An American Favorite – Carrot Cake

Carrot-Cake-300x300Several years ago, I did a stint as executive chef at a busy Texas hotel. Once or twice a month, usually after a busy Friday night, the kitchen staff and I would meet at Evelyn’s Café for a late-night breakfast before going home. Evelyn was known miles around for was her delicious three- layer carrot cake—moist, not too sweet, filled with crushed pineapple and pecans. Fluffy cream cheese frosting was generously stuffed between each layer, and thick swirls of the stuff covered the cake’s top and sides.  And the wedge they gave you was big enough for two normal people to share, though I enjoyed each and every bite by myself, as carrot cake has always been one of my favorite cakes. Evelyn’s suddenly closed in February of 1989 and with its closing went the recipe for her signature cake.

Tomato Soup Cake

In spite of what some think, tomato soup cake was not the invention of Campbell Soup Company, but rather the creation of Depression-era housewives.

Recipes for tomato soup cake (sometimes called “Mystery Cake”) first began making its appearance in community cookbooks during the 1920s and 1930s. Tomato soup concentrate was used in place of milk, butter and other dairy products to bring moisture and texture to this unusual dessert. After all, these products were hard to come by during the country’s Great Depression.

Campbell’s Tomato Soup was introduced to the American consumer in 1897, but the company didn’t open their test kitchen until 1941. And though Campbell’s was quick to develop their own version of tomato soup cake and use it to promote their soup, the first version was more like a British-style pudding than a cake. It was 1966 when Campbell’s finally came out with the modern version of this once popular cake.

The first tomato soup cakes were most often simple single-layer or loaf cakes, usually served plain. Updated recipes called for two-layer cakes topped with cream cheese frosting.

Adventurous readers feeling up for the challenge can find the recipe for Campbell’s Spicy Tomato Soup Cake in the recipe section of this blog.

Originally carrots grew wild in what is now southern Afghanistan. Quite different from the sweet, orange variety so popular today, these small, woody, unpleasant tasting purple roots were used primarily as a medicine and its seed as a spice. Silk traders eventually brought the seeds to Western Asia where after centuries of cultivation the anthocyanin pigment was bred out resulting in pale yellow carrots with better taste and texture.

In the 10th century the yellow carrot made its way to Holland where by the 13th century it was further improved and was being planted throughout France and Germany as a food crop mainly for the wealthy. Continued selective breeding eventually produced an orange carrot quite similar to those available today.

Carrots were first brought to North America by the colonists and generally used only in stews and soups. By the end of the 19th century, the French had introduced a longer, sweeter variety of carrot that was tasty both cooked and raw. This new, modern carrot found instant commercial success in both Europe and America.

Enter the carrot cake

The exact origin of the carrot cake is somewhat debated although most food historians feel it descended from the carrot puddings of Medieval Europe. Over the years these recipes took on several forms—some were steamed like pie and served with a sauce, others were baked in cake pans and glazed like a cake. One of the earliest recipes for a true carrot cake appeared in a 19th century French cookbook printed in England. Another early recipe was published in Switzerland where according to the Culinary Heritage of Switzerland it is still the most popular cake in the country, especially for children’s birthdays.

Likely the first recipe in the U.S. for modern carrot cake appeared in The 20th Century Bride’s Cookbook, published by the Twentieth Century Club in Wichita, Kansas in 1929. After World War II, bakers began applying the chiffon principle of eggs and oil to carrot cake, which resulted in the dense, tender and moist cake we know today.

Still, even after this improvement the carrot cake remained just a local delight. It wasn’t until the early 1960s that the carrot cake went from novelty dessert to a standard menu item in restaurants across the nation. One reason for this rise from obscurity was the pairing of carrot cake with cream cheese frosting (developed in the 1930s as the topping for the tomato soup cake). A 2005 survey taken by the Food Network shows carrot cake with cream cheese frosting as number five of the top five 1970’s fad foods.

I was first introduced to carrot cake by my mom who got the recipe out of aCarrot-Cake-Whole-1 community cookbook published by a local radio station. And while it was absolutely delicious, I’m sorry to say Evelyn’s was better. I only wish I had been able to get Evelyn’s recipe before the café doors closed. With that said, I have included my mom’s version of carrot cake which I believe you will enjoy.

Make Em: Tomato Soup Spice Cake, Evelyn’s Carrot Cake

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Ranch Dressing. America’s Favorite.

