The judges were assembled. Some of the biggest names in baking and some of the hardest-working palates in the food industry had gathered around a table in a suburban kitchen laden with fat, moist, sweet carrot cakes. The cakes had been chosen from more than 200 carrot cake recipes that had been submitted to this website, responding to a call out to find the best carrot cake recipe in Australia.
The bake-off was inspired by a 90-year-old widower, a reader who wanted to know where to find a good carrot cake and whose late wife would bake him one as long as he grated the carrots. The response from readers was overwhelming, with entries from across Australia and around the world.
Entries were initially sorted on legibility. If they didn't make sense, they didn't cut muster. Second, they were sorted on provenance. The recipe had to belong to a reader. If the recipes were scanned from cookbooks or, in one case, we were simply sent a URL directing us to a website, they didn't make the grade either.
They had to have undergone some adaptation in the home kitchen. Some of those adaptations, unfortunately, didn't work out that well. One recipe included self-raising flour and a lot of baking soda, and it seemed as if the cook had omitted the acidic ingredient - perhaps pineapple - that would have activated the baking soda. The result could have been called ''baked carrot soap''.
At least half the entries were the classic carrot cake made with flour, oil, eggs, sugar, carrot and spices and topped with cream-cheese icing, a recipe that emerged in the United States in the late 1970s. Carrot cakes have been around a lot longer than that, with carrots used as a sweetener since mediaeval times when sugar was rare and expensive. A recipe from the late 1600s instructs grated carrots to be mixed with breadcrumbs, cream, eggs and spices, then baked in a warm oven like bread-and-butter pudding.
Although none of the entries suggested we bake a bread-and-carrot pudding, some reflected a long culture of baking with carrots, with some traditional European carrot cakes and many different formats, such as with a dry, biscuit-like crust.
In the end, there could only be a dozen cakes baked. To reflect the entries from the shortlist, we narrowed it down to just eight classic cakes and four others. These were baked the day before by yours truly, taking a gruelling 17 hours to shop for, prepare bake and ice. Each cake was baked with care, following the instructions given. In doing this, I learnt some basic facts that are true to all carrot cakes:
1. They are robust recipes.
2. Weigh and measure the dry ingredients first and then the wet to avoid washing measuring cups and bowls.
3. Grease the cake tins and line with baking paper. Carrot cakes are quite sticky.
4. Finely grate the carrots.
5. Use only fresh walnuts.
6. Use a freestanding mixer if you have one.
7. Mix a cake in this order: sift the dry ingredients, add the dried fruit, add the wet ingredients such as egg and oil, then add the carrot.
8. If using a recipe that stipulates using baking soda (sodium bicarbonate), bake straight away after the batter is mixed.
9. Do not overmix the batter. Once all the ingredients are properly combined, stop. Otherwise, gluten forms longer strands and makes a tough cake.
10. Make sure the cream cheese is at room temperature when making the icing. The butter should be quite soft.
11. For a smooth finish on iced cakes, use a metal spatula dipped in hot water.
The judges had to define what makes a great carrot cake and then rank the 12 shortlisted from best to worst.
They agreed on the words: moist, carrot, good crumb and properly spiced. At this point they diverged. One of the judges, Suzanne Farrell, was a staunch carrot cake purist and did not approve of walnuts, sultanas, pineapple and cream cheese icing. The other six judges concurred that these were acceptable additions.
The judges were blind as to where the cakes came from or what their recipes were. With that, they started sampling.
Quite rapidly a few things became clear. The walnuts used were bitter and rancid. They were stock-standard supermarket walnuts; half a dozen different packets were used and all were rancid.
''You can't use cheap ingredients in a good cake,'' said Phillippa Grogan, of Phillippa's Bakery. ''These walnuts are case in point.''
Some of the judges were put off by the lemon rind in the icing of one cake, and others did not enjoy the unusual texture macadamia nuts gave a cake, but all the judges liked the frosting made with large and equal amounts of butter and cream cheese.
Then came a couple of curveballs: a carrot cake made with poppy seeds and a frosting made of chevre (goat's milk curd) and butter, followed by one in which the bottom half was made with a spiced biscuit-type base and a moist carrot cake batter on top.
The following cake was a moist but light Aargauer Rueblitorte, a carrot cake from Switzerland, in which the cake is lightened by folding whipped egg whites through a batter of egg yolks, sugar and almond meal spiced with ground cloves. The cake is iced with kirsch, egg white and icing sugar.
Doubt fell on cakes that didn't have classic cream cheese icing . ''These are good cakes,'' said Grogan, ''but are they carrot cakes?''
The judges debated and the numbers were crunched. The new-wave cakes and those that didn't fit the classic mould fell by the wayside. Then the classic cakes were whittled down to three.
It then was a tussle between a moist cake made with pineapple and baked in a loaf tin, and a large round, rich, and very moist cake with a thick layer of cream cheese frosting.
The big cake, No. 7, won.
''This cake really fitted the bill,'' said Allan Campion. ''It is something you might throw into a bowl in the home kitchen with a quick stir and put it in the oven. It is homely, honest and easily done.''
Judges: Allan Campion, chef, author and tour guide; Matt Dawson, chef at Captain Baxter; Suzanne Farrell, of Fringe Food Festival; Phillippa Grogan, of Phillippa's Bakery, Melbourne; Neil Hargreaves, of group n.b.; Michael James, of Tivoli Bakery, Melbourne; Leon Mugavin, owner of Leaf Store, Elwood.
Angelique's carrot cake
The winning recipe is from Angelique Lazarus, from Vaucluse, Sydney. ''I am a Melbourne girl now living in Sydney but I actually got this recipe when I was living in South Africa. It is from my middle son's godfather, a Cape Town restaurateur called Mano Coulentianos. I don't know where he got it from, perhaps his ex-wife! I submitted the recipe to the Monday Morning Cooking Club, a group of women in Sydney who made a recipe book for charity and it was published in that. It is a foolproof recipe but the cooking times may change as you take the cake out of the oven to pour over the glaze and then put it back in the oven.
