Long before the carrot cake we know and love graced our dessert tables, its ancestor, a carrot pudding, was a humble staple in medieval Europe. During the Middle Ages, sweeteners like honey and sugar were precious commodities. Innovative cooks turned to the natural sweetness of root vegetables. Carrots, packed with sugar, were a prime choice. The early versions of carrot pudding were more like dense, sweetened bread rather than cake. They contained grated carrots, dried fruits, and a smattering of sweet spices.
A Worldly Traveler
As trade routes expanded and ingredients became more accessible, carrot desserts began to evolve. In the 18th century, European bakers started incorporating new ingredients such as baking powder and baking soda, which helped give the cake a lighter texture.
Carrot cake’s popularity boomed in the United Kingdom during World War II due to the rationing of sugar. The Ministry of Food even encouraged households to use carrots as a sugar substitute. This period gave birth to the modern carrot cake, which began to resemble what we recognize today.
Carrot Cake: An American Classic
In the United States, carrot cake found its true home. Post-World War II, as the health food movement gained traction, the carrot cake, with its “vegetable” ingredient, was championed as a somewhat healthier dessert option.
One of the early mentions of carrot cake in the United States is in a 1939 book titled “The Twentieth Century Bride’s Cookbook.” Although it doesn’t have the cream cheese frosting we associate with the American carrot cake, it does incorporate the grated carrots and spices that form the basis of the cake.
The quintessential American carrot cake is a celebration of textures and flavors. It’s a dense, moist cake with grated carrots, crunchy walnuts or pecans, and aromatic spices such as cinnamon and nutmeg. But the crowning glory is the cream cheese frosting; silky, tangy, and sweet, it’s the perfect foil for the rich cake. This combination was such a hit that it catapulted the carrot cake to stardom in the 1960s and 1970s.
1960’s: Cream Cheese Frosting
The cream cheese frosting that is now considered a staple of American carrot cake was popularized in the 1960s. In 1965, the Philadelphia Cream Cheese company (Kraft) published a recipe for a carrot cake that included cream cheese icing. This incorporation of cream cheese into the frosting likely helped catapult the cake into popularity.
In the early 1970s, carrot cake made a more notable mark in the American culinary scene. The New York Times published a recipe for carrot cake in 1972, which helped popularize it further.
One of the legendary tales about carrot cake’s popularity comes from The Silver Palate, a gourmet food shop in New York City. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, their carrot cake became so popular that it became a must-try item. The Silver Palate’s recipe, which can be found in “The Silver Palate Cookbook” by Sheila Lukins and Julee Rosso, published in 1982, is often cited as an iconic representation of American carrot cake.
As for restaurants, the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York is sometimes mentioned in connection with a carrot cake (often referred to as “Waldorf Astoria carrot cake”), although the origins of this association are not entirely clear.
In summary, the American style carrot cake evolved over the mid-20th century, gaining its iconic cream cheese frosting in the 1960s and enjoying a surge in popularity in the 1970s and 1980s with the help of notable cookbooks and gourmet food establishments.
PIATTO’s Favorite Carrot Cake Recipe!
The combination of spicy carrot cake with a silky cream cheese frosting is classic. However, we find that the traditional cream cheese frosting—with butter and powdered sugar—can be a bit heavy. That’s why we love this Moist Carrot Cake Recipe with a whipped cream and cream cheese frosting! When we want to make this cake a bit more gourmet, we use mascarpone cheese in place of the cream cheese frosting.
The tastiest version of this dessert is a Layered Carrot Cake held together by silky frosting. However, cutting layers horizontally from a tall cake can be intimidating to some bakers. This recipe keeps layers simple! Baked in a jelly roll pan, this carrot cake recipe creates perfect layers—all you need to do is use a knife to cut the cake into 3 or 4 equal pieces.
Around the globe, carrot cake adapted to local tastes and ingredients:
- Switzerland: The Swiss Rüeblitorte is a lighter, layered carrot cake, often containing ground almonds. It is typically iced with a light, lemon-infused sugar glaze or a cream cheese frosting and adorned with marzipan carrots.
- United Kingdom: British carrot cake tends to be moister with the inclusion of sultanas or raisins. Orange zest is often added to the batter, and it’s common to find a layer of orange-flavored cream cheese frosting.
- Brazil: Bolo de Cenoura in Brazil is distinctively different. The cake is fluffier and airier, achieved by pureeing the carrots and incorporating them into the batter. It is traditionally topped with a chocolate glaze, marrying the flavors of carrot and cocoa.
- Middle East: Carrot Halwa or Gajar Ka Halwa is a traditional sweet made by slow-cooking grated carrots with milk, sugar, ghee, and cardamom until it reaches a pudding-like consistency. It’s often garnished with almonds and pistachios.
Carrot cake’s journey from a medieval pudding to an international dessert icon is a tale of culinary creativity and adaptation. Each variation reflects the tastes and traditions of its culture. Whether you savor the classic American carrot cake with its luscious cream cheese frosting or venture into the diverse international takes on this beloved dessert, carrot cake continues to be a symbol of ingenuity and deliciousness.