When I first moved from San Francisco back to the East Coast, I was really careful whenever I invited people over to dinner. “Is there anything you can’t or won’t eat?” I’d ask, expecting the usual Berkeley enunciation, “Well, I’m not eating wheat , and Suni can’t have dairy, and also we both quit drinking….” Out in the green hills, people are eating for their blood type, or going raw, or being baco-tarians (that is, vegetarians who somehow also eat bacon--an opportunistic variation on "freegan," a particular activist subcategory of being vegan except when the food's free).
You think I’m being snarky; well, I wish. You try cooking dinner for four when your best friend refuses all meat and your old roommate’s on a super-protein, no-carb regime, and so you make a Moroccan lamb dish for the protein hound and a Moroccan-ish veggie stew for the vegetarian, with couscous on the side (where it could be skipped by the no-carber) and then after you serve it you have to take the rest of the lamb into the kitchen because the vegetarian can’t deal with the meat-smell. As you bring out the cheese and nuts instead of dessert you’ll start feeling very, very friendly toward the cute girlfriend of the lamb eater, just because she eats everything, laughs at your jokes and drinks a whole bottle of wine by herself. For some reason, even though they have lovely healthy lifestyles full of beautiful year-round lettuce and yoga classes and eucalyptus-scented breezes instead of 7 months of pissy cold winter and stinky subways full of crazy people, a whole lot of people in the Bay Area are deeply convinced that life—air, water, chocolate croissants—is a big toxic tsunami just waiting to overwhelm them.
Here in NYC, though, my friends are so dazzled that someone else will—without payment! without a white styrofoam box in sight!— turn on the stove and cook for them from scratch that they clean their plates no matter what. “We’ll bring wine,” they say. “Don’t worry, we’ll bring more wine. Can we smoke?” As long as there's wine, and celebrity gossip, everyone's happy. (Did I mention spying scary-skanky Nicole Ritchie sitting outside at Sant’ Ambroeus on Monday afternoon?)
So it’s been fun being able to cook anything I want—roast chicken! Cheese souffle! Two cheese souffles! A huge roast chicken!—but also weirdly pleasant to have a challenge thrown my way again. Naturally, the occasion was a visit from two pals from Berkeley—Shifra and Stephen, who were coming out east to go to (and possibly drag me to) reunions at the fancy-pants university that Shifra and I both suffered through. The issues? No corn, no eggs, no wheat but spelt’s OK. Oh, and it’s Shifra’s birthday, which in my house means: Birthday Cake!
Baking for the ingredient-deprived brings out the mommy in me: I imagine all those bleak years without cupcakes, without pumpkin pie, and I just want to make it all better with a perfect dessert.
Whole-grain spelt flour is pretty similar to whole-wheat flour, which means light and fluffy is out, chunky and hippie is in. Hippies…Berkeley…carrot cake! According to the very helpful vegan-baking tips on Post Punk Kitchen, bananas make a fine egg replacement, if you don’t mind (or can disguise) the banana-y flavor. Luckily, there’s a lot going on in my grandmother Gussie’s famous carrot-cake recipe—walnuts, raisins, a lot of carrot, mucho spicing, even molasses (my mother’s addition, to make it darker). A few bananas—who would know? So I messed around with the recipe, and came up with a vegan-spelt version.
Vegan Birthday Carrot Cake
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/3 cup apple butter or prune puree, or heck, just more oil
1 1/2 cups sugar (can use 3/4 cup each white and brown sugar)
2 TB molasses
2 very ripe bananas, squished up and mashed really well
2 cups grated carrot (or more—just grate up as many carrots as you have lying around)
2 cups spelt flour (or some combo of regular white and whole-wheat pastry flour)
1 1/2 tsp cream of tartar mixed with 3/4 tsp baking soda (or 2 tsp baking powder)
1 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp cinnamon
2 tsp pumpkin- or apple-pie spice (or a mixture of 1 tsp cinnamon and a 1/4 tsp each of ground cloves, nutmeg, and ginger)
1 cup chopped walnuts, lightly toasted
1 cup raisins, soaked briefly in hot water if they’re wizened and dry
Preheat oven to 350. Grease a bundt or tube pan really well. In a medium bowl, mix the dry ingredients. In a big bowl, beat all the wet stuff together. Dump in the flour mix, stir it up, and add the raisins and nuts. You could throw some coconut in there too, unless you’re baking this for me, in which case, please, pretty please, don’t even think about it, cause I hate coconut. Pour batter into pan and bake for an hour, until it pulls away from the sides of the pan and a tester comes out clean from the middle. When it’s cool, you can frost it with cream-cheese icing, below.
…with unvegan Cream Cheese Icing
1/2 cup (4 oz) cream cheese
1/2 stick (4 TB) butter
1 or 2 TB maple syrup (to taste)
2 TB sugar, or to taste (use powdered sugar, unless you're avoiding corn products--in which case, just use regular sugar, because powdered sugar has cornstarch added)
Let the cc and butter get really soft, then beat together with the maple syrup and the sugar until fluffy and tasty. If it's too thick, add a little milk. Frost cooled cake, or put it away in the fridge for a day or two til you need it. The vegan options for frosting seem a) limited, and b) nasty. I would just dust on some powdered sugar and enjoy the cake in its natural state.
NOW, a caveat. This cake is now sitting, intact, on my dining room table, ready for the arrival of S&S tomorrow night. Which means I have no idea if the vegan variation here actually works AND tastes good. Will report back the candles have been blown out and we’ve all either had seconds or gone out for Tasti-D-Lite.