Sister Carm’s Carrot Cake

Carm’s Carrot Cake
Sister Carm (left) and my mom in Russia.

Sister Carm is a family friend that my mother met through church and subsequently traveled with to Africa and parts of Europe. Her carrot cake is famous in our family – when I was searching for the recipe in my e-mail inbox, I found at least three separate messages with my mom, cousins, and friends all asking for copies of it. When I asked Sister Carm for permission to publish this carrot cake, I also asked her if she had any stories she wanted me to tell. She said, “Can’t think of a story to go along with recipe except your mom said after eating it ‘Carm if the nun thing doesn’t work out for you, you can always bake cakes.'” I agree with my mom – Carm could make a living off selling these cakes!

Carm said a version of this recipe originally appeared in the “Talk About Good Lafayette Junior League Cookbook” and she’s made her own tweaks over the years. I’ve included her original instructions below, with a few of my own comments and suggestions in the footnotes.

  • 2 cups flour
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 2 teaspoons cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1.5 cups vegetable oil
  • 4 eggs
  • 3 cups shredded carrots

Combine dry ingredients and mix well. Add eggs and oil and mix well. Add carrots and beat with mixer on medium speed about 2 minutes. Grease 3 9-inch cake pans. Bake 25-30 minutes.

For the filling/icing: the original recipe used 1/2 these ingredients and suggested not icing the sides of the cake. I double the recipe for icing and use as filling and icing and always have some left over. (I refrigerate the leftover icing and use it later on another type of cake.)

  • 2 8 oz packages Philadelphia Cream Cheese
  • 2 sticks of butter
  • 2 lb confectioner’s sugar
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla
  • 1-2 cups chopped pecans (optional)

Cream cheese and butter until light and fluffy, add sugar gradually. Add vanilla and pecans. Use as filling and icing.

Enjoy, Carm

Justin’s Notes:

  1. I generally divide the batter between 2 cake pans instead of 3 (because I don’t own 3!), but the cooking time is usually the same.
  2. I also find that lining the bottom of the cake pans with parchment paper and then greasing both the pan and the parchment make it easier to remove the cakes after baking.
  3. I prefer to shred whole carrots with the small holes of a box grater rather than you using store-bought shredded carrots; the texture is much better and results in a moister cake.
  4. The butter and cream cheese will be easier to mix if they are at room temperature. Sally’s Baking Addiction has some tricks here if you need to do this quickly.
  5. Like Carm, I prefer to double the filling/icing, but I leave the sides naked and instead make very thick icing layers between each cake level and on top.
  6. Make sure the cakes are completely cooled before spreading on the icing – if the cakes are warm, the icing will be runny.
  7. Lastly, I tend to decoratively sprinkle the pecans over the top of the cake instead of mixing them into the icing.

Honey Bun Cake

The Honey Bun Cake in all its sugary glory.
St. Cecilia School, where I attended K-8th grade. One Little Donuts was just down Main Street!

As a child of the 80s and 90s, I developed a taste for sugary breakfasts early in life. This might be a trip to One Little Donuts (no, that’s not a misspelling, just a poorly named restaurant) with my grandmother before school. It might also be a batch of Grand’s Orange Cinnamon Rolls if there was time or, most commonly, a quick Honey Bun, popped in the microwave and eaten on the way out the door.

Honey Buns are also delicious as afternoon treats or midnight snacks or, well, pretty much anytime you want to overdose on sugar with a side of cinnamon and carbs. When I laid eyes upon this Honey Bun Cake in Liz Choate’s The Gator Queen Liz Cookbook, I knew I had to make it. And, yes, she’s the same Liz Choate who starred in the History Channel’s Swamp People reality show. Her cookbook is pretty rad, even though I don’t see myself cooking alligator or squirrel anytime soon. But, never say never I suppose.

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees and mist a 9 x 13 inch baking pan with cooking spray. In a large bowl, combine:

  • 1 box yellow cake mix (I used Betty Crocker Super Moist Butter Recipe Yellow Cake Mix)
  • 3 large eggs
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 8 oz sour cream
  • 1/4 cup vegetable oil

Once those ingredients are well mixed, pour the batter into your 9 x 13 inch baking dish and spread it evenly in the pan. In a small bowl, combine the ingredients for the brown sugar topping:

  • 3/4 cup brown sugar
  • 4 tablespoons ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 cup chopped pecans

Brown sugar tends to clump, so I recommend mixing these ingredients together with clean hands. If you still have large chunks of pecan, try to break them up with your fingers as you go. Once the topping ingredients are well mixed, pour it over the batter in the 9 x 13 inch baking dish. Using a knife, make deep swirls all over the batter to mix in the brown sugar topping. We aren’t trying to completely combine the batter and topping, but we want some nice streaks and swirls throughout the whole cake. Once your cake is sufficiently swirled, pop it into the oven to bake for 30 minutes.

While the cake is baking, make the glaze and, yes, there is more sugar. This is a Honey Bun cake after all. In a small bowl, combine:

  • 1 cup confectioner’s sugar
  • 1 tablespoon milk
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

You want a glaze that’s fairly thick, but thin enough to pour and spread over the cake. You may need to use a few extra teaspoons of milk to get the right consistency, but add extra liquid in very small increments to get it just right.

