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updated: 4/19/2011 3:37 PM

Carrot gives lamb cake a break

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  • Annie Overboe for Baking Secrets column.

      Annie Overboe for Baking Secrets column.

 

Think Easter desserts and coconut-covered lamb cakes quickly spring to mind. This holiday favorite looks enticing on our dessert tables, yet seldom offers more than a dry cake topped with sugary icing. The sweetened coconut and jelly beans do this dessert no favors.

Over the years I've tossed out a fair amount of lamb cake slices with only a few nibbles eaten around the edges. I thought there must be a better design for the Easter holiday so this year I've given lamb cakes a break.

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If the lambs are out, then what style of cake could be in? Lemon sings in spring on the taste buds, but I envisioned a less dominant flavor for the cake base. I was looking for an ingredient that boasts a connection to the Easter holiday and pairs nicely with other tastes and textures.

The more I thought about it, the more I kept coming back to carrots. Most people think of carrot cake as dense, spicy and ultra gooey. While that version does dominate our culinary culture, it's not the only way to bake with our favorite orange vegetable.

Traditional American carrot cake relies upon oil, pineapple and an overdose of spices to achieve that signature texture and flavor. For a lighter springtime version I'll drastically dial back the fat and scale down the spices and pineapple.

Beginning with the cake base, I kept all-purpose flour as the strengthener. Cake flour brings less protein to cake batter and should be used to achieve soft texture when softening ingredients such shredded carrots or buttermilk are not used in the recipe.

On the sweet front, light brown sugar creates a mild sweetness to the batter, its molasses adding a caramel hue to the cake that nicely contrasts with the bold carrot color.

With sugary ingredients already I felt canned pineapple, whether chunk or crushed style, over sweetened the batter and weakened the cake's structure. But I also realized the importance of a tangy flavor foil to the carrots. Replacing the pineapple with a small amount of fresh orange juice added needed zest.

Another complaint with traditional carrot cake is the excess moistness. Moist cake is a good thing, expect when it overwhelms. Oil is one of the culprits here and it brings zero flavor to the table. Oils are added to baked goods to infuse a quick and inexpensive fat into a recipe and extend the shelf life.

I kept the oil in the pantry and reached for fresh unsalted butter in the refrigerator. Butter bakes a firmer texture than oil and provides a mild creamy flavor to the batter. Carrot cake actually needs a balance in firmness as the shredded carrots, mostly water, add moistness while baking.

Ready for another surprise? I added no cinnamon, nutmeg or cloves to this springtime cake. Those harvest spices bode well in fall desserts, but the powerhouse trio all but drown out the natural carrot flavor. I also held back from adding chopped walnuts, raisins or dates to the batter. With a lightly sweet cake balanced with orange, the natural flavors of carrot take center stage. Today's recipe for Easter Cake bakes into a single 9-inch square or round layer. In place of the traditional cream cheese frosting, I created a simple glaze without powdered sugar. This light topping can be made ahead and gently warmed when serving the dessert.

Topped with cream cheese glaze and garnished with toasted pecans, this Easter dessert offers enticing eye appeal and good to the last crumb taste.

• Annie Overboe, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, lives in Villa Park. Write her at food@dailyherald.com.

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