Food Fight: Battle Carrot Cake

I always wonder what people imagine the first time they hear the words "carrot cake." It's not that the name isn't accurate or descriptive - it really is a cake made with carrots - but it's hard to imagine people picturing something, well, good. Do they even think it's a dessert? It could just as easily be savory like a potato pancake or, more likely, the sort of well-intentioned but revolting dish meant to appeal to people who don't like vegetables, the sort of dish left untouched at office potlucks, the sort of dish whose name usually ends with the word "surprise." To add to the confusion, in Singapore (where I spent the better part of last year), a famous local dish called "carrot cake" is neither a cake nor made with carrots. But that's a whole other story.

Alan Davidson, in The Oxford Companion to Food, traces the origins of Western-style carrot cake to the Middle Ages in Europe. Because sweeteners such as honey and sugar were so expensive (explaining the Elizabethan fad for blackened teeth as a sign of social status), the readily available carrot, naturally containing a high amount of sugar, became the go-to ingredient for desserts. But it wasn't until after World War II that the modern carrot cake, i.e., one slathered with cream-cheese frosting, came into being. The precise origins are unclear, but the first such carrot cake probably appeared in the 1960s and probably in America. I'll take "close enough" for $400, Alex. U-S-A! U-S-A!

Carrot cake became wildly popular in the 1970s; according to the Food Network, it was the decade's #5 food fad behind quiche, the Scarsdale diet, Hamburger Helper, and Harvey Wallbangers. But can you really call something a fad when it becomes part of the culinary vernacular? Today, you can find carrot cake at almost every bakery in town; it's no more a fad than chocolate chip cookies or Big Macs.

As my birthday is coming up, I decided to test-taste carrot cake at two local favorites, Moeller's Bakery and Dessert Gallery.

Dessert Gallery ($45 for a 9-inch three-layer cake, $25 for a 6-inch cake, and $6.50 for a generous slice of a 9-inch cake - mine weighed in at just over 13 ounces)

This is the carrot cake we talk about when we talk about carrot cake. The cake itself is a thing of beauty: light brown, flecked with small pieces of pecan, moist almost to the point of being wet (in part because it contains pineapple), and coated by and layered with luscious, intensely sweet frosting. The mouthfeel is fantastic, with small bits of shredded carrot in every bite, and a finishing hint of cinnamon amid the swirled frosting. My only quibble is that it comes close to being too sweet, and for some may cross the line.

Moeller's Bakery (8-inch carrot cake for $23.50, and a medium-sized carrot cake loaf for $6.25 - mine weighed in at just over a pound)

At first I was skeptical of Moeller's carrot cake. The icing looked brittle, and the underlying cake disconcertingly marigold-colored and possibly even dry. But the cake was toothsome and tender, with the flavor of a really good yellow cake, enhanced by a subtle background of carrots and ground pecans. It's markedly less sweet than most carrot cakes, but more than sweet enough. After a bite of Dessert Gallery's cake, you taste the frosting; after a bite of Moeller's you taste the cake. The weak point here is the frosting; it tastes fine but is somewhat thin and flaky.

The winner: Dessert Gallery, on the strength of its presentation and its stellar frosting. For those who like desserts a little less sweet, Moeller's is an excellent choice; the loaf is a great value, and much easier to serve to multiple people (say, at an office birthday party).

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