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

Mac and Cheese: America’s Favorite Comfort Food

The first known recipe for a macaroni and cheese casserole was recorded as far back as thirteenth century Italy. In the medieval cookbook Liber de Coquina, the anonymous author describes layering sheets of lasagne with powdered spices and cheese (likely parmesan) of choice. This recipe (called de lasanis), while certainly not the same as the modern version of macaroni and cheese, is none the less a viable predecessor.

As with many of today’s foods, the exact origin of macaroni and cheese has been lost over time. The most popular story is that this cuisine made its way to the United States by way of Thomas Jefferson who experienced numerous pasta dishes while in both Paris and northern Italy. When he returned to Monticello in 1787, he brought back a pasta machine so he could continue to enjoy the dishes he had grown to love.

Documents in the Library of Congress show that President Jefferson enjoyed serving “macaroni pie,” an earlier version of what we know as baked macaroni and cheese, to guests at state dinners. While he certainly did not invent the recipe, this helped popularize it throughout American, and the American South in particular.

The 1824 edition of the century’s most influential cookbook, The Virginia Housewife, written by Jefferson’s cousin Mary Randolph, includes a recipe for “Macaroni and Cheese.” It contains only three ingredients–macaroni, cheese, and butter–layered together and baked in a 400-degree oven. By the mid 1880s, recipes for macaroni-based casseroles appeared in numerous cookbooks as far west as Kansas.

The first pasta factory opened in Philadelphia in 1798, although it wasn’t until after the Civil War, with the development of the hydraulic press, steam-powered mill and the influx of Italian immigrants , that America’s pasta-making business started to grow. Still, many of the affluent families continued to import pasta from Europe. It took World War I and the resulting halt of imports, to have a major impact on this new American industry. The number of pasta factories almost doubled between 1914 and 1919.

In 1937, during the throes of the Great Depression, Kraft Foods introduced boxed macaroni and cheese. The company’s advertising slogan “make a meal for four in nine minutes,” resulted in an immediate success, and sales of over eight million nineteen-cent boxes of the product in one year. With the advent of World War II, Kraft’s boxed macaroni and cheese dinners continued to gain popularity due to its convenience and a shortage of fresh dairy products.

Today, chefs all across this great nation are putting creative twists on this popular comfort food, elevating it to a dish worthy of being served in the finest of restaurants. While still a mainstay of college student cuisine, there are now variations substituting brie and goat cheese for the familiar cheddar-based sauce; rotini and farfalle for elbows; and the addition of exotic mushrooms, caramelized onions, figs, and proscuitto.

There are even restaurants serving only macaroni and cheese, such as S’Mac in Manhattan’s East Village, NY ($7.75 to $10.75); Homeroom in Oakland, CA ($7.75 to $9.50); Cheese-Ology in University City, MO ($7 to $8.50); Macdaddy’s in Denton, TX (prices not listed).

So whether you go for the old standby mac and cheese common to barbecue and soul food establishments across the south, or hanker to try one of the gourmet varieties in a big-city sit-down restaurant, or just feel like enjoying the boxed version microwaved in your own home, know you’re in good company, because everyone from 3 to 103 loves macaroni and cheese–America’s most popular comfort food.

Try Em: (Top six mac & cheese brands) Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, Annie’s Elbows & Four Cheese Sauce, Clear Value Shells and Cheese, Krasdale Macaroni & Cheese Dinner, Hodgson Mills Macaroni & Cheese Dinner, Pasta Roni Shells & White Cheddar

Make Em: Old-Fashioned Macaroni and Cheese, Fannie Farmer’s Classic Baked Macaroni and Cheese, President Ronald Reagan’s Mac and Cheese