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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Fannie Farmer: Mother of Level Measurements

BSCSBAs a professional chef of almost 40 years, my personal collection of cookbooks and culinary references currently number more than three hundred, many of which are classics. One of those is the 1918 collector’s edition of the Boston Cooking-School Cook Book by Fannie Merritt Farmer given to me by my mother early in my cooking career and one of the last written entirely by Miss Farmer. This American cooking reference includes over 1,800 recipes, cooking techniques, weights and measurements, and other information that was both informative and unique for that time period.

Fannie Farmer, born March 23, 1857 in Boston, Massachusetts, was the first of four daughters born to Mary Watson Merritt and master printer John Franklin Farmer. The family moved to Medford, a small town 300 miles north of Boston, when Fannie was a small child. Although a good student with aspirations of a college education, Fannie suffered a paralytic stroke at the young age of sixteen, leaving her unable to walk and temporarily ending her educational goals.

After several years of therapy, Fannie regained her ability to walk, although with a permanent limp. Fannie’s health continues to improve and in her mid-twenties she began working as a mother’s helper for the Charles Shaw family. It was during this time that her interest in cooking developed.

At the suggestion of Mrs. Shaw, Fannie enrolled at the Boston Cooking-School under the tutorage of its owner Mary Johnson Lincoln. Miss Farmer’s outstanding performance during the next several years resulted in her being offered the position as the school’s assistant director upon her graduation in 1889, then under thePublication1 direction of Carrie Dearborn. Fannie was named director two years later upon Dearborn’s death.

As the school’s director, Farmer began to develop her penchant for exact recipe measurements and precise directions, the concept that ultimately made her famous and gained her the title of “The Mother of Level Measurements.” It was this driving belief in the use of standardized measurements that, in 1896, led Miss Farmer to publish The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book.

It should be noted that Little, Brown & Company, publishers of Fanny’s cookbook, were not convinced that it would sell and so only printed 3,000 copies. After all, exact measurements in cooking was a revolutionary culinary idea, and, to some, an unnecessary change. But the book turned out to be an immediate success and quickly sold out. Since that first printing in 1896, there have been twelve subsequent editions with more than 3-million copies sold. All but the last two editions of this legendary cookbook were printed by Little & Brown.

In 1902, Fannie left the Boston Cooking School to open Miss Farmer’s School of Cookery, which focused on educating housewives rather than training teachers and professionals as did her former venue. Fannie also wrote about food for various popular magazines and lectured extensively on household cookery.

Farmer-F-129x154Perhaps due to her great insight to the needs of invalids, being one herself for a large portion of her life, Fannie eventually turned her focus on diet and nutrition for the ill and teaching convalescent diet to doctors and nurses. This work led her to publish another cookbook entitled Food and Cookery for the Sick and Convalescent, covering what to feed infants, children, adults, and the elderly. It even included a chapter on diabetics.

Despite another stroke, leaving her wheelchair bound, Farmer spent the last seven years of her life continuing to write and lecture up until ten days before her death. Fannie Farmer died in 1915 at the age of 57, but her works and legacy live on today through her books and other culinary accomplishments.

Miss Farmer’s School of Cookery continued with her teachings until 1944, almost fifty-five years following her passing.

Buy Em: Copies of The Fannie Farmer Cook Book, including some vintage copies, are available through Amazon and other book dealers.

Try Em: Chocolate Brownies (as it appears in Miss Farmer’s book)