Tuesday, January 19, 2010

What's Cooking? Food, History, Food

This was originally published in the October, 2009, edition of the Left Hand Valley Courier. It has also been published in the recipe section of Cayenne Kitchen's website.

I love carrot cake for so many reasons. It's not too sweet, it's moist, it's filling, and it's not terribly bad for you.

However, this carrot cake did not want to pose for photos that would work well in the newspaper where this column appears. Not only is newsprint not a great medium for detailed photos, but I never know if the pictures will be in color or black and white. And I don't know what size the photos will be, so I'm never sure how much detail will show up.

And carrot cake is decidedly brown. Flecks of orange appear, as in the closeup here, but it's still a lot of brown. And the more I looked at it, the more I realized that in the newspaper it would probably look like meatloaf. Which is tasty and all, but not when you're writing about carrot cake.

When I made a second cake using more whole wheat flour and darker sugars, the cake turned out a deep brown. It was pretty, and the powdered sugar design on top was decorative, but the slices looked like chocolate cake.

So trust me when I say that the photos here are both carrot cakes made from this recipe, and they were both absolutely delicious. Not only did I serve it to friends and family, but I also served to strangers at Cayenne Kitchen, where I was doing a demo of the Microplane box grater and cut-proof glove.

Here's the column:

Food, History, Food

You probably wouldn’t be surprised to know I have lots of cookbooks. On a lazy day, I might browse through those books for hours, just for fun.

I also like books about food. Which comes in handy when someone asks a question about an odd ingredient and I explain the history of it. Yeah, I’m a food geek.

So I had to pick up “An Edible History of Humanity” by Tom Standage. It an interesting twist on world history, discussing the role that different foods played in shaping humans and their world – and at the same time, how humans changed the food.

What Standage makes clear from the very beginning of the book is that humans starting shaping crops even before they had any idea they were doing so. Early humans modified corn in the Americas so much that in a short time the new plants couldn’t survive in the wild. Humans were required for it to grow. In other parts of the world, rice and wheat were undergoing the same changes.

Later, food traveled from continent to continent, shaping politics while politics shaped food. Through wars and shifts in political power, food played some interesting roles.

What this book shows, over and over again, is that with each change in food technology, some things get better while others get worse. Early farmers grew crops they needed, but were tied to the land and couldn’t travel as far to hunt.

Recently, chemical fertilizers seemed like an answer to feeding the world’s population, but overuse of the fertilizers caused other problems. Now, farmers are looking to other methods to keep us well-fed and healthy.

While Standage’s book wasn’t particularly tasty – no recipes to be found – it is food for thought. And when I think about food, I have to cook. Since we’re talking about historical food, an old-fashioned recipe seems appropriate.

How About Some Carrot Cake?
As an homage to somebody’s grandmother, this recipe relies on ingredients and equipment that grandma would recognize.

1 1/2 cups vegetable oil
4 eggs
1 cup white sugar
1 cup packed brown sugar
2 cups whole wheat flour
1 tablespoon cinnamon
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
3 cups grated carrots

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease and flour a Bundt (or similar) pan or use that newfangled baking spray, if you’re feeling modern.
Mix the flour, cinnamon, baking soda and salt together and set aside.

Beat the oil and eggs until they are light. An electric mixer would be handy for this, but feel free to use a whisk or an egg beater. Beat in the sugar a little at a time.
Gently add the dry ingredients to the wet, then fold in the carrots.

Pour the batter into the pan and bake for 45-55 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean.

Notes:
Cream cheese icing is traditional on carrot cake, but this is tasty plain. A decorative dusting of powdered sugar is nice.

Grate the carrots any way you choose. Coarser carrots will be more visible. Or grate in zucchini or apples to make up for the fact that you only have 2 cups of grated carrots and you don’t want to go shopping.

You can substitute white flour or white whole wheat flour, if you prefer.
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