Allyson Gofton on the rise of sweet vegetable cakes (plus recipe)
There’s a later-than-normal end to our summer sunshine this year, resulting in a bounty of summer vegetables. My local fruit and veg shop is awash with courgettes varying in both size and price point. Small and delicate courgettes were twice the price per kg of the uglier, on-steroid-size large varieties, but the latter were the perfect choice for a vegetable cake. A dollar bought me more than enough for the recipe below.
Vegetable cakes, are a relatively new invention, though vegetable puddings prepared with carrots or squash have been made for a considerably longer period. The distinguished Mrs Beeton’s baked or boiled carrot pudding, published in 1869, calls for breadcrumbs, suet, raisins, currants, sugar, eggs and mashed, cooked carrots. The stodgy offering was strewn with icing sugar before serving — probably to mask its bland colour. During World War II the carrot pud was revived when sugar was rationed and carrots could add a sweet taste to baking.
After the war, home gardens were the flavour of the times and crops like carrots and courgettes flourished. Any over-abundance was turned into all sorts of goods from pickles to breads, and eventually cakes.
During the 1960s, somewhere in the US, carrot cakes came to the fore, seen by the flower-power and 60s health-food generation as a wholesome alternative to traditional baking — though, given the amount of sugar, eggs and oil they contained, they were nothing of the sort. Once frosted with cream cheese, any claim it could be classified as a health food went down the gurgler.
Other vegetables moved in on the carrot’s patch. Pumpkins went from pies to muffins — often with the addition of sweet prunes, dates or oranges. American food hero, James Beard — the Jamie Oliver of his day — raised the courgette’s standing when he included it in a bread recipe in the late 60s, and another sweet root crop, beetroot, soon followed, usually paired with chocolate.
Vegetables add a sweet taste and fudge-like texture when used in baking. They mix well with spices such as cinnamon, mixed spice and aniseed. Dried fruits of almost any description — pears, cranberries, sultanas, currants, apricots and ginger — make great companions with these vegetable cakes, as do walnuts and pecans.
Cook vegetable cakes in a well-greased, paper lined tin, lining the sides if you can. Make sure the cake tin is only two-thirds full; any more than this and there will be too much mixture in the tin and the cake will sink in the middle, and/or overflow. These cakes are usually cooked at a lower temperature, around 160-180C. They should be placed in the middle or just below the middle of the oven and, given the total sugar content, if they are browning too much, covered with a piece of baking paper to avert them developing a dark brown top. Once baked, the cakes require a good 10-15 minutes in the tin before being turned out on a cake rack to cool completely. Turning them out any earlier risks the warm cake breaking apart. Vegetable cakes freeze well, but must be frozen before decorating. They defrost well if left overnight in the refrigerator, or for about four hours at room temperature.