Teach your taste buds to appreciate less sweet desserts, starting with a carrot cake that actually tastes like carrots.
When my husband and I are invited to dinner parties we typically don't even ask what we can bring. We just show up with a cake or a pie and a big box of cookies. So far no one has ever been disappointed.
Well, except once.
I was testing recipes for my book Baking with Less Sugar and I decided to bring one of the tests to a summer cookout with some close (very close) friends. It was one of the last recipes for the book—a carrot cake made entirely without white sugar and sweetened with just apple juice and pineapple. I had already tested the recipe 3 times and felt like it was ready to be unveiled.
After the hamburgers and barbecue chicken were cleared away, I presented slices of no-sugar carrot cake with a flourish. My husband gamely took a few bites. My friends politely picked at it. The only person who actually seemed to enjoy it was the host, a native German who professed to not having a sweet tooth and who rarely ate desserts. To him, the lack of sugar in the cake was just right. He enthusiastically ate his portion, his wife's, and most of my husband's. It brought me back full circle to the original premise of the book: The more sugar you eat, the more you crave. If you consume less sugar, your taste buds acclimate themselves to enjoying pastries that are simply not as sweet.
I had been eating pastries with less sugar for almost a year at this point (with all of the recipe testing for the book) and was thrilled with the recipe. To me, the sweetness was spot on. My German friend devoured the cake and declared it one of the best cakes he'd ever eaten. He tried to convince everyone else by explaining that "you can taste the pineapple and the walnuts and it actually tastes of carrots." My husband and those who were used to eating full-sugar pastries, however, were not won over.
So back to testing. If I was going to make a cake that everyone was going to love, I would need to increase the sweetness to a more familiar level. A bit more pineapple, spices, and raisins amped up the sweetness just enough to make this cake ready to share. I added additional apple juice to the frosting to make it less tangy and more sweet. I redeemed myself by bringing a revamped version a few weeks later back to my friends—and this time, the wife refused to share her slice with her husband. A good sign!
Because there is no white sugar in the cake, you'll see that the cake itself doesn't color like a typical cake does in the oven. For the first several trials of this cake, I baked the layers too long because I kept waiting for the cake to turn a rich golden brown. Since it stays pale, use your fingers to poke at the center of the cake to test doneness. When it springs back when you press it in the middle, it's ready to come out. Sugar adds moisture to cakes, so I expected that this cake might end up a little dry. But the raisins and pineapple in the batter are dual purpose: They add sweetness and they make the cake moist and tender.
People ask me if I have a favorite recipe in the book. I don't have one single favorite but this one is among the recipes I'm most happy with. As you reduce the amount of sugar in your baking, your palate adjusts and you discover more flavors. This is a carrot-pineapple cake with cream cheese frosting that actually tastes of carrots, pineapple, and cream cheese.
Try it yourself and I think you'll prefer this version to the full sugar version!
Makes one double-layer 8-inch cake
For the cream cheese frosting:
One 335-gram (12-ounce) can frozen apple juice concentrate
225 grams (8 ounces) cream cheese, at room temperature
480 grams (2 cups) heavy cream
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon kosher salt
For the cake:
75 grams (3/4 cup) walnuts, coarsely chopped
120 grams (3/4 cup) raisins
120 grams (3/4 cup) sultanas (golden raisins)
One 335-gram (12-ounce) can frozen apple juice concentrate, thawed
One 225-gram (8-ounce) can pineapple chunks, in their own juices
4 large eggs
120 grams (1/2 cup) crème fraîche
120 grams (1/2 cup) whole milk
250 grams (1 1/4 cups) vegetable oil
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
315 grams (2 1/2 cups) all-purpose flour
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
130 grams (1 cup) tightly packed peeled and shredded carrots
Photos by Joseph De Leo, Eric Moran, and James Ransom