July 20, 2012

Happy days are days with cake and ice cream

Time again for layer cakes and ice cream, fireworks, and the desire to be at the coast. All of these things seem to hit at once, with my birthday near the beginning of July, the 4th a couple of days later, and often sweeping in alongside these events or just after are the 100+ degree days that always bring on the longing for a camping trip or even just a day trip to the coast. Always. As a member of a family that has taken annual, or near annual, camping trips along California's northern coast since I was the tender age of five, the desire to go back doesn't take much prompting. It's always kind of under the surface, always looking for a reason to make another trip back to those sparse campgrounds, wooded hiking trails, and stretches of uncrowded beach and overcast days haunted by loads of memories, good memories, memories that call to be revisited by, ahem, my actual presence once again. Every summer always starts with that hope for me. We haven't gone camping for a few years now, so every summer the desire is amped up just a little bit more than the previous year, and if we didn't go, every summer ends with a sigh.

Summer also signals the advent of homemade ice cream and, as previously mentioned, my birthday, two things that go very well together, along with cake. This year, I baked a carrot cake, a triple-layer concoction with cream cheese frosting, the best kind of frosting in my opinion, aside from chocolate ganache, which isn't really frosting. This may not be the ideal time of year for baking a layer cake, I know, or for baking much of anything, but I've had a craving for carrot cake for some time now and have had this recipe saved up long enough, set aside for something special, so I thought my birthday was an appropriate enough occasion. Besides, the cake is only in the oven for half an hour, 45 minutes tops. Otherwise, save it for a cooler month or any time the craving hits you. If you're not a fan of carrot cake or cream cheese frosting, then, well, I don't know what to say about that except . . . you should be.

I do have to tell you that this is the first carrot cake I've ever baked. Why has it taken me so long to make one? I really couldn't say. Happily enough, I chose a good version, basic, one that needs no fiddling or adjusting, one that isn't bogged down with soggy pineapple chunks or shreds of coconut or other strange adaptations. Carrot cake, true carrot cake in my opinion, needs only a few spices, pecans, and raisins, along with the requisite cream cheese frosting. This one meets all those requirements and tastes just like it should: lightly spiced and mildly sweet, countered with that rich tang of the frosting. A little applesauce keeps things moist and cuts back on the oil content, and, of course, it's chock full of carrots. All in all, it's a well-rounded cake.

The ice cream turned out to be one of the best homemade versions so far: chai. You may relegate the beverage to the colder seasons in your mind, when something hot and spicy is best suited to the chill of a brisk day, but sometimes I prefer chai iced in the heat of a summer day, when I want something refreshing but with a little more oomph than, say, iced tea. You know the chai I'm talking about, right? The concentrate that's mixed equal parts with milk? Yeah, that's the stuff. It so happens to be perfectly suited for making ice cream, the concentrate potent enough to stand up to cream and a custard base, and yes, it's a new favorite around these parts. Sure, you could blend your own chai mixture with whole spices and teabags and steep it all in hot cream when making the custard base, but I didn't want to bother with all of that, especially when chai tea concentrate is readily available and, you know, concentrated. I don't know that a homemade version of chai would be strong enough. Extra steps mean more time in the kitchen, bending over a hot stove, anyway. That's not something I want in the middle of summer.

If you haven't used honey yet in your homemade ice cream, I highly recommend it in place of sugar. You need less, since it's sweeter, and it seems to help the ice cream remain soft and scoopable, rather than rock hard as most homemade ice cream becomes after spending 24 hours in the freezer. Any mild flavored honey will do, and since so little is used, your ice cream won't taste of honey, unless that's what you're going for. Then I would recommend something robust. But not here. Chai is what we're going for here.

Together, the flavors pair nicely here, with similar spices and such, but the cake and ice cream are good on their own, too. Although instructions say to serve the cake at room temperature, I found that I preferred it cold, next day even. So really, it's not a bad cake for summer. Here's hoping for a camping trip in the near future.

