Sunday, 3 October 2010

Carrot cake with orange and mascarpone frosting

One of the more unwelcome realisations in my life was that finding the right man and getting married doesn't solve your problems.

It solves some of your problems - i.e. the problems that go "Am I going to end up with someone I hate?/My family hates? Will I die alone never having known domestic bliss?" But it turns out that when you lift that particular weighty rock from your life, a thousand other shitty things scurry out.

It's like when you find out you're not HIV positive. My friend Julia was sympathising with me the other day about my genuine fear that I was HIV positive. I was convinced I had this, or Hepatitis C, because I've had two tattoos. And they were not performed in clean places. They were down backstreets, one in Guatemala (I think... or was it Mexico...) and the other one in Australia. The guy in Australia, I remember, had kind of a runny nose. Anyway, so about six months later I became convinced that I was going to die. And that was 11 years ago. A long time to worry that you're going to die without doing anything about it.

"Just Get. A. Test" said Julia. "You haven't got it. Although, I used to worry about being HIV positive, so badly that it would keep me awake at night, and then I got a test and it was negative and on my way home from the test I was suddenly gripped with panic about my dissertation, like so badly I couldn't breathe. So, you know, watch out - you may replace one fear for another."

Well, then I got pregnant and I had to have a blood test, there was no escaping it. They took pints out of me without even saying please; they measured it and weighed it and dipped things in it and I got sent in the post a list of all the diseases that I don't have. Negative for everything. I've even got negative blood - B Negative - which is one of those rare ones they're always advertising for on the radio. (Which I think means that if I get hit by a car and I need a massive blood transfusion I'm toast.)

Anyway, finding out that I'm not HIV positive and I don't have Hepatitis C was like getting married. It solved one problem, but released others that have been suppressed.

Although anxiety and depression is, I find, all relative. It's not as bad right now as when I came back from a bad final year at university and promptly went insane. For about three months, every time I was about to cross the road, I would see, out of the corner of my eye, a car accelerating fast towards me, like it was going to hit me. And I'd turn my head and stagger back from the corner and clutch myself - but there'd be nothing there.

When Natasha Kaplinsky started talking to me out of my TV, that was when I went to the doctor. It was back when she was doing breakfast telly and I was getting ready to go somewhere, or just staring out of the window, and I distinctly heard her say: "Esssstheerrrrrrr!" And I spun round, heart pounding, to find her chatting amiably about alopecia. Then it happened again, the next day, just the same.

Well, I'm no idiot. I was clearly mad.

"You suffer from depression and anxiety," said my GP, Chris, looking bored. "You can either have cognitive behavioural therapy, or I can give you Prozac, or you can do nothing. But," he continued, "if Natasha starts asking you to do things, you must ring me immediately."

I made a "duuhrr" face at him. "I have seen Joan of Arc, you know," I said, as nastily as I could, and left. But it's okay, Chris has known me for a really long time and didn't take it personally. I didn't go on the pills, although I'm one of those people who believes that Prozac saves lives. Instead, I chose to get a book on CBT out of the library, read it cover to cover and Natasha never spoke to me again.

If only I'd discovered cooking back then. Although I dislike the bleat that cooking is "therapy", (no, lying on a sofa talking to a trained professional for an hour, four times a week, for three years, is therapy), mindless activity, routine and small accomplishments are the best friend of the depressive.

I happened the other day on a recipe for carrot cake with a orange frosting in Nigel Slater's Tender I. I've never made a carrot cake although I absolutely love it, because there's a slight issue with the fact that there isn't really a neccessity in my house for cake. My mother begged me long ago to stop bringing sweet things round to hers because she thinks my father is going to get diabetes and my husband doesn't like desserts or puddings of any description. And, I have always thought to myself "I want to make a carrot cake but I can't because I'll eat it all and get fat." But now I'm pregnant and depressed for no reason so I don't give a shit.

This cake is truly wonderful. But it is also complicated, so I'd advise you do a thing that I never do, but did today, which is get everything out of the cupboard and measure it all first before you start putting it together. Also read through the recipe all the way first so that the egg whites thing half-way through doesn't come out of nowhere and scare the pants off you.

A carrot cake with a frosting of mascarpone and orange by Nigel Slater

For the cake

3 eggs
250g self-raising flour
1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp ground cinnamon
pinch salt
200 ml sunflower oil
25og light muscovado sugar
150g carrots
juice of half a lemon
150g walnuts, roughly chopped

For the frosting

250g mascarpone cheese
200g Philadelphia
150g icing sugar
grated zest of half an orange
some whole walnut halves

1 Set the oven to 180C. Butter 2 x 22cm cake tins and line each bottom with a disc of baking parchment

2 Separate the eggs. Sift together the flour, bicarb of soda, baking powder, cinnamon and salt.

3 Beat the oil and sugar in a food mixer until well-creamed then introduce the egg yolks one by one. Grate the carrots into the mixture, add the lemon juice and walnuts and stir. At this point, the sunflower oil will float to the top of the mixture and look gross. Don't worry, this is normal.

4 Fold the flour into this mixture. I did this by hand, but Nige says do it in the mixer.

5 Beat the egg whites!!!! I didn't see that one coming... until stiff and then fold into the mixture with a metal spoon.

6 Divide the mixture between your tins and bake for 45 mins, or until a skewer comes out clean-ish ... because this is supposed to be quite a sticky cake.

