Preparing for Milan

The Italians make a lot of fine desserts. Carrot cake is not among them. Even though the Swedes are reputed to have made the first carrot cake, it always feels to me like an American concoction.

There is a long history of using carrots in cake that dates back to medieval times. The first carrot cake was born of necessity in a time when sweeteners were scarce and hard to come by. It is believed that the early Swedes were the first to use carrots to sweeten their cakes, carrots having more natural sugar than most other vegetables.

During the Second World War, when rationing altered the way we cooked, carrot cake rose to prominence in the Western diet, for much the same reason. Easy to grow in the back yard garden, carrots were a readily-available ingredient to sweeten up a cake during limited sugar consumption.

Shortly after WWII, the carrot cake as we know it started appearing in diners in the United States. The mixed spice flavor of nutmeg, cinnamon, clove and allspice and frequent presence of raisins hint back to the alleged Swedish beginnings. But it was the United States that added that divine crown of cream cheese icing that is now ubiquitous to the confection.

It is this version of carrot cake that seems uniquely American. Made with common ingredients that can be found in most kitchens, it comes together quickly and easily without a great deal of fuss. Even a simple cream cheese icing is a pinch. It is very much a non-nonsense, workaday item that really does belong in the same category as other staples of Americana cooking like meatloaf, tuna casserole, and mac and cheese. It can be dressed up with a butter cream icing, but it is really best when you stick to the basic recipe - a spiced batter with grated carrots. And, even the experts who maintain the article at Wikipedia agree with me that nuts, raisins, coconut and the dreaded pineapple are indeed optional.

Case in point is the one time I got carrot cake at Patisserie Poupon. When I was a regular at the European bakery down by the shot tower where I-83 spills into the city, I often inquired about carrot cake, much to the amusement of the staff. (Really, in a shop full of eclairs, tiaramisu, petit fours, etc, why would anyone ask for carrot cake?) When they actually did have some carrot cake -  overage from a wedding order - it was just not the same. The super-sweet icing was replaced with a custard-like cheese filling. It had a distinct raisin flavor that was stronger that both the carrots and the spices. In short, it tasted the way carrot cake would if it was made by the French instead of an American. So, there you have it.

I know complaining about the food options in Italy will not generate any sympathy and in fact makes me sound like a bit of an asshole. I'm sure I'll manage to get by. Tomorrow I will wake up in Europe but today I will have my carrot cake and eat it too.

Carrot Cake a la Gareth from last Christmas