Friday, December 9, 2011

Auntie Martine's Carrot Cake With Cream Cheese Icing

Ever since I started this blog I have been debating whether or not to include the family recipe for The Ultimate Carrot Cake. There are pros and cons to consider. If I share it, how would my family feel? If I share it, will credit be given where credit is due? If I share it, it won't be a secret anymore. If I share it, it might lose its specialness. 

On the other hand, if I don't share it, people won't get to experience the moist perfection of the eggless (yes, eggless!) cake, and the creamiest possible cream cheese icing. If I don't share it people may possibly continue to think that their own carrot cake is The Ultimate Carrot Cake. If I don't share it, I would be keeping secret one of the recipes I am known for. If I don't share it, well, the list goes on.

As long as I can remember, my Auntie Martine has made this cake for most special occasions. Growing up in Newfoundland, this cake was even more special because Auntie Martine lives in Montreal, so we would only get the cake when we traveled to visit the family. My Mom never tried to bake this cake - she had her own specialties. This cake was truly Auntie Martine's. We knew that we could rely on getting to have this cake on every visit we made to the house on Elmwood Drive in Pointe Claire. Whether it was a birthday, an anniversary, Christmas, or after a long, humid summer day spent playing Marco Polo in the backyard pool, there would be carrot cake for dessert.

We'd sit at the counter in the kitchen, where the four cousins (now there are 11) always sat, polishing off whatever dinner or lunch we had been served, keeping an eye on the confection on the corner of the kitchen counter. It would call to us. On other days we might sneak our hands into the cupboard above where the cake was sitting, reach into the cookie jar that lived inside, and come out with an Oreo, or better yet, a Fudgeo. Or we might run down the basement stairs to the big freezer and move the frozen hamburger meat around looking for a popsicle. But when the carrot cake was on the counter, all other options were off the table. 

Even if we finished eating before the grownups, who were sitting at the table behind us in the bright kitchen wallpapered with yellow gingham, we had to wait for the cake. Dessert was eaten together, as a family.  And perhaps that is one of the reasons we all love it so much - because it reminds us of family, of love, and of carefree days gone by.

I can picture her now, Auntie Martine, taking the plate that the cake was on and carrying it over to the counter. "Du lait, s'il vous plait" we would cry, pounding our little fists on the counter, "du lait s'il vous plait!" We got our milk, and our cake. Then all would be silent for some time while children and grownups alike took bite after precious bite of the cake.

I keep the tradition alive, as do my cousins. My kids' first taste of cake was the carrot cake. I continue to make it for every birthday in the family - whether I bake it as cupcakes, a bundt cake, a double (or once a triple) layered round cake, or the standard square cake. For Noah's first birthday I made it in the shape of an ark, and placed little plastic animals all over the pillowy clouds of cream cheese icing. It has become the favourite cake of my father in law, Joseph, and I recently made it for his birthday as per his request. My brother Joel's wife, Maureen and her daughter Rebecca have discovered myriad of uses for the extra icing - spread it on ginger snaps, sandwich it between chocolate cookies, eat it off a spoon.

At Joseph's recent birthday party, I talked about the cake with my sister in law Bryony's boyfriend Micah, who happens to be an actual writer (not a wannabe like me). We discussed the internal struggle I was having with myself as to whether or not I should share the recipe. He suggested that I just write about it, and see what happens. I took that to mean that I would know at the end of the piece if I should share the recipe or not. And I do.

For now, it's staying in the vault. Later, who knows?

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Not My Mom’s Sour Cream Coffee Cake

My Mom used to make a coffee cake that was TO DIE FOR. It came from a recipe book called A Treasure For My Daughter. According to Mom, there were not too many other good recipes in that book, but because of the coffee cake, she held on to it. When we moved from Newfoundland to Montreal in 1988, the book was misplaced. I tried for years to find it but it was out of print. I checked used book stores in Montreal, Toronto, New York... to no avail.

Enter the internet; to be precise. I found the book last night and quickly ordered it! It should be here in two weeks. In the meantime, I was craving coffee cake so I opened my trusty bible, The Joy of Cooking, by Irma S. Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker to see what they had to offer.

I also opened my fridge and found that we had no sour cream. What we did have was Greek yogurt, 0% fat (Liberty). So I figured that yogurt and sour cream have similar textures, and if I used yogurt instead I’d be getting extra I decided to give it a whirl.

The recipe turned out pretty well, but I have to say, it is not the coffee cake I had been dreaming of. So I promise to return here once the cookbook arrives, to reveal to you the most delicious sour cream coffee cake you will ever have.

In the meantime, this one is pretty tasty. I made it last night and it’s already gone. In terms of texture, this one is heavier than the one I remember. When I was spooning it into the pan to be baked, it seemed to be almost like a cobbler topping. If you are familiar with that you will know that it is heavy and doesn’t spread easily like a regular cake batter.  The other thing I noticed about this cake is the streusel topping – which wasn’t as brown sugary as I had hoped. On the plus side, the cake took only 20 minutes to bake, and as I mentioned above, it’s very tasty.

