I’m not a master of cakery, by any means. I rarely bake a successful cake. There’s usually something off about it. It’s underdone, it’s overdone, it’s sunken, it’s poisonous to small mammals, that sort of thing. I don’t especially like cake, anyway; it’s just too sweet and too, I don’t know, cake-y. I prefer fruit pies, a blend of tart and sweet with a slightly salty crust. Just like me.
Nevertheless, I was drawn once more into the Hallowed Halls of Cakedom after finding my mom’s old recipe for carob cake. She made this cake many times, as well as carob brownies and carob-chip cookies. I loved all of them and associate the distinctive flavor of carob with moments of pure childhood happiness.
It’s certainly unusual, these days, to encounter carob in anything. It had its heyday in the ’70s and ’80s, with the rise of the natural-foods movement. Carob was promoted as a healthier alternative to chocolate because it contains no caffeine and is high in fiber. In fact, Haagen-Dazs ice cream got on the carob train and sold carob ice cream in the ’70s, albeit briefly. It looks just like chocolate and can be used in most chocolate recipes. No doubt millions of people were horrified to bite into a chewy brownie or enjoy a warm chocolate chip cookie, only to recoil in shock as a very un-chocolate flavor hit their tastebuds. (In fact, there’s an excellent article in The New Yorker, published in 2018, “How Carob Traumatized a Generation.”)
However, if carob is approached as a completely different flavor from chocolate, the brain can just relax and enjoy carob for its own merits: richly nutty with toasty, coffeeish undertones and a natural sweetness without any of chocolate’s bitterness. It’s made from the dried pods of a flowering evergreen tree in the legume family. I recommend — if you’re persuaded to make this cake — using roasted carob powder rather than raw, as it enhances the flavor considerably.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cream together 1/2 cup softened butter with 1 3/4 cup packed brown sugar. Add 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla and 2 eggs, one at a time, beating well after each egg. In a small bowl, mix 1/2 cup roasted carob powder with 1/2 cup water and blend until smooth. Add carob to sugar mixture and beat until fluffy.
A note on creaming the butter and sugar: Make sure the butter is quite soft, otherwise you might be tempted to help the mixer along by shoving globs of butter and clumps of sugar through the hand-held mixer with your fingers, as I did. I got my index finger caught in the beaters and, although my finger isn’t broken, it is rather bruised and may bend in a subtly different direction than it used to.
In a separate bowl, sift together 2 1/2 cups flour with 1 teaspoon each baking soda and instant coffee, plus a scant teaspoon of salt. Add some flour mixture to the sugar mixture, stirring well. Begin to add 2/3 cup buttermilk, alternating between buttermilk and flour mixture, blending well after each addition until the batter is smooth and evenly brown. Optional: add 2/3 cup chopped walnuts, pecans or hazelnuts.
Pour into two greased and floured 8-inch cake pans and bake for 30 to 35 minutes. Allow to cool completely then turn out one layer onto a cake pedestal or plate. Frost completely, then turn out second layer on top of first layer and frost that, too. Lick a lot of frosting off your fingers or right out of the bowl. Get some frosting on your face and find it several hours later, a brown smear near your nose. Mmmmmmmm.
Carob-Coffee Buttercream Frosting
Sift together 3 cups powdered sugar with 1/3 cup carob powder (unmoistened) and 1 teaspoon instant coffee. In a separate bowl, blend 1/2 cup well-softened butter with 3 tablespoons buttermilk and 1 egg (the egg won’t be cooked, so if this makes you uncomfortable, try increasing the buttermilk). Add the sugar mixture to the butter mixture and blend several minutes until very smooth. You’ll have plenty of frosting for the whole cake. I was a bit too stingy with the frosting and had some left over, which I put in my coffee, of course.
The verdict from my teenage daughter: Nope.
The verdict from my husband: “It’s good. Yeah, I like it.” High praise indeed from the uneffusive Englishman.
The verdict from me: a moist, rich, frosting-laden slice from my past. Now, hand me my frosting-flavored coffee and let me think about whether I might have cake for dinner. Carob’s a bean, and beans are full of protein, practically a diet food. If I have two pieces I might even weigh less tomorrow.