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Archive for Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Culinary icon takes cake with classic recipe

August 22, 2007

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I recently was in need of a recipe for a substantial cake to give as a thank-you gift, but it had to be a recipe that was simple to make because I was pressed for time. My first thought was of a carrot cake recipe that I became attached to more than 30 years ago.

Someone had given me a paperback copy of James Beard's "American Cookery" shortly after it was published in 1972, and I soon latched onto his carrot cake recipe. The texture is moist and moderately dense; served under a cream cheese frosting, it is simply the best nonchocolate cake I have eaten.

It had been about 10 years since I had made this cake, and I have to confess that my visits to this cookbook have become infrequent over time. Beard, who was a friend of Julia Child and a culinary icon in his own right, died in 1985. He was, however, one of the first television chefs, having cooked before the cameras in the 1940s. Our current infatuation with good food is partly his legacy.

Since his death, however, his contributions to cooking have faded from memory as foodies have embraced the newer popular chefs and splashy, colorful cookbooks with recipes broken down into bullet points. Beard's books, at least those published during his lifetime, often were built around the recipe narrative, which frequently opened with a few lines to offer historic or culinary context to the recipe through which he was about to walk the reader.

Few cookbook authors have been able to convey voice as effectively as James Beard. His recipes feel like friendly conversations.

From a peek inside my now-worn copy of his "American Cookery," it is obvious that he led me through many of its pages, which are now coming loose from the binding. It's also apparent that I frequently set the book too close to my mixing bowl. Nowhere is this more evident than on the pages that hold the carrot cake recipe. They are stained and stiff from dozens of spatters across the years.

I have included the introductory portion of the recipe instructions and his summary.

Fresh Carrot Cake

1 cup butter

2 cups sugar

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon mace or nutmeg

1/2 to 1 teaspoon grated orange rind

4 eggs

1 1/2 cups finely grated or shredded fresh carrots

2/3 cup finely chopped, toasted walnuts, filberts or black walnuts

2 1/2 cups sifted all-purpose flour

3 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/3 cup warm water

Mid-European kitchens have known a carrot torte for generations. This is an evolvement that is lighter in texture than a torte and has a nutty flavor. It is sometimes made with currants and raisins in it, as well as nuts.

Cream the butter and then cream in the sugar until very light and fluffy. Add the spices and grated orange rind and beat. Add the eggs, one at a time, and beat well. Do not beat when adding the flour, but rather fold in just until it is moistened well. If using an electric mixer, do this on the lowest speed. Turn into a greased and floured or greased paper-lined pan 11 by 15 by 2 inches, or into three 8- or 9-inch pans. Bake in a preheated 350-degree oven about 25 minutes for layers, or 30 to 40 for a sheet cake; the cake is done if it springs back when pressed lightly in the center. Cool for a few minutes, then loosen from the sides of the pan and turn it out onto a cake rack to cool.

This cake is better when aged a day or two. It is served with or without frosting. Favorite frostings are browned butter, penuche nut or caramel.

- When she's not writing about foods and gardening, Gwyn Mellinger is teaching journalism at Baker University. Her phone number is (785) 594-4554.

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