If I had to start 2014 with an overused food writing commonplace, I’d say that Brazilian carrot cake is my Proustian madeleine. Of all the cheese bread, brigadeiros, black beans and deep fried fare to pick from, it is the carrot cake that most strongly tastes of my childhood in Sao Paulo. It was pretty much a weekly occurrence at home, yet it never lost its special treat status .
It took me a while, and some disappointment, to realise that what we Brazilians call carrot cake is another creature altogether from the cinnamon-nutmeg laced, cream cheese frosted variety common in England and America. Ours is a simple beast. Quite brightly orange, it’s pure carrot, with a chocolate topping that can’t really be called frosting. Halfway between a glaze and a syrup, one of the pleasures of carrot cake days was to surreptitiously run my fingers around each slice, breaking the just set crust of chocolate and reaching the chocolate goo lurking underneath it. And yes, I did say carrot and chocolate as a flavour combo. You will not know food love until you try it.
Maybe because bolo de cenoura is the special welcome I get when I visit Brazil, I probably decided at some point it should keep its superstar allure, which I suppose explains why I never attempted to make it myself. Except that’s a big fat lie. I did try to make it a few times, many years ago. And it was a complete failure. Really shockingly bad, straight-to-the-bin quality. At the time, I declared ‘English carrots’ were to blame, and let the matter rest. And then Christmas came, and the thought of family and home must have brought on the desperate craving, and with it the alarming realisation I did not possess a single recipe of my beloved cake. Which is exactly what the internet was invented for. After selecting the most attractive recipes and heading for the kitchen , this is what I learned about Brazilian carrot cake:
- Deceptively simple covers it. Who knew this humble and homely cake was so particular about the way it gets baked?
- Do follow instructions closely, or be prepared to end up with a heavy and unbaked mess.
- Do not go for vague recipes. Even though this really is a simple and quick cake to make, there are a few tricks which, if not specified clearly on the instructions, will lead you to failure.
- If you find a recipe for ‘one step blend-it-all-together carrot cake’, bin it. It won’t work.
- This one I didn’t learn now, but was pleasantly reminded of all week: it makes the entire house smell like a piece of confectionery heaven like no other dessert does.
- It remains my all-time favourite cake.
I did get it right eventually, and I have one of the last delicious slices right here next to me as I type this. I still suspect there is a difference in the type of carrots from country to country, possibly in the water contents or freshness of carrots. For my now tried and tested recipe, I’ve used 2 medium carrots, but have stated the weight of them to hopefully make it more reliable. What you should get is a fluffy cake, not dry, but in no way as wet as a pudding. It should have a slightly sturdier consistency than a Victoria sponge, but still airy and bouncy. If it looks moist in the middle, it’s because it didn’t bake properly: go back to square one. As for the shape you choose to bake it: at home it was usually a square tray cake, but I have come across some taller and round ones. If you decide to use a bundt tin, add a third to the baking time. Also, the recipe I’m writing here is for a smallish tray. I used a brownie tin of 20X30 cm (8X12 in), so again, consider the size of the tins if using different shapes. I also found it much easier to get it right using a tray. I really hope my efforts have paid off and will ensure you get this right first time around. I promise you will never think of carrot cake the same way again.
If your 2014’s resolution was to try something new, I can’t think of any better way to start it!
Brazilian carrot and chocolate cake
As it’s common with regional recipes, any Brazilian you speak to will have their own version of what the ‘authentic’ chocolate topping should be like. For me, it must be the right side of viscous so it infiltrates the cake just so, and then sets on top of it as it cools down to form a barely there crust – a bit like the sugar crust on top of a lemon drizzle cake, only a bit less subtle.
For the cake:
- 2 medium carrots, sliced into 3 cm disks (roughly 1 inch). Or 230g.
- 1 cup vegetable oil (230ml). I used corn, as it’s the only one I remember was available when I was a child, and I wanted this to taste like the real thing. Any neutral vegetable oil is fine.
- 2 eggs
- 1 ¼ cups caster sugar (280g)
- 2 cups plain white flour (300g)
- 1 tbsp baking powder
- ½ tsp fine salt
- Grease and flour a 20X30 baking tray (8X12 in).
- Set the oven to 180C (350F).
- In a large bowl, mix the flour, baking powder and salt.
- In a blender, mix the carrots, oil, eggs and sugar. Blend it on the highest setting until it is completely smooth and not one bit of carrot is visible. Put the blender away and do not let it even look at the cake until it’s ready.
- Gently add the liquidised carrots to the flour mix and use a whisk to bring it all together. The dough will be liquid enough not to get stuck in the whisk. Mix it very well, but don’t beat it.
- Pour the dough into the prepared tin and bake it for approximately 30 minutes, or until the proverbial toothpick comes out clean. The house will be as fragrant as a dream by now.
- When it’s ready, remove it from the oven, let it cool in the tin for 20 to 30 minutes, then gently transfer it to a plate and glaze it while still warm.
For the chocolate glaze:
- 1 cup caster sugar (225g)
- 4 tbsp unsalted butter
- 5 – 6 tbsp milk, preferably full fat
- 4 tbsp good quality cocoa powder. Pure Dutch is less acidic if you have it.
- 1 tsp vanilla extract. Don’t overdo on the vanilla.
Mix all the ingredients in a small saucepan, mix well on a gentle heat and bring it to the boil. Let it boil for a minute or so.
While the cake is still warm, make small holes on its surface with a fork or toothpick. Slowly drizzle about half the glaze over the warm cake and let it sink in. Allow the remaining glaze to cool for 5 minutes or so and it will thicken a bit. Spread it on the cake so it forms a thin layer over it. As the cake cools down, the glaze will form a very thin and satisfying crust on it. It’s at its best the next day.