You know when your brain pulls a fast one on you? Sends a thought sneaking under the barricades, whoosh, unbidden and unwanted and about as welcome as a streaker in a stadium? The ones that make you think Gah! No NO NOOO!!! You get back in there. No fingerprints, footprints, sounds. Make like it never happened, shhhh... go go GO. Rewind. Reverse. CTRL + Z!!!!!!
Right, so mine was last Tuesday, right around lunchtime, when this little gem skittered across my mind: Wow, look at us! October already, and not a one of us down with a headcold ye...
(GAH!! NO!!!! Thought begone! Avast! Blimey!!!!)
Sending this wastral back from whence it came worked, of course, about as well as my recent attempt to return our garage-sized "4-person" tent to its original 2' x 6" box.
We missed some school.
Nothing major, just sniffles and sneezes and lots of tea and extra chapters and saltines and quiet afternoon games and an overall increase in snuggles. Really, more amusing than anything. It's fall. Kids are kids. Colds aren't Common for nothing.
And anyway frankly, if we're hula-hooping before dinner, in jeans and short sleeves and piggy-pink bare feet; If coming home after school doesn't mean coming in, and trees can be sat in for upwards of hours, and Scrabble played in the company of ants;
If five o'clock walks to the park involves light which gilds chubby cheeks and casts shadows so sidelong, we look like some weird Rembrandt/Gorey mash-up;
If conversation en route centers on acorn caps and sycamore knobs and their infinite potential;
If local lettuce is still coming on strong but its days are numbered and the keening begun and the loss mitigated only by the onset of squash;
If, while sitting at supper before seven, the already-bright moon catches my eye, against a seriously periwinkle plum midnight blue sky, and candle whispers, and you nod and grin soon...;
If the dining room is right this instant home to black paper bats, plus two wool sweaters abandoned but begun, and a heap of scarlet leaves awaiting beeswax, and a massive messy project trying desperately to catch my eye?
If the crickets are chirping at full throttle and the sun finally giving way to gray and the landscape doing its art nouveau thang, like Place des Abessesses dropped down on the Midwest;
If the leaves on the trees are divided as congress, but in this case, between the colors of Christmas;
If the highlight of last week involved cake and carrots and apples and salted maple cream cheese buttercream?
If all that is at the moment true? Stands to reason we were due some sneezles. I should just scrawl COLDS across a few days on the calendar every month between now and next March. The dates might be off, but not the gist. And if that's the price for this?
I'll take it.
The anatomy of this cake hails from Amy Pennington's lovely little tome, Apples, which I picked up at the library last month. Mostly, I only meant to flip through, but then the words Carrot Apple Cake jumped off the page, and into my eyeballs, and didn't pass Go before beelining it for my fingers and feet. I tend to be faster with baked goods than messes. Exhibit A: I'd baked cupcakes by nightfall.
Exhibit B: I baked another, this time a cake (okay, two, but I shared), last week. Exhibit C: I'm here talking up this cake instead of there, tackling that dining room disaster. Quickly, then: Carrot cake. Apple Cake. Together. Combined. Combined. Which, yes—all credit to Amy, here—is exactly as brilliant as it sounds.
You get, as you might well imagine, the best of both worlds—or cakes—and then some. The carrot does its classic triple-schtick of adding soft sweetness and texture and tender. There's the sweet damp of apple, not seen but heard, or rather tasted, mellow, haunting, pleasing. Nutmeg and ginger keep cloying at bay, without veering into overbearing. The texture, though. The texture's the thing.
I'm torn, like the trees, in my adjectives here, as dense is what keeps pawing at my mind. The trouble, see, is dense comes with baggage, with bricks and doorstops and cakes spelled m-i-s-t-a-k-e. This is the other dense, the fantastic dense, the squidgy damp apple-and-carrot-spiked dense. Think custard not fudge. Think pudding not cake. Though no proper pud would be capped with something so baroque as salted maple cream cheese buttercream. Small wonder my family emigrated.
The original recipe had no buttercream, came instead with a more modest cream cheese glaze. But I had visions of this in my memory, and a jug of dark maple motioning in the fridge, and that full hour while the cake baked, and so. Ten minutes. Some butter, some cream cheese. Treacle-dark maple syrup in place of buttermilk. (The darker, the better; think Grade BBB). And a lashing of salt sufficient to make you stand up and take notice, then smuggle off another slice.