So enjoy this recipe, and come back to visit in two weeks for another version!

Ingredients (all should be at about 70 degrees F):
For the cake:
1 ½ cups all purpose flour
¾ cup white sugar (Note: Original recipe called for 1 cup)
2 tsp baking powder
½ tsp baking soda
¼ tsp salt
1 cup sour cream (Note: I used Greek-style yogurt, 0% fat)
2 eggs

For the streusel topping:
3 tbsp flour
3 tbsp butter
5 tbsp brown sugar
¾ tsp cinnamon
Mix together with a pastry cutter or a fork until crumbly. You can add some nuts if you like. 

Sift dry ingredients into a bowl (truth be told, I never sift anything). 

My eggs had just come out of the fridge and were definitely not 70 degrees F, so I put them into a mug of hot water for about 30 seconds before cracking them.

Blend the sour cream and the eggs together using a stand mixer. 

Add the flour mixture and mix until just combined. Do not over-mix because this makes the dough stiff.

Spread into a 9 x 9 inch square pan that has been sprayed with cooking spray, or greased. As I mentioned above, this is not as simple as pouring regular cake batter into a pan - you will have to press it into the pan corners with a spatula. It will spread out as it bakes so just do the best you can.

Sprinkle the streusel topping on top of the cake.  


Bake at 350 degrees F for 20 minutes. Stick a toothpick in there – if it comes out clean, it’s done.


Enjoy with a nice cup! Or a mug of tea. Or even a big glass of milk.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Spiced Nuts from David Lebovitz

In April of 2011 the King of Soup and I traveled to Paris and Barcelona to celebrate our ten year wedding anniversary. We had an amazing time in both cities – we rented apartments and tried to live like the locals. We ate, walked, ate some more, walked some more, and enjoyed each other’s company (without our children around!). I loved both cities, but definitely felt more at home in Paris. Ever since we returned, I find myself drawn to anything that is from Paris, says Paris on it, smells like Paris, etc. I admit that this could become a problem in the future, but for now I am embracing it (until I can get back to Paris and experience that city again in person).

As we were preparing for our travels, one of my friends who gets to go to Paris regularly, told me about David Lebovitz. David has written a book called The Sweet Life in Paris, and also writes a blog. I started following the blog in preparation for the trip, and continue to read it daily now that I am home.

About three weeks ago, I was reading a recent post and at the bottom of the post there were some links to older recipes. The one that caught my eye immediately was called Spiced Glazed Nuts and Pretzel Mix. I decided to try it and immediately was hooked. Uh oh.

I have made this several times in the past three weeks. Each time I have shared it with other people – thank goodness or I might weigh 300 pounds very soon. I have two small adjustments: first, I used light brown sugar instead of dark, because it is what I had on hand in the pantry. Today I made it with dark, just to see if it would turn out differently. The only difference I can detect is that the mixture is darker in colour than my last three (maybe four) batches. But it tastes the same – wonderful. The second adjustment I made was to increase the cayenne pepper from ¾ tsp to 1 tsp. But that is up to you.

This would be a great holiday gift, packaged nicely in a Mason jar with a pretty ribbon around the neck. Or, you can keep it all for yourself.

2 cups raw nuts (I used ¾ cup pecan halves, ¾ cup almonds and ½ cup cashews – you could also use hazelnuts and peanuts – whatever you prefer)
1 tbsp butter (David Lebovitz specifies unsalted, but I always use salted because I don’t buy unsalted butter – what’s the point?)
3 tbsp dark brown sugar (again, I used light brown sugar)
1 ½ tbsp maple syrup
¾ tsp cayenne pepper
½ tsp cinnamon
2 cups pretzel twists, small (I used sticks once when I could not find the twists – the twists definitely work better because they are more bite-sized)
1 tsp flaked or Kosher salt


Place the nuts on a cookie sheet and roast them for 10 minutes at 350 degrees F. Stir the nuts halfway through for even toasting.

Meanwhile, place the butter in a large-ish bowl and melt it in the microwave for about 20 – 30 seconds. Remove the bowl from the microwave and add the sugar, maple syrup, cinnamon, and cayenne pepper. Mix it all up until the sugar is dissolved. 

Today I forgot to melt the butter first so I just put it all into the microwave.

Pour the mixture over the warm nuts when they come out of the oven. Stir to coat. 
Add the pretzels and the salt and stir again.

Return to the oven on the cookie sheet and bake for another 12 to 18 minutes. 12 is perfect in my oven. Be sure to stir halfway through for even toasting. David says to stir twice, but I only did it once and all was well with the world.

As the mixture cools, you can break it apart – it will stick together in clumps because of the sugar and maple syrup.

Additional Notes:

Today when I made the recipe, I bought already roasted nuts, just to see if it made a difference. In doing so, I eliminated the first 10 minute roasting period. The end result was pretty much the same so it’s up to you what you prefer to do.

Note as well that you add the salt at the end so it doesn’t dissolve. Be sure to use coarse salt so you get the texture that makes these nuts so delish.

The mixture can be stored in an airtight container for up to a week – but it won’t last that long, trust me.