When the cake comes out of the oven, immediately pour the glaze over the top and spread it evenly over the surface of the cake. You should let the glaze set for a few minutes, but you can dig in almost immediately.

Dad’s Spaghetti

Trying to get details about recipes from my dad is like trying to herd cats—nearly impossible. This isn’t because he’s trying to keep secrets—more that he doesn’t measure anything. He’s a free spirit in the kitchen (and in life). As a child, I remember he caused a stir when he made the executive decision to wear pajama pants to choir practice on Wednesday nights. And, one time, he dressed up in a gorilla suit and crept through the cul de sac scaring all the neighborhood kids. John plays by his own rules, and luckily, the game is pretty fun.

I loved this recipe so much as a teen that I even invited friends over and asked my dad to cook it for them. He cleared off the dining room table, and my friends and I had a proper dinner party, complete with candles and napkins (in case you were wondering, I was a very cool teenager).

When I lived out of state during high school and college, I remember he’d ask me where I wanted to eat when I came home to visit (a crucial conversation that requires planning and forethought). In addition to my favorite local restaurants, I always requested this spaghetti.

In the years since, I’ve pressed him to nail down the recipe into exact measurements, but that’s not his style. It’s hard to even get a straight list of ingredients or cooking times; he’ll say things like “I just walk through the store and pick up what I need” or “I don’t know; just cook it for a few hours.” I think the crucial ingredients that set this recipe apart from others, though, are: the inclusion of the Southern Holy Trinity (onions, celery, and green bell pepper), lemons (which are squeezed and cooked whole in the sauce), and cajun seasoning in lieu of salt. (You won’t catch me using anything except Tony Chachere’s.)

This is my attempt to bring some structure to my dad’s amazing spaghetti. Mine will, obviously, never be as good as his, but the smell and the taste evoke these fun memories of him—and that’s good enough for me.

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.

For the sauce, sauté the following ingredients in a large, oven-safe pot over medium heat:

  • 1 lb lean ground beef
  • 1 white onion, chopped
  • 1 green bell pepper, chopped
  • 2 stalks celery, chopped
  • 8 oz mushrooms, chopped
  • 1 teaspoon garlic salt
  • 1 teaspoon Tony Chachere’s Cajun Seasoning
  • 1 teaspoon Italian seasoning

Once the beef is cooked through and the vegetables have cooked down, stir in:

  • 28 oz tomato sauce
  • 14 oz stewed tomatoes (Italian-style, if you can find it)
  • 14 oz petite diced tomatoes
  • 6 oz tomato paste
  • 14 oz Ro*tel tomatoes
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 2 bay leaves

At this point, you should also stir in the juice of two lemons. Once you’ve squeezed out the juice, throw the lemons themselves into the pot. You want to remove as many seeds as you can before doing this, which is admittedly a pain. This article from Epicurious has some suggestions.  

Bring the sauce to a simmer on the stove, then cover and carefully transfer the whole thing to the oven. Let the sauce cook for 3 hours, checking and stirring it every 30 minutes or hour. Taste it as you go – if it needs salt, add more Tony Chachere’s – unless it’s getting too spicy for your taste, in which case you can switch to regular salt. If it’s too acidic or tangy, courtesy of the lemons, add more sugar. If it’s drying out, you can add some broth, but there should be enough liquid to let it reduce for a few hours without problem.

At the 3 hour mark, return the pot of sauce to the stove and bring to a simmer over medium low heat. Stir ½ cup powdered Parmesan cheese into the sauce. It’s time to make meatballs! In a large bowl, combine:

  • 1 lb ground beef
  • 1 egg
  • ½ cup Italian bread crumbs
  • ¼ cup powdered Parmesan cheese
  • 1 teaspoon Tony Chachere’s Cajun Seasoning

Shape this mixture into golf ball-sized meatballs and carefully slip them into the bubbling sauce. If the sauce is too thick at this point, you can add 1-2 cups water to thin it out a bit. Try to nestle the meatballs in as best you can without stirring vigorously. Let this cook over low heat on the stove top for about 15 minutes – my dad says you want to be careful not to stir too much at this point so the meatballs don’t fall apart. After 15 minutes, cover the pot and return it to the oven to cook for 30 minutes, or until the meatballs are cooked through.

Serve over cooked spaghetti or bucatini (my favorite) and garnish with additional Parmesan cheese.

roux(less) gumbo for halloween

Halloween has always been synonymous with gumbo in my mind, because we usually ate it on Halloween – and many other cool nights during the fall season. This version comes from Melissa M. Martin’s Mosquito Supper Club cookbook. I was intrigued by the recipe because it doesn’t use a roux (sacrilege!), but she says this is common in parts of Louisiana, like her hometown in Terrebonne Parish. Instead of darkening a mixture of flour and oil, you slowly cook an exorbitant amount of onion (3 pounds!) for a long time. The result is a rich, brothy gumbo that tastes both lighter and earthier than the kind I grew up eating, but is equally delicious.