The cake world is populated by two camps, it seems to me: those which are definitively dessert, and those which are trying to be breakfast (I’m looking at you, coffeecake). Some of the “trying to be breakfast” denizens bridge the gap by taking the appellation “bread” rather than cake – banana and zucchini bread are the chief players in this particular masquerade. But they are, at heart, essentially still cake: sweet, plenty of fat from oil or butter, and sometimes interspersed with shards of chocolate for good measure. Carrot cake, the other popular vegetal option, doesn’t even pretend. It just comes right out there and, whether it’s for alliterative reasons or not, boldly declares itself a cake and leaves it at that.
The idea of putting these long orange taproots into a sweet application came originally from the Middle Ages, when sugar was barely on the horizon and other sweeteners were hard to come by. Carrots as a cake ingredient have since had two spikes in popularity: once during the second world war, when sugar and honey were, again, in short supply, and once starting in the 1970s or so when it was touted not as a sugar-rationing option, but as a “healthy cake.” Really though, if we’re honest today’s carrot cake is far from healthy. It may have a discernible threading of carrots, and it’s frequently studded with nuts, raisins, sometimes even coconut or pineapple, but it is also loaded with oil for moisture and draped with that miracle that is cream cheese frosting.
During a text conversation with my sister about golden raisins (probably 70% of our texts are about food), I developed a craving for carrot cake. This is an irritating paradox that happens quite often to me during the summer: now that I have plenty of time on my hands, I frequently get the urge to embark on elaborate baking projects. However, because it’s summer and school is not in session, I don’t have a whole department of people to foist my creations off on. I only have N. and me, and we would both like to retain our svelte (haha) figures. My sister suggested turning carrot cake into a muffin so it could be consumed for breakfast, and I thought even easier might be a tray of breakfast bars – moist and flat and portable and loaded with carrots and golden raisins. Thus I’ve taken carrot cake – the cake that isn’t even pretending to be anything but a dessert – into the breakfast cakes camp.
What resulted is not your traditional super moist, super tender carrot cake drowning in sweetened cream cheese (not that there’s anything wrong with that, mind you). After deciding on a breakfast version, I wanted something that was not, in fact, cake. Even if we didn’t want it for breakfast, we should be able to turn to it as a mid morning snack without suffering an instant sugar high. It might be a good option for N. to slice into after running. It should be more filling – more substantial – than your typical carrot cake, and very lightly sweet. It should definitely include both nuts and raisins, the nuts should always be toasted, and the spices should be more assertive than in your typical cake. I added oats in place of some of the flour, taking a hint from one of my favorite granola/energy bar recipes and toasting them first. I cut down on the quantities of oil and sugar that most recipes call for, and ended up with something very lightly sweet – the carrots and raisins contribute most of the bursts of sweetness, not the mere ½ cup of brown sugar. If you’re looking for something sweeter, bump up the sugar by ¼ cup, as I note in the recipe below.
The worst thing about making a carrot cake is grating the carrots. Working from the always brilliant suggestions in The New Best Recipe, I eliminated the frustration of grated knuckles and bright orange fingernails and used the food processor. This ends up being a considerable time-and-dishes-saver, because you can also use it to chop the nuts, pulse the oats, and, as the recipe testers in TNBR devise, emulsify the oil with the eggs and sugar to make a frothy, perfectly combined syrup of wet ingredients that integrate smoothly and quickly. Toasting the nuts and the oats in the same 9×13 inch pan you’ll later bake the bars in means you’re only using, aside from various measuring and mixing utensils, a food processor, a single mixing bowl, and one baking dish.
At first I considered making a simple cream cheese icing – just a breath of powdered sugar, and maybe some lemon juice to brighten it up – but found I didn’t want it after all. They were perfect, just as they were, and even better with a glass of iced chai. If you find you miss the frosting component, I’d suggest whisking a little honey or maple syrup into some room temperature cream cheese, maybe with a little lemon or lime zest if you’re feeling fancy, and adding a dab to the top of your bar.
As well-spiced, fruit-laden desserts often do, these improve after a night of resting in the refrigerator, and are still just as good on the third or fourth day. This is perfect, really, because it means you can bake them the night before and have something all ready for an early breakfast before heading off on some summer adventure.
Carrot Cake Breakfast Bars
Makes one 9x13x2 inch pan; 15-18 squares or bars, depending on how enthusiastically you slice them
1 cup old fashioned rolled oats
1 ½ cups pecans, walnuts, or a mixture
1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 teaspoons cinnamon
¾ teaspoon nutmeg
½ teaspoon cardamom
½ teaspoon ginger
¾ cup golden raisins
½ pound carrots, stem ends removed (approximately – for 2 cups finely shredded)
½ cup brown sugar for barely sweet, ¾ cup brown sugar for slightly sweeter
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup vegetable oil
- Preheat the oven to 350F. In a 9x13x2 inch pan, scatter the oats in as close to a single layer as possible. Toast in the oven at 350F for 15 minutes, until lightly golden and smelling strongly of oatmeal. Remove and pour into the belly of a food processor fitted with the metal blade.
- In the same pan, scatter the pecans and/or walnuts and toast in the oven at 350F. Depending on the size of the nuts, pecans will take 5-7 minutes and walnuts will take 5-10 minutes. They are ready just as you begin to smell them, even if they don’t look it – they will darken as they cool, and burned nuts are unsalvageable. When ready, remove from oven and set aside to cool slightly.
- While oats and nuts cool, whisk together remaining dry ingredients in a large mixing bowl: the flour, the salt, the baking soda, and the four spices.
- Using the metal blade attachment, pulse the oats in the food processor 3 or 4 times, until some are fine and powdery but some are almost fully intact. Add to dry ingredient mixture and whisk to combine.
- Add the toasted, cooled nuts to the food processor. Pulse 4 or 5 times until roughly chopped, then add to the dry ingredient mixture and again, whisk to combine.
- Now replace the metal blade attachment in the food processor with the shredding disc. Feed the carrots through as close to vertical as possible for fine, thin shreds. You can peel the carrots before doing this if you want; I just scrubbed them off a bit. Transfer the finely shredded carrots to the bowl of dry ingredients. Add the golden raisins and fold them in with a rubber spatula.
- Switch the food processor back to the metal blade attachment. Process the brown sugar with the eggs and vanilla until the mixture is frothy – about 20 seconds. With the machine still running, add the vegetable oil in a steady stream and continue processing until it is emulsified – another 20 seconds or so. The mixture will be surprisingly thick, almost like a butterscotch sauce in texture and in color.
- Pour and scrape the emulsified oil mixture into the bowl of dry ingredients and carrots, and use a rubber spatula to fold them together until no hidden dry pockets remain. The resulting mixture will be thick, more like cookie dough than a standard cake batter.
- Lower the oven temperature to 325F and spray the same 9x13x2 inch pan you used for toasting with a non-stick spray. Scrape the batter into the pan and use your rubber spatula to flatten it into an even layer. Bake at 325F until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out with just a few moist crumbs; 25-30 minutes.
- Let cool in the pan for at least 15 minutes before slicing into bars or squares.