Happy Summer wherever you find yourself or it finds you!
Happy Summer wherever you find yourself or it finds you!
Carrot cake may be my favorite celebratory dessert. It is dense, spicy and flavorful, enhanced with a rich vanilla frosting. The batter is moist but made with oil rather than butter which the frosting makes up for with both butter and cream cheese. It makes as good an indulgent breakfast as a dessert. I don’t remember anyone to whom I’ve served it who didn’t like it.
I’ve been making carrot cakes since I was a teenager, a time when I loved to bake but rarely cooked. The simple, straightforward recipe, which I have altered a little over the years, is the same hippie-ish one I started with, passed to me by the sister of a friend in high school – thank you, Alice Rubin! It is a variation of the traditional carrot cake you see reprinted everywhere because it is easy and it is delicious. Because I have become more of a cooker, because we try to eat healthfully and because temptations are hard to resist when they sit on your counter, I rarely bake anymore. There are times, however, when we get together to mark an occasion, that call for cake and I bake. Cake can be a ritual that shows that a moment is special. As Maira Kalman describes in her recent and wonderfully illustrated book simply named Cake, “… we gather. We plan. We get confused. We end with cake.”
We don’t regularly make cakes, but if a celebration calls for cake and it isn’t an ice cream or cheesecake, it is a carrot cake. This is a scrumptious cake with a luscious frosting which, if you aren’t careful, you will find yourself continually cutting off small slices to nibble because it is so good that you can’t stop. Consider yourself forewarned! I recently brought this carrot cake to a gathering of artist friends and every one of them asked for the recipe. Here it is.
CLASSIC CARROT CAKE WITH SPICES
In another bowl, combine:
Add dry ingredients to wet and beat well, about 2 minutes to incorporate air.
Divide batter evenly into pans which have been buttered and floured. Use two 8″ cake pans (or 9″ but lessen the time) or one 15 x 8, 13 x 9 or a bundt pan (bake a little longer in a bundt).
Bake at 325 F for 45 minutes or until the center springs back when pressed.
Cool completely before frosting. Cool rectangular cakes in pans. Cool round cakes 10 minutes in pans and then on cooling racks out of the pans.
Cream Cheese Frosting
Beat until smooth:
If you want a glaze instead of frosting, for example to pour over the bundt cake, add some milk or lemon juice to loosen to pouring consistency.
Top with chopped walnuts or pecans or chopped candied ginger or press nuts onto the sides of the cake or mix them into the frosting before applying.
If you need a big cake, double the cake recipe and make 2 13/x 9 or 15 x 8 layers and double the frosting recipe. If you just like a lot of frosting, double the recipe.
Memorial Day is the unofficial start of summer and with it comes the fresh fruit and vegetable season – finally! For those who have been scouring the markets for something green and fresh, local spring asparagus and strawberries are cause for celebration. I was at our farmer’s market on Friday and there were fresh herbs, lettuces, Asian greens and green garlic alongside said asparagus and berries and much of it was organic.
Buying organic vegetables is one easy action we can take toward healthier eating. There are reasons beyond health to buy organic. Every time you buy organic produce, especially local, you help keep family farms thriving, protect workers and water and keep deadly pesticides away from land, animals and people. Organic is more widely available than even a few years ago and, in many cases, not so expensive as it once was. Our neighborhood market carries organic produce at reasonable prices to say nothing of Costco and Amazon. But does all the produce we buy need to be organic? The Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization acting to protect the environment and human health, publishes an online “Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce” which includes the “Dirty Dozen” and the “Clean 15” lists of the most and the least pesticide-laden fruits and vegetables. I rely on their research to know what I must buy organic and what I don’t have to and you can, too.
The EWG’s lists are a big help toward understanding where we can be flexible in our shopping choices. According to them, we must choose organic strawberries, spinach and peaches but not necessarily avocados, onions or pineapple. Go to their website (I’ve linked to them above), print them out and put them near where you make your grocery list. Their recommendations will make your fruit and vegetable shopping much easier.
