Posted on May 2nd, 2011
Nuts of all varieties. Raisins. Butter-cream frosting in the shape of carrots or bunny rabbits. Butter-cream frosting in general. Too much sugar, too few carrots. Layers. Cream fillings. White cake. These are all things that have no place in carrot cake. And I should know, because I can say with a confidence I reserve only for food that is tears-in-my-eyes, clutch-my-heart, knee-shakingly good, that I am in possession of the world’s most perfect carrot cake recipe.
The carrot cake arrived in my family in May 1977. Picture it: My mother, eight months pregnant with me, her hair cut short, wearing a new spring dress. My father fiddling with his Nikon in the driveway, posing her in front of the junipers. The dinner guests arriving, two young couples, among them an extraordinarily good tennis player, a modern dancer, and Bobby Greenfield, rookie consultant at my dad’s firm. Bobby and his wife pose a challenge for the evening: they are vegetarian. My mother, flustered (“I’d never met a vegetarian before!”), attempts her first ever meat-free meal, a broccoli-leek soup into which she pours chicken broth right in front of them as the couple makes small-talk with her in the kitchen. Yet they eat it with grace, and fortunately, afterwards, Bobby still produces the pièce de résistance he’d brought along for the evening, soon to be one of the cornerstones of my young life: a carrot cake.
Thirty-four years later, my parents’ memory of eating Bobby Greenfield’s carrot cake for the first time is undiluted. They talk about it in the simple way you use to describe anything indescribable: it was, plainly put, really, really, really good. The recipe was quickly requested and procured from the dinner guest, whose name stayed legend in our family long after he left my dad’s business and drifted off into the wilds of Boston, never to be heard from again. And, really, the incidentals of who Bobby Greenfield actually was or what he became are beside the point. He was the vehicle, an agent of destiny, if you will, priming all of us for a passion that teeters on the thin line between addiction and family tradition.
Bobby Greenfield’s carrot cake is at once simpler and more complex than you might imagine. The cake itself is moist yet dense. It puts more grated carrots than seem possible to fit into the batter in one 9 x 13 cake pan. There are odd quirks to the recipe: an extra two tablespoons here of flour, another teaspoon there of cinnamon, oil added to the batter with the eggs. The icing appears deceptively easy but in truth requires a very particular brand of cream cheese and far less powdered sugar than you think necessary as you shake it out of the bag, and the consistency of its final flavor depends, with occasionally alarming results, on whether you hand-mix it with a wooden spoon or relent and use the electric mixer. Unlike most carrot cakes, where sugar is the centerpiece, this cake, once baked and cooled and iced, has the spice of an autumn quick-bread, topped by a sweet-cheese tang of thick frosting melting into the warm earthiness of the carrots. It should be savored one mouthful at a time, moaned over, eyes rolling back, as you cut forkfuls from an enormous square that laps the edges of a small plate. All store-bought — or even bakery-bought — cakes will slump in its presence.
Throughout my childhood, my mother baked Bobby Greenfield’s carrot cake only twice a year, on my birthday in June and my father’s in March. Because of this, I always felt like he and I shared a secret understanding, a wordless allegiance against my mother and brother, whose own birthdays were marked by German chocolate cake, a ponderous, grainy, surprisingly sticky affair that I labored through every January and August. My father’s and my birthdays, on the other hand, always seemed to me to be the two times of year that my family, all lovers of good food to begin with, really went overboard in our indulgence. Each of us cut huge squares from the cake pan, went back for seconds without apologies, snuck back into the kitchen later when we thought no one would notice to lift the plastic wrap off the pan and run one finger along the icing left on the rim.
My mother began serving me Bobby Greenfield’s carrot cake on my second birthday (the first was manned by a sturdy banana cake we have all since forgotten). She continued to bake it for me through high school and college, my birthday always falling at just the right time of year when I would drop my bags in the doorway after a year away, desperate for a familiar taste of home. So it wasn’t until the summer of my first year as a graduate student in Boston that I tried my own hand at it. My move to the city had resulted in a hand-me-down assortment of pots and pans from my mother, and in that pile was the exact pan used to make the first twenty-four years of carrot cakes. It was an odd comfort, but even so, I made my first version with not a little trepidation, worrying over the thickness of the frosting and the odd footnotes in the recipe (what would happen if I didn’t remove one carrot from the pound prior to grating?) and closing my eyes before the first bite, anxious that I might fail myself and my childhood. But the cake was a success and quickly became the star of an early summer birthday party on the terraced garden behind our rented house in the suburbs and, after that, a frequent request by friends.
I’ve made my own birthday carrot cake every year since in every place I’ve lived: Boston, Oregon, and now Alaska. The only exception was the summer I turned thirty-one, when I flew to Glacier Bay in southeast Alaska to join my parents for a week as they completed a summer’s voyage up the Inside Passage in their small sailboat. That June night, the boat tucked in a cove in the eastern arm of the park, with bears digging for clams in the soft mud on the beach and eagles dive-bombing our anchorage, my mom produced a carrot cake in miniature, smuggled in the frozen depths of the hold all the way from her kitchen in Washington state and frosted when I was distracted by the scenery and a game of hearts. How unusual, but also how complete, that birthday was, to taste the roots of my life while scouting for seals along a shoreline farther north than I’d ever been before.
I suppose I was primed, even before birth, for this love affair by that fateful May dinner, thirty-four years ago to the month. In utero, perhaps some remnants of cakey flavor wafted down to me in my mother’s womb and caught my attention, prompting me to plan my escape a few weeks later. I adore this cake with a passion matched only — and then just barely — by the allure of triple-cream cheese and good bread. Bobby Greenfield’s carrot cake is the only recipe I hold close to my chest. I keep careful count of those with whom I share it; to this date, there are only three and all for good reasons that usually involved the reciprocal sharing of other closely-guarded secrets. Yet it is also the thing I’ll bake most readily for anyone who wants it. You just have to try it and then you’ll know, like I do, what happiness tastes like in your mouth. Unless you are the joyless sort who thinks all desserts must begin with chocolate and then all I can do is shrug and pass a piece on to the next person.
I’ve marked my life in carrot cake, the milestones and years ticked down with each bite whenever June rolls around. So it shouldn’t be surprising, then, that Bobby Greenfield’s carrot cake is also responsible for my marriage. In 2006, hoping to win the affections of a tall man with mischievous blue eyes who I’d only recently met, I offered to bake a carrot cake. This necessitated a trip to the grocery store with him to procure the cake’s most integral and surprising ingredient (not to be revealed here). While wandering the aisles, we accidentally bumped shoulders, which led to holding hands, which led to an afternoon in which the carrot cake never did get made. But four years later, on a windy August afternoon on the Oregon coast, we ate it at our wedding reception. Fitting, then, that the original recipe that Bobby Greenfield typed up for my mother in 1977, on a sheet of paper folded and unfolded a thousand times and now stained with thirty-four years of vanilla extract dribbles and cinnamoned batter, says at the top of the page, “Carrot cake — for all occasions, especially weddings.”