This cake. THIS CAKE, you guys! Sometimes I make pretty things. Sometimes those things actually taste good. And sometimes, although rarely these days, I remember to take their picture. Even more rarely, though, I make beautiful things that actually taste good and that I actually remember to photograph. I know, I know, way to sell your skills, Kristi. But this cake, it turned out so fragrant and so picture perfect (even chasing the light on a blazing hot Sunday afternoon that threatened rain, not that I actually got any, Missouri, and we all know how I feel about that, and hoo boy, can I ever digress) that I couldn’t resist taking its picture. And then. THEN! I took a bite of this carrot cake, spiced with warm autumnal spices, slathered in a halva cream cheese frosting, and drizzled with a slip of caramel.
I owe this recipe to the efforts of the charming, indefatigable Molly Yeh, the former percussionist turned food blogger, who chronicles her farm adventures, globe-trotting, and willingness to add tahini in the most surprising of places, in her award-winning blog. As a food blogger, Yeh is thoroughly devoted to her craft – her commitment to carrot cake studies is second only to her fascination with funfetti cake studies. Seriously, the woman takes the art and science of cake baking to new and often hilarious levels.
I admit, while I definitely admire Yeh’s interest in carrot cake mixology, the real sell of Yeh’s recipe was the frosting. Traditional carrot cake, of course, relies on tangy cream cheese frosting to provide balance to what is essentially an orange spice cake. Yeh’s genius twist on the classic cream cheese frosting adds sweetness in the form of a tahini-caramel. The simple addition of tahini – the same ground sesame paste that features in hummus and salad dressings alike – to caramel transforms it into the Middle Eastern equivalent of that South American favorite, dulce de leche. And combining the Middle Eastern dulce de leche with cream cheese and butter further transforms an American classic into a frosting strongly reminiscent of that most fantastic Middle Eastern confection: halva, an Israeli confection made of ground sesame seeds, honey, and often pistachios. Earlier this year, I got my hands on some halva for the first time, and I instantly fell top over teakettle in love with its crumbly texture and the slightly bitter sesame edge. Imagine my ecstasy when the frosting I ate straight from the bowl tasted and smelled just like a creamier version of that halva. I was seriously tempted to just eat the entire bowl of frosting, but generously slathered between and atop two layers of cake, the smoky caramel, bitter sesame notes, and creaminess of the frosting perfectly rounded out the sweet spiciness of the dense, carrot-flecked cake.
Having said all of that, I made several significant changes to the recipe as it was originally written. First, I didn’t need a towering 8″ or 9″ cake, so I halved the cake recipe and baked it in two 6″ pans. I made the full recipe of frosting, though, which I piled high between and on top the layers, leaving the sides more or less naked. As written, the only sweetener in the frosting was the frosting called the tahini-caramel. After adding the caramel to the cream cheese/butter mix, I found the frosting very runny with a seriously pronounced bitter tahini edge. Realizing that my people might find the bitterness off-putting, I added powdered sugar to taste, and then I threw the frosting in the freezer to firm up a bit. While I waited, I whipped up an additional recipe of the caramel to drizzle on top of the frosted cake. This time, I omitted the tahini, so it was clear, sweet, and easily pourable. I do not regret my decision.
Finally, a word about the garnishes. Salty pistachios were an easy add to the top – they contributed a pop of green/purple to the top, and I quite liked the CRONCH and punch of salt against the sweetness of everything else. Those carrot rosettes were a different ball of wax. Actually, in the interest of accuracy, the carrot roses I spent an entire Sunday afternoon attempting to roll were a different ball of wax. I don’t care what Google or YouTube says, carrots do not want to be rolled into roses. It does not matter how much smack you talk about carrot mothers, it does not matter how terrified carrots become upon watching you mangle the other carrots into lopsided coins; they will not cooperate and transform into golden roses. So in the end, I just did what I should have done all along and used a vegetable peeler to peel thin strips off the carrots that remained from the massacre and roll them into little carrot ribbon rosettes. Learn from me, people.
And then eat ALL the cake.
I would like to face plant into that blanket of caramel now.