Many years ago I used to work at a cafe that was run by an Armenian family. I met my husband there, and they ran a tight ship where both AT and I learned the skills we would later use to run our own cafe, years later. But it wasn’t only organisation and service skills that I admired the Q family for – it was their menu. It was packed with simple, tasty dishes that I still remember like their creamy chicken and almond croissant or their secret blue berry pancakes that I begged for the inside information on which brand they used but they never told me. Their cakes were always good but they were bought in by some cake company with the exception of my favourite one – the carrot cake.
Their carrot cake was made by the owner’s wife, Mrs Q and it was and remains the best carrot cake I’ll ever eat in my life. The Q’s are long gone from the cafe scene, I believe they went back to their roots as butchers but I have no doubt that the family still enjoys Mrs Q’s chunky and not-too-sweet carrot cake. I asked many times for the recipe, to no avail. She kept tight-lipped on the whole subject and was unapproachable on the best of days. So I wander this earth searching for a recipe that will live up to that paragon of the carrot cake world.
Needless to say my expectations are high and I am yet to find something that comes close. On the weekend I had the family over for LT’s 6th birthday. I didn’t cater to junior taste buds this year for our mainly adult gathering. I’m a bit over chocolate cakes and LT is not a big fan of sweets anyway. So bought him a Sainsburys Spiderman cake and made a more sophisticated cake for the rest of us. I was going to make a coffee cake with sour cream icing that I got from the Autumn Donna Hay mag (that an Aussie visitor kindly bought over with her – thanks Liz). But I changed my mind and thought VCs suggestion of carrot cake was a better idea. Who doesn’t love carrot cake?
I have a serious love and respect for Ottolenghi’s food and so I made his recipe. No sultanas. No pineapple. And THE greatest cream cheese icing I’ve tasted yet. The cake is very nice, the beaten egg whites lift the density and the coconut and spices give texture and a lightly spiced flavour. It’s very good and I would recommend it, but it did have a few too many steps which prevented it from becoming my ‘go -to’ recipe. I actually think carrot cakes should be dense and so the egg white step seems a little unnecessary. I would however, absolutely recommend – if not insist- on using the cream cheese icing. The icing does have extra steps, but for the results – it is worth it. It’s a combination of cream cheese, butter and honey and it goes beyond the standard.
Ottolenghi’s Carrot Cake Recipe
For the cake
160g plain flour
½ tsp baking powder
½ tsp bicarb soda
1 tsp cinnamon
¼ tsp ground cloves
1 large egg
1 egg yolk
200g sunflower oil
270g caster sugar
50g walnuts, chopped (or pecans)
50g desiccated coconut
135g carrot, roughly grated
2 egg whites
a pinch of salt
Icing – I recommend doubling the quantity
175g cream cheese at room temperature
70g unsalted butter
35g icing sugar
30g walnuts, chopped & lightly toasted
Sift together the flour, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda and spices.
Lightly whisk the whole egg with the egg yolk.
Beat oil and caster sugar a minute, then add beaten egg.
Mix in the walnuts, coconut and carrot and then the sifted dry ingredients. Don’t over mix.
Whip the egg whites and salt (in clean bowl) till peaks form. Gently fold the egg whites into the carrot mixture in 3 additions, being careful not to over mix. Streaks of white in the mixture are okay.
Pour the cake mixture into greased and lined tin and bake for about an hour.
To make the icing, beat the cream cheese in a mixer until light and smooth. Remove from the mixer.
Beat the butter, icing sugar and honey in the mixer until light and airy.
Fold together the cheese and butter mixes. Spread waves of icing on top of the cake and sprinkle with the nuts.