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

Southern Fried Chicken: America’s Ultimate Comfort Food. And Mine.

Log_House_Restaurant_2

As I’ve mentioned before, ours was a family of modest means. But my father worked hard to see that we were able to afford some of life’s nicer things. An occasional dinner at the “Log House” after Sunday’s church service was one of the more pleasurable of them. And one of my life experiences I will likely never forget.

The Log House, as the name implies, was a real log cabin in which a popular restaurant was housed. It was unique, affordable, and located right on the way home from our house of worship. But best of all, this restaurant specialized in southern fried chicken–one of my family’s favorite meals.

My mother always ordered first. Two pieces of dark meat for herself; a drumstick for my sister; a chicken breast for me. Then my father would order the three-piece white chicken dinner for himself–“extra crispy”, with mashed potatoes and green beans. Afterwards, looking our server in the eye while putting togetherfried chicken dinner the thumbs and index fingers of both hands to demonstrate the size, he would add “with a little bowl of cream gravy.” After the waitress left to fetch our meal, my mom would exclaim, “Albert, why do you always do that? You know it comes with a side of gravy.” And with a slight look of exasperation on his face he would calmly answer, “I know, I know. I just don’t want her to forget.”

Now for those of you not familiar with southern fried chicken (and I’m not sure who that could possibly be) the following paragraphs will attempt to clarify what it is, its origin, and perhaps a few other interesting facts.

fried-chicken-basket

Simply put, southern fried chicken consists of a young hen that has been cut up–usually into eight pieces–dredged first in buttermilk, then in well seasoned flour, and fried in lard (or some other fat) in a cast iron skillet, rendering the exterior with a crispy outer shell that keeps the meat juicy and tender. And while this may sound straightforward enough, making great fried chicken is an art mastered by only a few, and then only after months, sometimes years, of practice, trial, and error. It is also worth noting that the term “southern fried” is a relatively recent term, not appearing in print until 1925.

While fried chicken was not particularly popular in the northern United States until well into the nineteenth century, it is certainly a traditional southern meal and among the region’s most well known exports. But the dish is not indigenous to the South. Actually, most food historians credit Scottish immigrants–who preferred frying their chicken over baking or boiling, as did other Europeans–with first introducing the dish to Southern colonies as they migrated here in the mid eighteenth century. And while the Scots may have brought fried chicken to America, it was West Africans, brought here as slaves, that helped make it a southern staple.

Fried chicken is known to have been a common part of many West African cuisines. As the slave trade led to Africans being brought to work on southern plantations, those whose job it was to cook for the owners brought with them spices and seasonings that greatly enhanced the flavors of Scottish fried chicken recipes. Fried chicken was also well suited for plantation life, as it provided cheap but nutritious sustenance for both owners and slaves alike. And chickens were about the only meat African American slaves were allowed to raise.

Gordonville VA chicken vendors

As the American Civil War began to wind down and it became necessary for former slaves to create new lives for themselves, some turned to trades learned during slavery. But one group of African American women from the town of Gordonsville, Virginia turned to fried chicken as a means of providing a living for themselves and their families, earning the name “Chicken Vendors” along the way.

It seems Gordonsville was an important train junction for the Confederacy and, as such, highly defended during the Civil War, surviving virtually unscathed. When the war ended in 1865, passenger service was restored quickly. But trains at that time had no dining cars, and passengers had no choice but to eat at trackside establishments. The Chicken Vendors greeted the waiting rail cars with trays of fried chicken and baskets of rolls, selling wares to passengers through open windows–legs and breast was fifteen cents; backs and wings, five and ten cents. This practice continued until the mid-1900s when health regulations forced it to stop.

By the end of the nineteenth century the popularity of fried chicken in the South had grown to become the region’s top choice for Sunday dinner and special occasions among both blacks and whites. Today fried chicken, like America itself, has taken on a new look. Modern, forward thinking chefs craft versions of this classic dish never before fathomed and certainly a far cry from Southern Fried Chicken 002that first recipe published by Mary Randolph in her 1824 cookbook The Virginia House-Wife. And although good fried chicken can be found in just about every state in the country, great fried chicken can, at least in my mind, only be found in the South. Places like Willie Mae’s Scotch House in New Orleans, Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack in Nashville, Husk in Charleston, South Carolina, or the Busy Bee Cafe in Atlanta.

So while the Log House Restaurant burned down many years ago, those childhood after-church Sunday dinners and my father’s “little bowl of cream gravy” will forever be etched in my memory. And the taste of fried chicken forever on my tongue.

Try Em: Charles’ Country Pan Fried Country, Harlem, NY; Mama Dip’s Kitchen, Chapel Hill, NC; Coop’s Place, New Orleans, LA; Harold’s Chicken Shack, Chicago, IL; Stroud’s, Kansas City, MO; Arnold’s Country Chicken, Nashville, TN; Chicken Dinner House, Roanoke, TX

Make Em: Grandma’s Fried Chicken, Paula’s Spicy Southern Fried Chicken