This year, instead of starting a diet on New Year’s Day, we had friends over for brunch. The only thing I resolved to do in the new year is the learn to be a better photographer, and to continue cooking and baking tasty and interesting things to share with you.
When it comes to New Year’s Day menu planning, Southern food is king. Most people know that collard greens and black eyed peas are a traditional staple for getting your year started out on the right foot. When it comes to planning a brunch for New Year’s day, most people might stop with the collards and peas, but not me. If I’m going to the trouble of hosting a brunch for 15 or 20 people, you better believe I’m going to make a big fancy dessert to go along with the meal. I’m a sucker for a show stopper, and love the ooohs and aaahs when a multi-layer cake comes out after a big meal.
When I was trying to think of a cake to fit with my southern themed menu, carrot cake immediately came to mind. I’ve always thought of carrot cake as one of those desserts that Southern homemakers would make to bring to a ladies garden party, church picnic, or social club. What better way to round out a big Southern brunch at the beginning of a brand new year? As it turns out though, carrot cake, or at least carrot based desserts, have been around much longer than the American south. People have been using carrots in desserts to help sweeten them since medieval times, and carrot cake as we know it today was likely adapted from earlier recipes brought by immigrants from Eastern Europe. Whatever the real origins, the wide popularity and availability of carrot cake in the American South still makes it feel “Southern” to me.
The thing is, when it came time to start baking, I decided not to do a standard carrot cake. I wanted to make a carrot cake with a little something extra. Something that still kept that traditional and comfortable feel, but with a new and modern twist. I once saw a recipe on Pinterest for a cake with grated zucchini & apples along with the carrots. I thought the concept for this cake was amazing, and could be really delicious, but that particular recipe didn’t really appeal to me. I think they were trying to make something super healthy, subbing dates for sugar, ground nuts for flour, and goat cheese for cream cheese. I suppose it could be tasty, but I worried that it could come out gummy and bland. I love the idea of adding fresh, good-for-you elements into a dessert, but I would be really upset if “healthy” was the first word that came to mind while eating a cake I’d made.
To make this cake I took a standard carrot cake recipe and tweaked it a bit. I added more spice, and subbed in fresh grated granny smith apples and zucchini in for some the carrots. I ended up with a ratio of about 1 part zucchini and 1 part apple to 2 parts carrots. I didn’t want to mess with perfection though, so I stuck with the traditional cream cheese icing. Since I wanted this cake to be as picture perfect as possible, I decided to make it with 3 layers, with the cream cheese icing as the filling and the icing.
When you’re making a multi-layered cake I think it’s important that all three layers are the same size. Not only will this make for a more professional presentation, but it will also help make sure your layers all bake at the same time instead of one drying out while the other is still underdone. To ensure even layers, I like to use a kitchen scale to make sure the batter is evenly distributed between the pans.
When I first announced my plans for this cake, Russell was skeptical, thinking that carrot cake was just something that shouldn’t be messed with, but I’ve converted him. In the end, this cake was divine and everyone loved it. Although it has a few different fruits and vegetables in it, healthy is the last word that comes to mind when you take a bite. The cream cheese icing is wonderfully creamy, and perfectly sweet & tangy. The cake itself is super moist and delicious, with a hearty hint of spice and a traditional carrot cake flavor. There’s just a hint of tanginess from the tart apples and a nice summery freshness from the green zucchini and fresh carrot. If you love carrot cake, you will surely love this cake too. Go preheat the oven. It’s cold outside, it’ll help you warm up.
Harvest Cake with Cream Cheese Icing
2 1/4 cups all purpose flour
1 3/4 cups granulated sugar
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 1/4 cups peanut oil (or any neutral vegetable oil)
4 large eggs
2 cups grated carrots (approximately 3-4 carrots)
1 cup grated zucchini (approximately 1 small zucchini)
1 cup peeled, cored & grated granny smith apple (approximately 1 large apple)
4 ounces finely chopped walnuts (optional)
1 1/2 pounds powdered sugar
16 ounces room temperature cream cheese
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 stick (8 tablespoons) room temperature unsalted butter
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. With cheesecloth or paper towels, squeeze excess moisture out of grated zucchini and set aside. Butter 3 (8-inch) round pans and line bottoms with parchment. Butter and lightly coat with flour.
In a large bowl, sift together flour, sugar, baking soda, spices, and salt and make a well in the center. In a small bowl beat together eggs and vegetable oil until combined, and pour into flour mixture. Using a mixer or wooden spoon, blend until combined. Stir in grated carrots, zucchini & apple.
Divide batter evenly between pans. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes, or until a cake tester inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean. Remove from oven and cool for 15 minutes. Remove from pans, turn over onto parchment paper and allow to cool completely before assembling.
In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat cream cheese and butter until completely smooth, about 5 minutes. Add sugar and vanilla and stir in very slowly until incorporated. Once the sugar is mixed in, turn mixer up to high and beat until smooth, about 5 minutes more.
To assemble your cake, level your layers with a sharp serrated knife or cake leveler. Spread about 3/4 cup of icing between each layer of cake, and cover the top and sides of the cake with a thin layer of icing to seal in the crumbs. Refrigerate the cake for about 30 minutes before finishing with another layer of icing. Decorate with swirls, piped details, chopped pecans, or however desired.