Trader Joe’s opened a store in our neighborhood and I have mixed feelings. I had hoped for a local branch for more than 20 years, since I first shopped at one in Connecticut. But now I feel conflicted because of what I fear it will do to our local grocers, who have been fantastic neighborhood vendors for decades. (And I wonder why they couldn’t have opened in a needier neighborhood (actual food deserts still exist in NYC) instead of our already over gentrified Upper West Side). Wherever you live, this is a problem for everyone in the face of rapid expansion by chain stores. I do shop at Costco, Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s but I also shop, almost daily, at our local Mani Market Place.
There are different reasons to shop different stores. Trader Joe’s has many quality organic items at very reasonable prices, offers paper shopping bags, takes things back if they are bad and has great deals on flowers and orchids. On the other hand, Mani’s, run by two kind, personable and generous brothers, Taki and Taso Mastakouris, sells seasonal produce and plants from nearby farms, stocks all kinds of specialty, organic and hard to find items like Halloumi cheese, locally roasted coffees (at great prices) and imported European butters, has a fresh deli with helpful countermen and in house-made salads and is open early, late and on holidays. If you’ve burned your Thanksgiving pumpkin pie, Mani’s will have a delicious replacement for you from a local farm bakery. If you get to the cashier and realize you’ve forgotten your wallet, Taso will tell you to pay them tomorrow. If you are eyeing the fresh figs but wondering if they are as tasty as they look, Taki will offer you a taste. It is about as perfect a local market as one could imagine.
Although Mani’s has good prices, how will they be able to compete with the kind of volume pricing that Trader Joe’s offers? Well – they already are better priced on many items. At Mani’s, I have seen mangoes for $1 and grapefruit at 3 for $2 as well as fresh bread from Arthur Avenue for $4 per loaf. This week domestic strawberries are 2 boxes for $4, organic strawberries are 2 boxes for $7 and pineapples are 2 for $5. These are prices you can’t beat anywhere. Their fresh produce and the high quality of their deli (including fresh roasted turkey everyday) along with their distinct products (truly delicious olive oil direct from their family in Greece, boxes of tamarind pods, fresh green herbs all year, fresh turmeric and horseradish roots in season) and personal service gives Mani’s an individual profile that makes them stand out among Upper West Side groceries.
There are other neighborhood stores I think will feel challenged but will also survive (if their landlords don’t escalate their rents) because they are distinctive, accommodating and have built a loyal following. Besides Mani, these include Ivan Pharmacy which has competitive prices and offers quality lines (like Mrs. Meyers cleaning products and Playmobil toys) and Columbus Natural Foods, our local health food store which shines for its bulk items, prepared foods (especially delicious soups) and juices, medicinal products and the knowledgable advice of its proprietor, Ann. All three of these stores and their owners are local treasures. I think they will survive and thrive now that Trader Joe’s is open. We will certainly continue to support them, as I hope everyone else in the neighborhood will, too.
Local asparagus is coming. So are ramps, fiddleheads and green garlic. But until they get here, we still need vegetables to eat. I am cleaning out my fridge and freezer this spring, trying to use up the jarred, frozen and preserved fruits and vegetables I stocked it with last fall. And then there are the roots.
Beets, watermelon radishes, carrots, parsnips, rutabagas and celery root are still available at our local markets as are potatoes and sweet potatoes. While the weather is still cool enough, and before the local greens arrive, I will continue to roast, steam, mash and sauté them, as suitable, and add them to soups. Root vegetables are quite nutritious, if grown in good soil, and usually quite inexpensive. If you browse social media, shots of root vegetable roasts seem to be trending. Perhaps roots are the new kale. Don’t forget horseradish is a root, is available right now and preparing it couldn’t be much easier (see recipe). Remember that roots also make wonderful salads which even improve after sitting in the refrigerator overnight.
I have linked below to several past posts that included root recipes. I keep linking to them in the hope that they will help you use up the contents of your crisper or give you some inspiration when you go to the market. Local greens will be here soon. But until then, don’t forget your roots!