Okay, it’s a stretch, but I have been thinking about carrot cake lately. Carrot cake: the surprisingly unhealthy conglomeration of bright orange vegetable, nuts, tangy cream cheese and lots and lots of sugar. Think about it: it’s a dessert made around a VEGETABLE. So why carrot cake in early April? Well, Easter is rapidly approaching, and with Easter comes bunnies, and bunnies eat carrots, and carrots make carrot cake. Got it? Good, I’m glad you’re coming with me on this one. (Also I noticed the other day while grocery shopping that carrot cakes are everywhere, so maybe the idea got into my head subconsciously!) A quick Google search revealed a fascinating article on Cake Spy regarding the history of carrot cake: carrots have been used in desserts as far back as the middle ages, and were often used in times of sugar rationing. It makes sense, really!
But honestly, as much as I adore carrot cake, it’s caloric density and relatively complicated ingredients list makes it an unlikely dessert option in our household. But I’ve had a hankering for it since an ill-advised hunk of truck stop carrot cake on a lonely trip to Virginia cost me nearly 500 calories and the lingering taste of chemicals in the back of my throat for nearly 100 miles of 95 South. (Yes, an emotional crisis cause a SEVERE lack of snack judgment here. I should have just gotten a candy bar.)
So I wanted to make a carrot cake flavored dessert that was much, MUCH lighter than original, portion controlled, but still had a lot of the flavor of carrot cake. But what about the TEXTURE of spoonbread? I’ll admit, I am a sucker for Don Pablo’s Cornmeal Spoon Bread: the almost creamy texture of intensely corn-flavored cake-y pudding. Is it sweet? Is it savory? Yes. YES. So I really wanted to capture the texture of that side dish with the sweet-spice-infused tangyness of carrot cake. (Is your mouth watering yet? Mine is. Excuse me while I grab a paper towel.)
In thinking about the ingredients, I researched carrot cake recipes. Carrot cake is essentially a spice cake studded with shredded carrots, nuts, sometimes raisins and sometimes pineapple. The spices were important to me: just cinnamon wasn’t going to cut it. I needed a bit of clove, nutmeg and ginger as well. Carrots, of course, are essential, and nuts. I decided on walnuts, due to The Hubs sensitivity to pecans. But raisins? I’ve never really been a huge fan of raisins, and we don’t keep them in the house because of their toxicity to dogs. (Yes, I’m paranoid I’m going to accidentally kill my dog with raisins.) So what can give me sweetness, with the molasses-y depth of raisins? Dates! And as for the pineapple, I just decided to skip it. Of course, you also need vanilla, baking powder, my new best friend evaporated skim milk, and cornmeal to thicken it up.
So, I trimmed and peeled about 1 1/2 lbs of carrots, then shredded them with my food processor. (Do you remember the movie Mannequin from the 80s? There was a scene where the bad guy is throwing some old mannequin parts into a giant shredder. Watching the carrot remnants spinning around on top of the shredding disc reminded me of this!)
I then replaced the shredding disc with the regular old blade, and ground up the dates with the walnuts until crumbly. I added the cornmeal in next, and blended that all together for 30 seconds or so, then poured the evaporated milk in through the top til it was all blended smoothly. I poured that into a bowl and poured in the remainder of the ingredients, stirring with a spatula to combine thoroughly. Then I poured it into an 8 x 8 pan lined with parchment paper (parchment and I are besties) and popped it into a 325 degree oven for 40 minutes.
Lastly I blended two ounces of full fat cream cheese with 1/4 cup of powdered sugar and whipped it with a fork until smooth. I let the spoonbread rest for about 30 minutes before removing it from the oven, so it was warm but not piping hot. It cut easily into 6 pieces, so it wound up being a little bit less like a spoon bread and a little more like a brownie, which is a-ok with me! I put a small dollop of cream cheese icing on top, and dug in.
THIS TASTED EXACTLY LIKE CARROT CAKE. (Okay, I know that was the point, but…SUCCESS!!) The texture was not exactly what I’d hoped for, but it was fine. The “cake” bit was slightly dense, and you could really feel the texture of the shredded carrots and sometimes the nuts. It was sweet, but not overly sweet, and the tang of the cream cheese really pulled it together. I give it 8 out of 10 stars, and that’s only because the texture isn’t what I hoped for. And at TWICE the size as the truck stop carrot cake but HALF the calories (and without that wonderful petroleum aftertaste), it’s almost healthy! Each piece is less than 250 calories but feels naughty!
Carrot Cake Spoonbread (Serves 6)
Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
In a food processor, pulse dates and walnuts until finely ground. Add cornmeal and blend until crumbly. With food processor running, slowly pour in evaporated milk and run until smooth. Pour into a bowl and stir in carrots, vanilla, ginger, baking powder, salt and spices. Pour into a parchment lined 8×8 baking dish and bake for 30-40 minutes, or until set.
Allow to cool 30 minutes. In the meantime, blend cream cheese and powdered sugar. Serve warm with a dollop of cream cheese frosting.