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Not that many years ago, my only reference to carrot cake was a Dutch joke. It involved a baker and a rabbit, who does not like carrot cake, though makes the baker think he does. In all honesty, a carrot cake didn’t sound too appealing to me either. That was, until I tried an American style carrot cake, which didn’t even taste like carrot (probably due to all the sugar!). That cake tasted good, though a little too sweet.
After having had various carrot cakes, some definitely less sweet than that initial one, I was convinced. Carrots work perfectly fine in cake. But why did we decide to put carrots in a cake? What about an apple, zucchini, red beet, or parsnip cake? Why is the most common vegetable cake a carrot cake one?
Carrots are sweet and popular!
A fresh carrot probably doesn’t really remind you of cake. They’re crunchy and crispy and pretty neutral in flavor. As a matter of fact, the majority of a carrot (as is the case for most fruits and vegetables) is made up of water.
The second most prevalent component: carbohydrates such as starches and sugars. These make up about 10% of a carrot and while growing provide food to the plant for growing. About half of these are sugars, mostly sucrose, glucose, and fructose. The sweetness of the sugars helps define the flavor of carrots. The remainder of the flavor comes from a wide range of molecules, that combined make up less than 1% of a carrot.
A sturdy vegetable
Carrots are sturdy and their composition makes them very suitable for long term storage. This has always been a major advantage of carrots. You can store carrots for months without any major losses of quality. Also, they can be grown in a wide range of conditions, making it one of the most produced vegetables worldwide! Even though the orange variety is the most popular one nowadays, carrots didn’t start out orange. Look for purple, yellow, and even whitish carrots!
As such, carrots are a staple in a lot of different cuisines. In the Netherlands carrots are a main element of one of our most common winter dishes: hutspot. You can also find carrots in a lot of stir-fries, soups, and many other dishes worldwide.
Aside from their flavor and long term storage, carrots have even more advantages and those are related to cooking them. Upon cooking, as you’d do in a carrot cake, the carrots transform from crunchy into soft and squishy. The heat breaks down cell wall structures within the carrot. This allows moisture to escape from the carrot cells, softening the carrot (due to a loss in turgor). Along with the moisture, some of those sugars are released as well. If you fry carrots in a hot pan with some oil, those nice brown spots are sugars reacting!
Carrots don’t interact
Apart from softening and releasing some moisture and sugars, carrots don’t interact that much with other ingredients. This is great if you want to add them to your cake, without disrupting the cake too much.
If you’d add potatoes or beans, for instance, their starches will absorb a lot of moisture. In some cases this is great, in others, not so much. Carrots though don’t do this, carrots might release some water, but don’t bind it.
Another advantage of carrots is how they hold onto their shape, to some extent. It won’t completely disintegrate in your cake, but will become soft so you don’t notice it as much! Compare this to spinach or kale leaves, which shrink considerably when heated!
If you’ve ever cut or grated red beets, you know that everything that has touched those beets will be purple-red at the end. Not so with carrots, they might lose a little of their orange color, but the majority is kept within. No orange hands after cutting some carrots! When you’re baking with them this is great, it keeps the color where it is.
Why carrots are used in cake
All of these properties: the good availability of carrots, the quite neutral but slightly sweet flavor, and the softening during cooking without breaking down completely, have made people decide to use carrots in desserts, such as the carrot cake! (And they work great in pancakes as well!)
Recipes for a carrot pudding have been found, that can be traced back almost a thousand years ago. This sweet dish, made by Arab cooks, contains carrots and honey. It’s not a cake, but an early example of using carrots in sweets.
Several centuries later, in the 17th-19th century, several recipes for sweet carrots dishes show up in British and American publications. These start to resemble our current carrot cakes. At the time sugar was expensive, so likely the carrots were used to add some sweetness.
Early 20th century
In the early 20th-century, actual carrot cake recipes start being published more regularly. In the ’20s, Pillsbury, a flour manufacturer in the US, organized a competition for carrot cakes. It would help them develop their boxed cake mix recipe. Carrot cake was growing in popularity, but it would take another war for it to fully lift off.
Second World War
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During the Second World War sugar was rationed in the UK and many other countries. Home bakers were advised to use other ingredients, such as carrots!, to make up for that lack of sugar. Especially in the UK the carrot was featured heavily in tips around making do with less during the war. It helped the humble carrot lift of, not just in cakes!
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