Midwest Living columnist Leah Eskin creates her dream carrot cake—and discovers that a good recipe (just like life amid a pandemic) is all about balance.

By Leah Eskin
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Greg Luna

Baking eases anxiety, so I was relieved to have a project: carrot cake. Olivia, friend to my college sophomore, was turning 21. Though she claims to have no favorite cake (go figure), she likes carrot well enough.

I don’t believe in carrot cake—too close to salad. But I’ve developed a work-around. I simmer until tender and puree the carrots, then fold them into a meringue-light batter. Bakes up pale and pretty and polite, unlike the sodden original.

We were joining two other families to celebrate, though we worried: Was it safe? Back then, days ago in actual time, years ago in Pandemic Time, I believed in “balance”—a sodden middle ground that weighed the need for social distance with the need for sanity. We’ve long since given up on sanity.

I had doubts, however, about my recipe. While I despise carrot cake’s lumpen core—raisin clumps and coconut shards and pineapple sog—someone who likes carrot cake well enough might miss the drama.

So I came up with a filling to plaster over the rift: Melt butter into sugar and soften with coconut milk. (Plenty of sunny attitude, no flake.) Cool, beat and stud with toasted pecans. Once the nut-and-coconut distraction was sequestered in fluff, I slathered it between the cake layers, which retained their pale, pretty poise.

Carrot cake exterior calls for cream cheese frosting. I suspect Olivia tolerates carrot cake thanks to cream cheese frosting. I suspect most people tolerate carrot cake thanks to cream cheese frosting. Not me. I despise cream cheese frosting. It’s largely confectioner’s sugar—an ingredient I used to avoid like the plague. Now that the plague has arrived, I hew to other metaphors. Avoid it like social contact, say.

Frankly, I don’t mind staying put. I’ve made a career out of standing around my kitchen, puzzling through recipes. For entertainment, I knit. I’m quarantine-compatible. What I miss is motivation. Half the point of cooking is cooking. Half is sharing the results with friends. And while I’ve heard that remote lectures and remote therapy and remote worship can be managed, the remote dinner party is new, and discouraging, territory.

What I’ve learned, standing around my kitchen, is that a recipe is about balance: doable versus delicious. Too tricky and no one will bother. Too plain and there’s no point. I tested a frosting that subs custard for confectioner’s sugar. Too tart and too much trouble. Frosted and decorated with cherry blossom petals, the cake posed pale and pretty.

At Olivia’s, the furloughed college students shelled edamame. The furloughed high school students skulked upstairs. Olivia’s mom stir-fried a platter of yellow chives, a platter of chicken and garlic, a platter of salmon, and tossed a deep bowl of spicy cucumbers. She shredded Peking duck and served it up with sticky sauce. We slurped down long-life noodles and life-affirming champagne. Then we sliced that cake. The birthday girl liked it. The families liked it. I liked it. Gazing at those cream-cheese smeared smiles, I knew it was the last time—for a long time—that we’d crowd around a table together.

Now I’m back to standing in my kitchen, puzzling over dishes I can’t share. I like to think that in another lab, someone is balancing doable with effective, developing a recipe to meet disaster.

Leah's Carrot-Spice Cake with Coconut-Pecan Filling kicks carrot cake to elegant new heights. Tender layers of carrot-tinted spice cake are sandwiched with a luscious coconut-pecan filling, and it's all covered in swirls of cream cheese frosting. It's an event to make (plan for some dish-washing), but well worth the effort. See the recipe here.