Depending on your local farmers and their preferences for spring crop choices, carrots may or may not show up during the first weeks of your market season. However, they are grown as both a spring and fall crop in many areas of the U.S., so keep your eyes open.
As with so many vegetables and fruits at the farmer’s market, carrots don’t look like the pristine orange spears you see in the stores. Remember that—sadly–ugly produce is a no-no in the conventional supermarkets. And what a shame because the slightly bearded, intricately crooked and somewhat stubby carrots fresh out of the garden—particularly the organic garden—out-score conventional carrots for flavor intensity, sweetness and aroma. If you will be trying a market carrot for the first time this year, I bet you’ll think you’ve never really tasted a carrot before. It’s almost like using imitation vanilla or chocolate your whole life and suddenly being introduced to the real thing.
Sometime last spring, my neighbors, who own a small farm outside of town, grew an early and unbelievably abundant crop of carrots. I received a bucket full and promptly sent back a dozen of my special Love Muffins using their fresh carrots as my inspiration and major ingredient. But muffins are just the beginning when it comes to carrots—this everybody-loves-me veggie is a perfect raw snack, great on the gill or in the roasting pan, and a must-have in Mirepoix, French cooking’s holy trinity of onions, celery and carrots (Italy’s, too, for that matter, well, heck, mine too!). And, because it is naturally sweet, its presence on the dessert table is a no-brainer. I cannot imagine my kitchen without carrots.
Which brings me back a week or so to Easter 2016’s buffet table. What could be more appropriate than carrot cake with a nod to Peter Rabbit? Besides, I just happen to have the world’s best (No, I am not exaggerating here.) carrot cake recipe, endowed to me by one of my all-time favorite Yoga instructors, Susan Goodall. In the many years that I took Yoga and Pilates from Susan at Gold’s Gym, I learned more than which end went up on downward-facing dog. I learned patience, self-love, respect for others, inner peace, and, of course, healthy eating. Susan and I shared recipes, and her Spectacular Spelt Carrot Cake is just incredible.
Unlike many carrot cake recipes that rely on tons of processed white sugar and flour, this one uses unprocessed raw sugar and spelt flour. Spelt is an ancient grain of the wheat family but with a different nutritional and performance profile than its commodity-crop cousin. For instance, my daughter is gluten-sensitive but does not have full-blown celiac disease. She can tolerate a piece of this cake, as long as she doesn’t overdue (And, believe me, it is hard not to overdue with this cake.). Thus, a family favorite is born.
Further, Susan’s cake, while rich, is not overpowering, allowing the chef more versatility than with a carrot cake that incorporates pineapple, dried fruit or other traditional add-ins that lead to a heavy, often soggy, dessert, especially when iced. It may sound sort of strange to describe it this way, but Susan’s cake has a “clean” carrot flavor—very aromatic with a texture that is actually quite light for such a dessert. So in my house, this cake has celebrated many birthdays, wearing a gown of rum buttercream frosting or traditional honey cream cheese frosting. It’s also been on the brunch buffet, dressed in only a sprinkle of powdered sugar (and appropriately stenciled), and it has been a weekday snack wearing nothing at all.
And one last thing before you reach for your mixer and rubber spatula—it is EASY to prepare and is guaranteed to produce two high-rising, lovely reddish-brown layers every single time you make it. As reliable as Susan for balance, simplicity and inner peace. Bakers, start your mixers!
- Two cups spelt flour
- Two teaspoons cinnamon (Susan uses slightly more cinnamon.)
- One teaspoon fresh-grated nutmeg
- Two teaspoons baking soda
- One-half teaspoon salt
- One and one-half cups raw sugar (Susan uses two cups.)
- One cup grapeseed oil (Susan uses one and one-half cups canola oil.)
- Four eggs (Susan uses five eggs.)
- One teaspoon pure vanilla
- Four cups finely grated carrots (I grate my carrots by hand—I know, a lot of work—but I feel I have more control than I would using my processor. Do what you feel comfortable doing, but keep in mind you need evenly shredded, fairly “dry” carrot, not mushy.)
- One and one-half cups finely chopped walnuts (For this I do use my processor and get my walnuts very fine—nearly meal consistency.)
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
- Prepare two layer cake pans by coating them with cooking spray or oil and setting a pre-cut sheet of parchment paper or waxed paper in the bottom. Lightly spray and dust with flour. Set aside. (Round layers work well for a two-layer, iced cake; square layers make nice snack cakes.)
- In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, spices, baking soda and salt.
- Blend at medium/high speed, sugar and oil until light and somewhat fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating after each addition. Add vanilla.
- Add flour mixture to sugar mixture by scoops, continuing to mix until smooth.
- Stir in the grated carrot and nuts.
- Pour batter into the prepared layer pans.
- Bake for approximately one hour.
- Remove pans from oven when toothpick in center of layers comes out clean. Cool 10 minutes in the pans, and then invert and finish cooling completely on baking racks.
You'll notice that I’ve noted in the ingredients where I have altered Susan’s original recipe to lower sugar and fat slightly. Either version is very good, so up to you. This cake freezes like a dream; if you only need one layer, wrap the second tightly in foil and place in a freezer bag. It will keep in your freezer for at least three or four months without loss of flavor. Thaw it in its wrapping on your counter before serving.
As I’ve mentioned, carrots are incredibly versatile, and everybody seems to like them, even if they are picky about other vegetables. So to get more beta carotene into your loved ones’ mouths, try something outside the box. Many times when I have an abundance of carrots, sweet potatoes, broccoli or other veggies, I’ll steam them tender and then puree them with spices and condiments to create a “spread” that I can use in place of mayo on sandwiches, in place of butter on a baked potato or just as a dip for chips and crudité. Got some extra veggies in your crisper? Be creative and brave…
Quick and Easy Veggie Spread:
Steam your scrubbed and sliced veggie of choice (anywhere from one cup to two cups) until tender
Put your steamed veggies in your food processor and add whatever you think might create fantastic flavor and nutrition. Like…
Other produce: minced garlic, minced onion or shallot, a hot pepper (or a tiny bit of Harissa), grated ginger, lemon or orange zest and juice, etc.
Other condiments; a tablespoon or two of tahini, tamari, peanut butter, etc.
Spices: Start with sea salt and pepper to taste, and then go Indian with garam marsala and curry; go Mexican with cumin, cayenne, and chipotle powder; go Middle Eastern with paprika and turmeric. Create a little sweet contrast with cinnamon and allspice—totally up to you. Seaweed flakes are great, too, and add iodine and other important nutrients.
Process until desired consistency—too thick? Add a little flax or hemp oil that will smooth things out, boost flavor and nutrition.
What kind of spread will you be making?