Although it first began showing up on supermarket shelves in the early 60s where I grew up, I really don’t recall its popularity soaring until some twenty years later while I was cooking in New York City. It was there in the “big city” that I started to think, “Folks are so crazy about this stuff that I’m surprised they don’t put it on their breakfast cereal.” Now don’t get me wrong, I like ranch dressing. But there are other dressings I like on my salads just as well, and in some cases, better.

So where and how did ranch dressing begin? And why is it so damned popular?

the-hensons

It all started in 1949 when plumbing contractor Kenneth (he later changed his name to Steve) Henson and his wife Gayle took a job in the remote Alaskan bush. In addition to his plumbing skills, Henson also loved to cook and consequently prepared most of the meals for his crew. It was during these years that he began to develop what eventually became ranch dressing, constantly tweaking the recipe until it had the perfect flavor profile–creamy, cool, with just the right amount of twang.

hidden_ranch_t479

In 1954, the Hensons decided to leave Alaska and retire in sunny California. But retirement wasn’t for Henson and he began searching for something productive to fill his time. It wasn’t too long before he heard that the Sweetwater Ranch, nestled in the mountains of San Marcos Pass outside of Santa Barbara, was for sale. Steve had always dreamed of becoming a rancher, so in 1956 he and Gayle purchased the picturesque 120 acre ranch, promptly renaming it Hidden Valley Guest Ranch.

During the day, ranch guests enjoyed a plethora of outdoor activities ranging from riding to hiking, from fishing to swimming. Guests also enjoyed great home-cooked meals and freshly prepared salads, always dressed with the buttermilk dressing Henson had perfected while in Alaska. As the word spread about this unique dressing, folks began to frequent the guest ranch as much for the opportunity to sample the special concoction of herbs, spices, buttermilk and mayonnaise as for the activities. Soon guests were asking for jars of the stuff to take home.

Then Henson began getting so many requests for his dressing that he and Gayle created a dry spice mix that, when blended with mayonnaise and buttermilk, allowed the customer to enjoy the same ranch dressing experienced while a guest at the ranch. They also trademarked the name Hidden Valley Ranch.

In 1957, Kelley’s Korner, a small store located on the corner of what is now State Street and La Cumbre Road, was the first to start selling imagesHenson’s packets of Hidden Valley Ranch mix. In fact the dressing packets sold so fast (more than 140 in two days) that the store’s owner Lloyd Kelly thought his employees were stealing them.

Realizing he was on to something big, the Henson’s began a mail order business selling the packaged dressing mix for 75 cents each. Demand for Hidden Valley Ranch dressing continued to grow until soon it took up every room of their home. And by the mid-1960s the mail order business had completely taken over the guest ranch, and by the end of the decade orders from all 50 states and over 30 countries were being filled. It was also at this time that Henson’s dressing was being distributed in stores throughout the Southwest.

In the early 1970s, Hidden Valley Ranch dressing production had outgrown the ranch facilities and had to be moved offsite, although the ranch remained corporate headquarters. Griffith Laboratories was contracted to blend the dressing mix and ship it to a 65,000 square foot facility in Los Angeles where it was packaged at the rate of 35,000 packets a day. Similar operations were later set up in Colorado and Nevada.

In 1972, the Hensons sold their Hidden Valley Guest Ranch, and by October of the following year Clorox had purchased the Hidden Valley dressing business for $8 million.

dressings-original

Clorox reformulated Steve Henson’s ranch dressing in order to make it more consumer friendly. The first improvement was to add buttermilk flavor to the spice packet so standard milk could be used, rather than buttermilk. The most important improvement came in 1983, with the shelf-stable, ready-to-use bottled version found on the grocers shelves. Today, Hidden Valley Ranch dressing is sold in both packets and bottles.

While Hidden Valley Ranch was the first, it is certainly not the only ranch dressing on the market. Today ranch dressing is also produced by Ken’s, Draft, Marie’s, Newman’s Own, Wish-Bone, as well as a number of private and lesser known brands.

In 1992 ranch dressing overtook Italian dressing as the leading salad dressing flavor sold in the United States and Canada. However, in the rest of the world it is virtually an unknown. So for now at least, I guess those folks will have to continue using milk on their breakfast cereal.

Make Em: Buttermilk Ranch Dressing