Sunday, June 3, 2007

Torta di carota (A big carrot cake)

When my friends Kathryn and Tristan announced they would be getting married in Tuscany on June 1st, I didn't even hesitate before offering to bake their wedding cake. Tristan was one of my very first friends in Nice, and Kathryn and I hit it off instantly when I met her two years ago. A frequent assistant at my cooking classes, she shares my capacity to talk endlessly about food, whether French, Italian or Asian. Kathryn is one of the best spontaneous cooks I know, especially with Asian ingredients - she is the kind of person who will throw together seared tuna spring rolls with sesame-soy dipping sauce when you drop by for drinks.
We quickly agreed that a giant carrot cake would suit this casual garden wedding perfectly. It's easy to make, suitably dense and everyone loves it - especially when the recipe comes from the Paris café Rose Bakery, run by an Anglo-French couple with a taste for the best organic ingredients. The only challenge would be to make it in an unknown kitchen with no room in the schedule for disaster: we arrived on Wednesday night and the wedding was on Friday.
To save half a day once in Italy, I brought all the ingredients from Nice. This was a perfect illustration of why it pays to make friends with market stallholders and small shopkeepers. Since a carrot cake can only be as good as the carrots that go into it, I asked Sandra, a producer based in St-Laurent-du-Var and St-Jeannet, if she could set aside 15 pounds of carrots for me. I was rewarded with several bags of big, sweet, juicy carrots that had been picked and washed on Tuesday. Antoine, who runs the convenience shop in rue Droite, picked up two 1 lb bags of walnuts for me at the professional supply store Métro. From the Italian deli Exquis d'Italia in boulevard Jean Jaurès I bought 20 packets of Philadelphia Cream Cheese, which is popular in Italy but unknown in France. The rest of the ingredients, including organic flour, came from the big supermarket Carrefour courtesy of Philippe, who would like me to point out that there is nothing he hates more than going to Carrefour.
Having established that there was no food processor or mixer in the Italian villa, though there apparently was an oven, I then packed approximately half my kitchen into the back of the car, not forgetting essentials like several peelers (in the hope that I would get some help with that chore) and a pastry bag with a fluted tip for the finishing touches. Oh, and Sam, who as it turned out would play a crucial role.
I had been so busy making lists that I really hadn't given much thought to the site of the wedding itself, hastily printing out the Via Michelin itinerary before setting out. So Agricola Sforni came as quite a surprise: only 20 minutes from Pisa, this is the kind of place that makes you think "no wonder everyone loves Tuscany so much." One of four villas that hosted the 50 wedding guests, ours looked over wheat fields that until recently produced flour for the family's bread and pasta. It was quintessentially Tuscan in an unfussy way, and had a most impressive double-sized gas oven. Which didn't seem to turn on.
The owner quickly appeared to show us how to operate this beast: first we had to drag out the heavy iron tray, then contort ourselves to light the pilot light. If we then turned the knob ever so slowly, we could set the oven to the desired heat. The tray then slid back in, with much bashing and clanging.
So far, so good. Only, when it came time to bake the first two cakes, the oven kept turning itself off. Each time we struggled with the burning-hot tray, relit the flame and pushed it back in. When we had done this three times the technician was called, but by now the oven had found its groove and was purring like one of the many cats that hung around the kitchen, staking out the cream cheese. "There is nothing wrong with this oven," he declared.
Then it was just a matter of mixing and baking, mixing and baking: two layers for each of the first two tiers and one baby cake for the top, which I baked in a Charlotte mold. I stashed the cakes in a cupboard, out of reach of the cats, and prayed that they wouldn't look like a midnight snack to any occupants of the house.
The next day, in my trusty KitchenAid mixer, I whipped up three mega-batches of cream cheese frosting and got to work. I decided there was no point in going for a smooth finish with cream cheese icing, so left it natural, like the happy couple.