7 To make the frosting, beat the mascarpone, Philly and icing sugar together in a mixer until smooth and creamy. You stand a better chance of this happening if the cheeses are at room temperature when you start. Stir in the orange zest. Splash some in between your cakes to sandwich together and the rest on the top and on the sides. Decorate with walnut halves.

Eat while reading Sylvia Plath.


  1. Two things:

    1. I too went crazy in my last year of university, I kept seeing myself getting run over by cars in graphic detail, and my flat exploding in flames - so I took to unplugging everything and sleeping in the bathtub. I did do the CBT route for that in the end.
    2. Good thing about having a kid is you start being asked to bake things for fundraisers and group birthday parties and baby equipment sales. It's great for testing out huge cakes no one in your household will get around to eating. I made two fully iced prototype cakes for our NCT group's first birthday party... Because I was having panic dreams about it not working out. Hmmm...

  2. oh shit.... just realised we don't have any icing sugar - just caster sugar. Reckon I can substitute the icing sugar or leave it out altogether? I have both the cheeses...

    The toad in the hole is looking A-C-E!!

  3. You can grind up any other sugar in a coffee grinder or possibly a liquidiser might work... Normal caster sugar MIGHT work but I fear might make the frosting grainy

  4. Rhesus negative eh? A date for your diary then, if you don't already .... 9 months after your baby is born you will be able to give blood! With a rare blood group I'm afraid there's no excuse not to. Smug feelings and free biscuits ahoy!

  5. I find that copious amounts of wine works better than any therapy for my anxieties, tends to smooth out those rough corners nicely - but obviously NOT, NOT, NOT when pregnant.. :o)

  6. I'm loving your brutally honest musings on your pregnancy experience. And I love that you've effortlessly moved from mental illness to carrot cake in the space of a couple of sentences! Nice :)

    I agree, routine, mindless activities and small achievements are definitely helpful for the depressive. I'm in the 2nd year of my second degree and it's a nursing degree, miles apart from my first one and I feel like all those anxieties and depressive thoughts are bubbling to the surface all over again! I just wish I had time for the mindless activities etc. CBT's tempting though... x

  7. Do you remember what the book was called?

    I usually go to Waterstones, get overwhelmed by the choice, then go home.

    A recommendation would be most helpful if you can remember the title...

  8. God, I can't remember... it was slim, yellow book.

    I recommend that you choose the book with the fewest pages - it's a pretty simple concept and you only need to skim-read about 40 pages to get the drift.

  9. For the last three years I've had a wee lump I was convinced was going to kill me. Then, a couple of months ago a nurse found it and a few weeks later a doctor removed it and it turns out it was totally harmless and was in no way able to kill me. When I think of all the hours I spent worrying about that when I could have been sound asleep. Or all the times I broke out in a random cold sweat at the thought if dying so young. I don't know why I was so determined not to get it checked out by a doctor. Weird.

    I will be trying to make this carrot cake. My boyfriend loves carrot cake, but I don't like orange flavoured things, do you think I could put lime or lemon in the icing instead? xx

    p.s. I have no idea how blogs work so I have no idea how to comment as anything other than anonymous, sorry, it feels a bit rude.

  10. Don't worry, as long as Anon comments aren't pervy - yes I'm talking about you pervy person who left that comment at 1.03am the other day - I don't mind.

    The cake: you can put lime or lemon in the icing if you REALLY want, but I wouldn't bother substituting for substituting's sake.

    A cream cheese, mascarpone and sugar frosting on its own will be really super and it's totally traditional - the addition of orange is a bit off-beat and unneccessary.

  11. Thanks for the advice!

    I tend to go for the thickest books available then get bogged down in the extraneous rubbish and never get to the useful bit.

    Small and yellow shall be my quest...

  12. despite all we've been through I truly LOVE you Esther, your posts are at once amusing, up-lifting, depressing and terrifying... re making carrot cake, what i tend to do is bake the cake, enjoy the experience, have a slice and give the rest to a neighbour (who thinks I'm being truly friendly) or to the birds (who don't give a shit but seem to like it.) I think this is called altruism but you're better at words than wot I am xxx

  13. "amusing, uplifting, depressing and terrifying" might have to be my new tagline.

  14. I too don't have a blog so am one of your increasingly growing 'anons'. Sorry to go back to Toad-in-the-Hole but I was making something out of Simon Hopkinson and Lindsey Bareham's 'The Prawn Cocktail Years'(great retro cookbook) and their Toad-in-the-Hole suggests you smother the sausgaes in ketchup prior to cooking! AND apparently fizzy mineral water makes the batter lighter.
    My therapy is reading your posts Esther. After a day at work educating the youth of today they are so very funny. Thank you!

  15. Hurrah - finished it!!! Only took two days! Decided to wait a day and go and buy bona fida icing sugar. I've just iced it and put it in the fridge - that the right thing to do?

    Btw - my boyfriend has issues that this is called carrot cake but has loads of walnuts in. Is this normal for carrot cake? I like walnuts :-)

    p.s toad in the hole was perfect sunday dinner xx

  16. Oh, I was just googling Nigel's recipe and found your blog. I really enjoyed this post. Funny enough to go as a book. Thank you!
    There is my version of the cake:

  17. Made this today, am already on Prozac which has it's advantages - I can eat cake with a far away 'on Prozac' look and not care about calories. As far as I'm concerned, the title of this cake is a vegetable.. therefore technically one of my '5 a day'. I enjoyed your funny, honest blog a lot :-)