I remember my Nana once complaining about the awful oil slick of a carrot cake she had eaten at a department store in town. It looked perfectly good in the cabinet, she said, and then once served on a plate, the oil practically spilled from its cut sides, leaving a sticky sheen on the plate.
I think of this story every time I make a carrot cake, and I have made a fair few carrot cakes. They are of the high, well risen, fruit, nut and spice variety with a generous spread of cream cheese frosting. Never have they been too oily, thank goodness, but they do pack a punch – that cream cheese frosting can really get to you.Recently while watching re-runs of Nigella Kitchen I saw her demonstrate a recipe for a more simple carrot cake, one with no frosting at all. It had sultanas soaked in brandy, was made with olive oil and almost marigold in colour. But in all honesty, what appealed to me most was the way Nigella whispered and sighed her description of the cake as a modest disc, one that will damply crumble as you cut it.
If modest disc and damply crumble do not make you swoon slightly at the thought of it, then let me add this: the cake is almost custard-like in texture, soft and sweet. The sultanas burst with the rich flavour of cooked brandy. As for the olive oil, ground almonds and carrots, each one is wholesome in their own right but together they are a tri-factor of earthy sweetness. On top of the cake are bark-like shards of almond for a toothsome crunch.I can’t imagine an occasion for which the former style of carrot cake – the big hulking sort with an inch of rich icing – would be more suitable than this soft and delicate version. My Nana would have loved this cake – not least for the sultanas simmered in brandy.
Venetian Carrot Cake
A Nigella Lawson recipe
According to Nigella, this version of carrot cake was made by Jews in the Venetian Ghetto during the time of the Venetian Republic.
2 medium carrots
75 grams sultanas
60ml brandy or rum
150 grams caster sugar
125ml regular olive oil
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
250 grams ground almonds
1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg
1/2 lemon finely grated zest and juice
a small handful whole almonds or slivers
Preheat the oven to 180°C. Line a 23cm springform tin with baking paper and brush the sides with olive oil.
Coarsely grate the carrots then wrap them in a double layer of kitchen towels to soak up excess liquid. Set aside.
Put the sultanas and the brandy or rum in a small saucepan and bring to the boil. Lower the heat and simmer for 3 minutes. Set aside.
Whisk the sugar and olive oil until pale and well combined. Add the vanilla extract, eggs and whisk again. When well mixed fold in the ground almonds, nutmeg, grated carrots, sultanas (and brandy left in the saucepan), and the lemon zest and juice.
Scrape the mixture into the prepared tin and smooth the surface. Roughly chop the whole almonds and sprinkle over the top of the cake. Place cake in oven for 30-40 minutes (mine cooked for closer to 45 minutes and was still very moist in the centre), or until the top is golden and a skewer inserted in the middle comes out clean.
Let the cake sit in its tin on a wire rack for 10 minutes before releasing the spring then leaving to cool.
Serve with cream or yoghurt.