Carrot cake w/ cream cheese frosting
Adapted from Bon Appetit, via Orangette

-I forgot about the need for "heaping" teaspoons of both the baking powder and baking soda, as per instructions below, so the layers didn't rise all that much, but they were fully baked and didn't fall in the middle, which I call success, so do as you please, heaping or level teaspoons. Also, if you have a food processor, use it to grate the carrots. It'll be much quicker and easier than a box grater.

For the cake:
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
2 slightly heaping tsp. baking powder
2 slightly heaping tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. cinnamon
¾ tsp. ground ginger
½ tsp. freshly grated nutmeg
1½ cups granulated sugar
1 cup safflower or sunflower oil
4 large eggs
½ cup unsweetened applesauce
3 cups finely grated peeled carrots
1 cup pecans, coarsely chopped
½ cup raisins

For the frosting:
2 (8-oz.) packages cream cheese, room temperature
½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
2¼ cups powdered sugar
3 tsp. vanilla extract
1 tsp. freshly squeezed lemon juice

To make the cake: Position racks in top and bottom third of the oven, and preheat to 325° F. Grease three 9-inch round pans with cooking spray. Line the bottoms of the pans with parchment paper, and grease the paper, too.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg, whisking well to blend. Set aside.

In a large bowl, beat the sugar and oil with a wooden spoon until well combined. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well to incorporate after each addition. Add the applesauce, beating to mix. Add the flour mixture, and beat to incorporate. Add the carrots, pecans, and raisins and beat briefly, being careful not to overmix.

Divide the batter evenly between the prepared pans (they won't be quite half full), smoothing the tops with the back of a spoon. Slide the pans into the oven, two on the top and one on the bottom, and bake until the cakes begin to pull away from the sides of the pan and a toothpick inserted into center comes out clean, rotating pans halfway through baking time. Bake 30 - 45 minutes, depending on how hot your oven runs. Mine were done at 30. Cool the cakes in their pans on a wire rack for 15 minutes, then turn them out onto the rack to cool completely. Remove parchment paper.

To make the frosting: In a large bowl, beat the butter and cream cheese with a wooden spoon until smooth. Sift in the powdered sugar, and beat until incorporated. Add the vanilla and lemon juice, and beat well, making sure all the lumps and bumps are gone.

To assemble the cake: Place one layer on a platter or cake stand. Spread it with ¾ cup frosting. Carefully place another layer on top. Spread with another ¾ cup frosting. Top with the third cake layer, and then spread the remaining frosting over the top and down the sides. Serve at room temperature.

Note: You can make the cake layers one day before assembling the whole cake. Wrap them tightly in plastic wrap and store at room temperature. The assembled cake can be prepared up to 2 days before serving. Store it in the fridge, covered with a cake dome, and allow it to come to room temperature before serving.

Chai ice cream
Adapted from oregonchai.com

-This is a custard based ice cream, so you will need to temper the eggs, and I find that the easiest way to do so is to us a soup ladle when adding the hot cream to the eggs; you can slowly drizzle in the cream from the ladle while whisking with your other hand. Also, my favorite brand of chai tea concentrate is Tazo, which I find to be less cloying than some others and spicier, but you can use whatever you prefer.

2 cups heavy cream
½ cup mild-flavored honey (or cup sugar)
6 large egg yolks
1 cup whole milk
1¼ cups chai tea concentrate (preferably Tazo)

Heat cream and sugar over medium heat in a medium saucepan until simmering. Place egg yolks in a medium bowl. Slowly whisk one cup of the hot cream mixture into the eggs, then add the yolk mixture to cream and heat to 160° F or until slightly thickened. Remove from heat and whisk in the milk and chai concentrate. Refrigerate until completely chilled, preferably overnight. Process in an ice cream maching according to the manufacturer's directions. Transfer to an airtight container and freeze until firm, at least a few hours.

Makes roughly 1 quart.

1 comment:

  1. The best carrot cakes I've tasted have used a lot of carrots, like this one. Basically, this carrot cake spoils you for any other -- Michael