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


Muscadine, the Native Grape of North America

On a recent road trip, I had the occasion to stop at one of those super travel stations. You know the ones I mean–gasoline, snacks, souvenirs, clean restrooms, and usually a barbeque or fast food restaurant. While browsing the aisles, I happened to notice a wide selection of what appeared to be jars of home-canned fruits, compotes, jams, and jellies. MuscadineJelly-4685-9-2And there, right between the “Homemade Pear Butter” and “Brandied Peach Preserves,” was a jar of sweet goodness that made my mouth salivate, a treat my tongue hadn’t experienced in at least three decades–a Ball jar of clear, deep violet colored muscadine jelly. An absolute must-have!

As I pulled my car back onto the highway, jelly in tow, my mind wandered back to my youth when my parents would take me to visit grandmother’s farm in southeastern Oklahoma. And of course, most of the time one or two of my mother’s sisters or brothers or both were also there, as well as four to six cousins. As there was little or no TV reception at the farm, we kids would spend our days playing in the barn or smoke house or down at the stock tank fishing. Occasionally, one of Muscadinethe older cousins would take us younger ones beyond the pasture and past the peanut fields down to the marshes where thick vines grew wild, climbing high into the trees. And there we would pick muscadines, filling our buckets with those deep purple, almost black fruits that were as big around as quarters. And being the kids we were, we would swing from the vines and eat so many of the luscious berries that our fingers and tongues would become discolored from chewing on the skins, trying to get out as much of the flavor as possible.

When we got back to the farmhouse, my mother, grandmother, and aunts would wash, cook, and strain the fruit, “putting up” several dozen jars of homemade muscadine jelly. And since my father was partial to preserves instead of jelly, grandmother would always make sure her son-in-law had a few jars that included the skins (or hulls, as we called them), and pulp. Of course a few seeds were always able to sneak in as well, but to my dad that didn’t seem to matter.

There was nothing better than one of my grandmother’s hot biscuits slathered with fresh churned butter and topped with a thick layer of that delectable muscadine jelly.

ESIC_black_muscadineLong before European and Spanish explorers set foot on American soil, the Cherokee and Creek Indians were making raisins, dumplings, drinks, and poultices from wild grapes they called muscadines.

Native only to the Southeastern and Southern United States, muscadines thrived in the warm, humid climate so prevalent in those states. In the mid-1600s when Arthur Barlowe, an English sea captain and explorer serving under the direction of Sir Walter Raleigh, landed on the banks of what is now Roanoke Island, he was so taken by the number of muscadine vines and fruit he saw that he wrote to Raleigh extolling that the fruitful land was “full of grapes, that I think in all the world, like abundance is not to be found.”

Scuppernong_mother_vine by Catherine KozakWhen Raleigh came to North Carolina in 1585, he discovered what is thought today to be the oldest grapevine in the United States, describing it as having a trunk two feet thick and stretching over one-half an acre long and coiling up tree trunks growing sixty feet tall. Actually this 400 year old producing “mother vine” is of the variety called scuppernong muscadine. The scuppernong was the first native American grape to be culitvated and is the state fruit of North Carolina.

Wild muscadine vines can be found growing from southern Delaware, southward along the Atlantic coast to northern Florida, and westward to Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas. And because the muscadine is a native plant, its vines are practically immune to the fungus, bacteria, and plant pests that can destroy European grapevines. Muscadines grow best in fertile sandy loam of well-drained bottom lands that are subjected to neither extended drought or waterlogging.

scuppeernong 2Today, there are more than 300 muscadine cultivars, ranging in color from black to whitish bronze to dark purple. There are also red varieties and even some that remain green through maturity. The skins of muscadines are thick and so tough that many people bite off a small piece and suck out the sweet flesh inside. But it is the skins and seeds that excite many of today’s food scientists and nutritionists. They have found that powdered muscadine puree has more dietary fiber than oat or rice bran and can therefore help provide a wide range of health benefits including lowering blood pressure, triglycerides, and cholesterol levels.

Publication1Research has also found that the muscadine is extremely high in resveratrol, the phytochemical found in red wine and thought to be the underlying reason that the French have such a low incidence of coronary heart disease. In fact, one serving of muscadine jam, one medium muscadine muffin, or two ounces of muscadine juice contain as much resveratrol as four ounces of red wine.

So there you go. Just another example of some of the delicious, yet healthy foods that are native to this great country in which we live. Now if you’ll excuse me, the biscuits just came out of the oven and my jar of homemade muscadine jelly awaits my presence at the breakfast table. Bon appétit, y’all!

Buy Em: Muscadine jelly ($4/10oz) or juice ($7/750ml) Hillside Vineyard & Berry Farm, Kosclusko, MS; Muscadine Jelly ($3.99/9oz) Southern Grace Farms, Enigma, GA; Ozark Country Market, Heber Springs, AR

Make Em: Muscadine Jelly, Grape Hull Pie, Muscadine Dump Cake