs, one by one, and keep whisking until combined.
  • Sift the flour, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda, cinnamon and ginger in the bowl, and mix well.
  • Add the carrot, pecans and sultanas; mix until just combined.
  • Pour the batter into a greased 22cm round cake tin.
  • Pre-heat the oven to 180°C; bake for 55–60 minutes, or until cooked when tested with a skewer.
  • Once ready, remove from the oven, and set aside to cool down.
  • For the cream cheese frosting, mix the ricotta with the icing sugar and lemon juice, until smooth.
  • Spread the frosting on the cooled cake; decorate with more chopped walnuts if you like.
  • Store any leftovers in the fridge, where they will keep well for around 3 – 4 days.
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