I did some research and could not find a clear answer as to when and where carrot cake was 'invented' (Michael Twitty, any thoughts?). It was most likely first baked as a quick bread in Europe, when sugar was scarce and the natural sweetness of carrots could make up for the difference. Nevertheless, there is a carrot cake recipe in practically every baking and African-American cookbook I own, which means that at some point it became a popular dessert in our country.
There is a fantastic bakery here in Boston called Flour, which turns out some of the best pastries I have ever had in the U.S. The bakery's founder, owner, and baking chief is Joanne Chang, who is actually a former mathematician turned French-trained pastry chef. I don't know exactly what inspired her to seek alternative, lower sugar versions of her popular pastries and desserts, but I have been happily baking my way through her cookbook "Baking With Less Sugar". So far everything I've produced has been nothing short of some of the best baked goods I've ever turned out.
Her Carrot Pineapple Carrot cake which I made on Sunday is down to the last 2 slices, having been devoured by the family for both breakfast and dessert for the last 3 1/2 days. It is that good. The recipe calls for reductions of apple cider concentrate and pineapple chunks for sweetness, which means no added white sugar. Now, that's not saying it's sugar free (remember: sugar is sugar) but it features much less than traditional carrot cakes, relying on fruit juice for sweetness. I made a few changes, including using coconut flakes instead of walnuts (because of my daughter's allergies) and reducing the sodium. So enjoy in moderation, but at least you're getting your fruit and veggies with your sweet!
Makes one double-layer 8-inch cake to serve 10 to 12.
Cream Cheese Frosting:
1 12-ounce can frozen apple juice concentrate
8 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
2 cups heavy cream
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon kosher salt
¾ cup unsweetened, flaked coconut
1 12-ounce can frozen apple juice concentrate
1 8-ounce can pineapple chunks in their own juice
4 large eggs
½ cup crème fraîche
½ cup milk
1¼ cup canola oil
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
2¼ cups unbleached all-purpose flour or whole grain all purpose flour
2½ teaspoons sodium-free baking powder
1 teaspoon sodium-free baking soda or ½ teaspoon regular baking soda
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1 cup peeled and shredded carrots, tightly packed
¾ cup un-sulphured dark raisins, about half of them roughly chopped
¾ cup un-sulphured golden raisins, soaked for 20 minutes in hot water and drained
1. At least 4 hours in advance, make the frosting: In a small saucepan bring one can of apple juice concentrate to a boil and then reduce heat to a simmer; simmer juice on medium low heat until juice reduces to ¾ cup, about 20 to 25 minutes. It will thicken up, become syrupy, and boil a little slower as it reduces. Watch out that it does not overboil or burn; you may need to reduce heat as it thickens. To check to see if it is reduced enough, every now and then pour the juice into a measuring cup to measure it; if it is not ¾ cup, pour it back into saucepan to continue to simmer and reduce until it measures out to ¾ cup. Remove from heat and cool in fridge until cold to touch.
2. In a stand mixer with a whisk attachment (or an electric hand mixer} whip the cream cheese with 1/2 cup of the reduced apple juice concentrate on medium speed for 2-3 minutes, or until it is light and fluffy, scraping the bowl occasionally to get all of the cream cheese whipped up. Slowly drizzle in the heavy cream and beat on medium until the cream thickens and combines with the cream cheese mixture, about 1 to 2 more minutes. Add cinnamon, vanilla, and salt and mix until well combined. Scrape frosting into an airtight container refrigerate for at least 4 hours or up to 3 days. The frosting needs to firm up before you can use it. You will have about 4 cups of frosting.
3. To make the cake: Place a rack in the center of the oven and preheat oven to 350°F. Place coconut on a baking sheet and toast for about 8 minutes until lightly toasted. Set aside to cool. Butter and flour the cake pans or line the bottoms with parchment. Set aside. In a medium saucepan combine one can of apple juice concentrate and the juice from the crushed pineapple. Chop pineapple into small pieces and set aside. Bring juices to a boil and then reduce heat to a simmer; simmer juice on medium low heat until juice reduces to ¾ cup, about 20 to 25 minutes. It will thicken up, become syrupy, and boil a little slower as it reduces. DO NOT overboil or burn or you will get candy! You may need to reduce heat as it thickens. To check to see if it is reduced enough, every now and then pour the juice into a measuring cup to measure it; if it is not ¾ cup, pour it back into saucepan to continue to simmer and reduce until it measures out to ¾ cup. Remove from heat and cool in fridge until cold to touch.
4. In a large bowl, whisk together the cooled apple juice concentrate, eggs, crème fraîche, milk, vegetable oil, vanilla extract, and reserved chopped pineapple until well combined. In a medium bowl, stir together flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, ground ginger, grated nutmeg, carrots, dark raisins, drained golden raisins, and coconut. Add to egg mixture and fold together until well combined. Scrape batter into prepared pans, dividing equally between pans. Bake for 35 to 45 minutes until cake is light brown (it won’t color as much as a full sugar cake) and the cake springs back when you touch it in the center with your finger. They will not dome at all. Remove cakes from oven and let cool until you can pop them out of the pan.
5. When the cakes are completely, totally cool (if they are at all warm the frosting will melt off and it will be a mess), remove them from the pans and use a long serrated knife to trim the tops of the cakes off to level them (they don’t round too much but it’s nice to level them off if they do). Place one cake on a plate or cake pedestal (use a cake turner if you have one) and spoon about a cup of chilled frosting on top; use an offset spatula to spread the frosting evenly all the way to the edges of the cake. Carefully place the second cake on top of the first cake (place it upside down so the even, sharp edges will be on the top of your finished cake) and spoon about another cup of frosting on top of the cake. Spread the frosting thinly to the edges of the cake and down the sides of the cake, smoothing it as well as you can and covering the entire cake with a thin layer of frosting. This layer of frosting is called a crumb coat; it keeps loose crumbs from migrating to the surface of the finished cake. (At this point it helps to refrigerate the cake for about 15 minutes to help set the crumb coat; it’s not crucial but if you have time it makes frosting a little easier.) When you are done with the crumb coat, spoon a heaping cup of frosting on the cake and spread it evenly across the top and sides again. This is the final finishing layer of frosting. Use remaining frosting to pipe a border around the bottom of the cake if you wish or pile it on top of the cake. Garnish the finished cake with fresh fruit. Store the cake for up to 2 days in an airtight container in the refrigerator. Any longer than that and the frosting will get softer and may slide off of the cake. Remove the cake from the refrigerator about 2 to 3 hours before serving and serve the cake at cool room temperature.