The first time I made this, I wasn't sure there would be a second. Many—most—cakes never get an encore. I've always been kindly disposed toward both cakes in a friendly, familiar way. Apple cake is nice. Carrot cake is nice. Fond. I am fond of both; would pick either over chocolate; would make each once a decade. But I'm not mad-crazy for either like I am for lemon or almond or kabocha cardamom. And yet, as I paged through Pennington's book, I thought it stood to reason that maybe, just maybe, if carrot and apple are individually nice, then both together might just gobsmack. Score one for logic. Especially logic tucked under a nice thick cap of cream cheese, salted and mapled.
Apple Carrot Cake + Salted Maple Cream Cheese Buttercream
adapted from Apples, by Amy Pennington
Yield Notes: This recipe yields upwards of 24 cupcakes (filled 1/2 full, for just-level cakes), with a baking time in the 22-24 minute range (until they pass the knife test). It would also double-up into a humdinger of a fall layer cake, with the pumped up buttercream (see headnote, below). But for my money, I think I love the lowly single-layer best, with soft slumpy frosting that won't quite stay put.
Ingredient Notes: I slightly prefer the version with grated carrots and apples; my kids, the one with fewer "bits", i.e. with applesauce. That said, I adore both fiercely. Could I convince them of nuts in cake, I would add a cup of chopped toasted walnuts. As is my wont, I add spices during the creaming stage, to revive and release their flavors into the fat. I've made this with all white flour, all wheat, and a mix; all were wonderful. This cake is so moist it can take whatever flour you throw at it. As to syrup? Use the darkest, deepest Grade B you can get your hands on. It will shine beacon-bright, here.
Finally? This cake keeps like a dream, as good on day 5 as day 1. Love that.
Apple Carrot Cake
1/2 cup (8 TBS) salted butter, at room temperature
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup dark brown sugar, packed
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon each cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg
1/2 cup plain whole milk yogurt
3 large eggs
1 tablespoon pure vanilla
2 cups all-purpose flour, white, whole wheat, or a mix
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 large (or 4 small) carrots, peeled and grated (to yield 1 1/2 cups)
2 medium apples, cored and grated (or 1 cup applesauce)
Preheat oven to 350°. Grease a 9" square cake pan, then line with two sheets of parchment, lengthwise and widthwise, each strip extending a few inches above the pan's rim, to act as handles. Set aside.
In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, beat the butter and sugars on medium speed until creamy and somewhat lightened, 4-5 minutes. Scrape sides, add yogurt and beat until just combined. Add eggs, one at a time, beating and scraping sides between each addition. Add vanilla, and beat to combine. Scrape sides, add flour, baking soda and baking powder, then mix on low until just combined. Add grated carrots and grated apples (or applesauce), and mix on low until just combined. Remove bowl from mixer, and with a rubber spatula, scrape sides and bottom of bowl, and fold batter, bottom to top, several times to combine. (The carrots and apples like to congregate at the top; you want to incorporate the plain batter from the bottom.) Scrape batter into prepared pan and bake about 60 minutes, until a knife emerges clean from the center of the cake. Remove to a rack, and cool 10 minutes, then use parchment handles to remove cake from pan. Set on a rack to cool completely, several hours, before topping with maple cream cheese frosting, below.
Salted Maple Cream Cheese Frosting
adapted from here, compliments of my friend Allison
For a simple cut-and-come again cake, I prefer a soft, slumpy buttercream, one with closer to 2# of powdered sugar. If you wish to frost cupcakes in proper peaks, or hold together a layer cake, continue adding powdered sugar into the 2.5-3# range, until the frosting can hold semi-stiff peaks. (See here for full instructions.) Start with the 1 1/4 teaspoon of salt, and see what you think. I take it all the way to 1 1/2 teaspoons.
6 ounces cream cheese, at room temp
4 ounces salted butter (1/2 cup), at room temp
1/2 cup Grade B maple syrup
1 1/4- 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
2-3 pounds powdered sugar
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, beat the cream cheese and butter until creamy, 1 minute. Gradually, add powdered sugar, 1/2# at a time, alternating with splashes of syrup. After the first round of sugar, scrape sides and add salt, and continue adding sugar and syrup, beating a minute between additions, and scraping sides occasionally. Once 2# of sugar have been added, and the full 1/2 cup of syrup, taste for flavor and texture. Add more maple and/or salt as needed, until both are evident and almost emphatic and lovely. If more loft is desired (i.e. for cupcakes or layer cakes), add up to another pound of powdered sugar, switching to the whisk attachment and beating an additional several minutes to work in loft and air, until frosting can just stand at attention. Frosting will keep, refrigerated and covered, several days, or can be frozen up to 1 month.