The only technical trick that proved necessary was supporting the heavy second tier with a few drinking straws, which I cut to the height of the first tier and sunk into the cake. Before using fresh roses from the garden for the decoration, I checked that they hadn't been treated with any chemicals.
When the cake was ready to go, I stood back and admired its homemade charm. Then I left the room. A few minutes later, I came back to find three cats circling the cake. Having no respect for me, they didn't even react when I shouted and flapped my arms. Thankfully Sam, who had spent the last two days befriending the cats, intervened. With him guarding the door they didn't dare enter.
Transporting the cake to another villa on the rocky, unpaved road was another adventure, but it survived with only a minor touch-up (tip to amateur wedding-cake bakers: always take extra icing to the venue). The caterers, from the wonderful restaurant Cavallino Bianco in Polesino near Parma (where the bride's family lives), whisked it out of my hands into their refrigerated truck and I breathed a sigh of relief. They were impressed with its size but a little mystified.
"Torta di carota? Is it sweet or savory?"
"Sweet," I said. "It's not traditional, but everyone loves it."
They still looked skeptical - until the cake was thoroughly demolished later that evening.
I multiplied the following recipe by six to make a carrot cake that would serve 50-60 as the sole dessert or up to 100 as part of a dessert buffet. The original recipe, from the book Breakfast, Lunch, Tea: Rose Bakery (Phaidon) calls for white sugar but I used light brown cane sugar.

Rose Bakery's Carrot Cake
Serves 8

Unsalted butter, for greasing
4 eggs
1 cup light brown cane sugar
1 1/4 cups sunflower oil
9 medium carrots, finely grated
2 cups all-purpose flour, sifted
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 rounded tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 1/2 cups finely chopped walnuts

For the icing
1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
1 cup cream cheese
1/2 tsp natural vanilla extract
1/2 - 3/4 cup confectioner's sugar, depending on how sweet you like your icing

Preheat the oven to 350 F / 180 C / Gas mark 4.

Butter a 9-inch (23 cm) cake tin and line its base with parchment paper.

Beat the eggs and sugar until they are light and fluffy but not too white and meringue-like.

Pour in the oil and beat for a few more minutes.

Fold in the carrots and then the flour with the cinnamon, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda and salt. Finally fold in the walnuts.

Pour the mixture into the prepared tin and bake for about 45 mins or until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean.

Remove from the oven and cool the cake in the tin before taking it out.

To make the icing, beat the butter with the cream cheese for a few minutes till the mixture is smooth.

Add the vanilla extract and icing sugar.

When the cake is cold, ice the top with the icing - it can be as smooth or rough as you like.


Anonymous said...

wow! It looks amazing, and I bet it tasted wonderful. But what a huge amount of work for you - a great wedding present. I think I'll have carrot cake for my 40th birthday bash later this month!

Rosa said...

It did taste pretty great. Now that you know how to make a three-tiered cake, you can invite lots of people to your party!

Lucy said...

Oh Rosa, what an amazing cake. Truth be told, this is by far my preferred kind of celebration cake. A beautiful, beautiful gift.

You think that Tuscany is too often visted, too over-blown and over-rated. Then you get there and you forget all your predjudices. Sigh.

Rosa said...

Lucy, you're absolutely right about Tuscany. I'll be going to the Marche region this summer, so it will be interesting to compare the two! So far, though, I've never been disappointed in Italy no matter where I go.

Susan said...

A charming cake, a charming story. Carrot with cream cheese is very popular in the States, even enjoying some minor attention in traditional, formal wedding celebrations.

I laughed at how the cats circled the cake, ready to press their sweet, little noses into the frosting. Typical cat behavior no matter where they live!

Rosa said...

Hi Susan, thanks for dropping by! I must say I wasn't feeling very charitable towards those cats, but really, who can blame them for wanting to steal a lick?

Helene said...

What a great read! I could "see" you packing this car up to the rim with bakign supplies!
You are absolutely right: good carrots make better cakes and it is often forgotten.

Rosa said...

Thanks Tartelette! You know, I think ordinary supermarket carrots have a very odd smell. I wonder what causes that?