375g plain flour
2 tsp baking powder
1 ½ tsp bicarb soda
2 tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp ground nutmeg
½ tsp allspice
2 tsp salt
345g castor sugar
375ml vegetable oil
3 medium carrots, grated
220g tin crushed pineapple, drained
200g pecans, chopped
2 tbsp vegetable oil
110g brown sugar
2 tbsp milk
40g pecans, chopped
250g cream cheese, room temperature, cut into cubes
125g unsalted butter, room temperature, cut into cubes
500g icing sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
1. Preheat the oven to 180C (160C fan). Grease a 23cm round cake tin and line with baking paper.
2. Sift the dry ingredients together into a bowl. In a separate bowl, beat the eggs and oil, then add to the dry ingredients. Mix well then add the carrots, crushed pineapple and pecans. Mix to form a smooth batter and pour into the cake tin.
3. Bake for 30 minutes then quickly prepare the glaze by placing all the ingredients for it in a small saucepan and heating over medium heat, stirring, until all the ingredients are combined.
4. Pull the cake out on the oven rack and carefully pour the glaze over the cake.
5. Bake for the rest of the baking time, roughly 40 minutes or until a bamboo skewer inserted into the centre of the cake comes out clean. Remove from the oven and allow to cool for 10 minutes in the tin on a wire rack. The glaze will have melted onto the tin, so take a butter knife or metal spatula and run it carefully around the inside of the tin. Upend and allow to cool on the wire rack.
6. Prepare the frosting by whipping the cream cheese, butter, icing sugar and vanilla essence together in a bowl. Put the cake, bottom side down, on a serving plate and cover the top of the cake with frosting. Allow to set for several hours before serving.
Carrot, ginger and poppyseed cake
Something different from Robin Archer in Hepburn Springs in Victoria: "This recipe is the result of years of modification. The original recipe was my mother's or mother-in-law's recipe. I have changed it to accommodate my wife's tastes and it has now become the family recipe. There is no coconut, because she is not partial to it in grated form, and she loves ginger in anything. My addition is the ground poppy seeds and you can actually taste them. For the goat's cheese topping, I prefer Meredith goats chevre, it adds a richness without being too sweet. I use margarine but you can use very soft butter."
3 tbsp poppy seeds
90g self-raising flour
¼ cup almond meal
¾ tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground nutmeg
2 medium eggs
90g soft brown sugar
90ml sunflower oil
2 medium carrots finely grated, then chopped to avoid long strands
1 tsp vanilla essence
3 tbsp glazed ginger, chopped
120g soft goat's cheese
4 heaped tbsp icing sugar
½ tsp vanilla essence
60g butter, very soft
¼ cup finely chopped walnuts
¼ cup finely chopped glazed ginger
1. Preheat the oven to 180C (160C fan). Grease a rectangular loaf tin (25cm x 10cm or 22cm x 12cm) and line the base with baking paper.
2. Roughly grind the poppy seeds in a spice grinder or with mortar and pestle. Sift the flour, almond meal, baking soda, baking powder and spices into a bowl.
3. Beat the eggs until rich and creamy, add the sugar and continue beating until the mixture is thick. Gradually pour in the oil, beating all the time until well incorporated.
4. Add the poppy seeds, vanilla, carrot and chopped ginger, then mix well with a wooden spoon. Add this mixture to the dry ingredients and mix to form a smooth batter.
5. Pour the mixture into the prepared loaf tin, place in the oven and cook for 45-50 minutes or until a skewer in the centre comes out clean.
6. Cool for 10 minutes in the tin, then upend onto a wire cake rake and cool completely.
7. Make the topping by whipping the butter and goat cheese with a hand-held beater or upright food mixer. Add the sugar and vanilla essence.
8. Spread the icing over the top of the cake, decorate with chopped walnuts and ginger and serve.
Swiss carrot cake - Aargauer Rueblitorte
This recipe comes from Natasha Silke from Brunswick West in Victoria.
300 g caster sugar
5 egg yolks
300 g ground almonds
300 g carrots, finely grated
zest from 1 lemon
4 tablespoons of corn flour
2 tablespoons Kirsch
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
pinch of ground cloves
5 egg whites
pinch of salt
3 tablespoons apricot jam
1 egg white beaten
300g icing sugar
2 tablespoons Kirsch
1 to 2 tablespoons water
Preheat oven to 180°C. Grease and a 24 cm round cake pan and line bottom with baking paper. Flour the sides.
In a bowl beat the egg yolks and caster sugar until pale and creamy. Add the almonds, carrots, cornflour, kirsch, lemon zest, baking powder and spices and mix well.
Whip the egg whites with the pinch of salt in separate bowl to form stiff peaks. Using a metal spoon fold through a third of the egg whites into the other mixture. Mix well. Fold through another third taking a little more care not to spoil the light texture of the egg whites. Gently fold through the final third of the egg whites.
Pour into the cake tin and bake for one hour on the centre rack of the oven. After 45 minutes turn the cake 180°C. Check to see if the cake is done by inserting a wooden skewer which should come out clean if the cake is done. Remove form the oven and allow to cool in the tin for 10 minutes then gently upend on a wire cake rack. While still warm cool upend onto another cake rack. Heat the apricot jam in a small saucepan until liquid and then brush over the cake while still warm.
Make the icing by whipping the egg with the sugar then adding the kirsch and a little water. The icing should be quite stiff. Cover over the cake and allow to set for an hour or so before serving.
This article appeared in Epicure, The Age, in 2013.