Memories in a Bite

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

   There are a great many things that I love about food and cooking. It is hard to think about food and all the pleasures it brings without things like flavor, texture, aroma and delightful plate arrangements being foremost in mind. But in addition to all of those things, food is near and dear to me for its memory evoking potential.

   One of the most important mentors in my life was a medical professor and specialist in the field of psychiatry. In the middle of my second year of medical school, when it seemed that most of my life had been reduced to medical textbooks and the depressingly cramped, florescent lit classroom the second year students inhabited, in she swept, a beautifully dressed, inspiring and passionate reminder that even doctors can be happy, well adjusted people. She was a breath of fresh air at a time when I was losing steam. I was delighted to no end when, at a dinner she cooked for a group of us interested in the field of psychiatry, I discovered that she was a fellow closet chef! Her kitchen is one I still aspire to one day build for myself, and the magnificent, three tiered carrot cake she served us for dessert is something I think about to this day. Ultimately, I didn't end up going into psychiatry, but whenever I am feeling overwhelmed by my professional choices or think I've lost sight of what it means to be a doctor, she swiftly comes to mind.

   That strangely vegetable filled cake also reminds me of my love, Steve. I made this carrot cake for him on the first birthday of his that we were together.  His birthday falls in the first week of February, and it was during a very sweet and exciting time in our relationship, one where we both realized we were in it for keeps. It is my opinion that this cake is so good, it further convinced him to keep me around! This year, after much debate over whether or not to go with the carrot cake again, he requested a coconut cake. I don't think it's just because he loves the flavor of coconut; it's also because it reminds him of his grandmother and all the lovely, homey things she used to make just for her grandson.

   People like to say that smell is the most closely associated sense with memory. And, being a person with a distinctly keen sense of smell, most of the time I agree with them. But sometimes, like when I take a bit of this carrot cake, I think it is actually taste that reminds us of those perhaps long forgotten memories. Like the way an old friend put us back on the path we had lost, or the way grandma used to direct us in the kitchen from her perch on a chair, now too old to be standing at the stove, our food can be sweet and memory filled too, just like life.

Carrot Cake
   Courtesy of my medical school mentor

 4 cups shredded, peeled carrots
   Note: I use a two pound bag of baby carrots and process them in batches in the food processor- it is much easier than grating larger ones by hand! Just process more or discard any excess to measure 4 cups
2 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder
4 large eggs- room temperature
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup sugar
1 cup light brown sugar, packed firmly
1 1/2 cups corn or canola oil
1 1/2 cups chopped walnuts

1. Adjust racks to divide oven into thirds. Preheat to 350.
2. Butter three 9-inch round baking [ans, pine the bottoms with parchment, butter the paper, and dust with flour. Set aside. Alternatively, as I did above, you can make cupcakes; use a standard sized 12 cupcake tin and line each mold with a cupcake foil. 
3. Sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon and cocoa, set aside.
4. In a large bowl using an electric mixer, beat together the eggs. Beat in vanilla, both sugars, and the oil.
5. On low speed, beat in the dry ingredients just until incorporated (don't every beat!). Stir in the carrots and walnuts.
6. Divide the batter among the pans you have chosen.
7. Bake the pans divided among the racks for 25-40 minutes until the tops spring back when you press gently. If using muffin tins, the cupcakes take 25-30 minutes to bake depending on the heat distribution of your oven. 
8. Let stand for 2-3 minutes, then unmold the cakes onto cake racks and let cool. 

Silky Cream Cheese Frosting

1 1/2 pounds cream cheese, at room temperature
10 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3 cups sifted confectioners sugar
optional: 1/2 pound marscapone cheese
 Note: for a richer, softer frosting, use only 1 pound cream cheese and follow the recipe as below. At the end, fold in by hand 1/2 pound marscapone cheese.

1. In a large bowl using an electric mixer, beat the cream cheese and butter until smoother. Beat in the vanilla and sugar and continue beating until smooth. See above for directions if using marscapone. 
2. Frost your cake as you desire using decoration tips or a spatula. I like to use a large star tip to pipe frosting on the cupcakes, but if I am making one large cake, I frost it simply with a spatula. Without piped decorations, the cake is grand enough on its own!


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