In 1996, the Adirondack Daily Enterprise published a recipe for carrot cake “with a tropical twist”.
A propos the cake, famous now in North America including its muffin form, the paper wrote:
Carrot cakes have been an American favorite since the 1960s, when home cooks and restaurant chefs started combining carrots, walnuts, raisins and spices to bake a fruit-and-nut cake, smothered with a cream cheese frosting.
Many standard American cooking references state a similar time period for the origin of the cake. I recall that it became common in the 1970s, and was seen initially as a novelty. Once you ate it and it didn’t taste of carrots, everything was cool. 🙂
These cakes have also been called loaves, as the article shows, and occasionally just carrot bread, maybe because the small bread shape is often still favoured for it. It was always vaguely associated with health food although the typical carrot cake is anything but. It did become popular among the back to the land crowd, of a piece with muesli, trail mix, home-brewed beer and wine (yay), vegan eating, that general thing.
Generally the modern recipe is a blend of flour, ground carrot, sugar or honey, nuts of some kind, spices, but beyond that there are many variations including a fruit addition. If a beer carrot cake hasn’t been devised, I’d be surprised. (Anyone got one?).
In fact, carrot cake is very old: it didn’t start in the 1960s, certainly. There are recipes in American newspapers from the early 1900s, and British cooking manuals of the 1800s offer recipes although sometimes the cake is different from today’s. This 1912 recipe from California is essentially today’s standard recipe except for the addition of chocolate, which seems out of place, but maybe it worked.
One early 1800s English recipe states the cake should be eaten hot. Here we see an influence of the older tradition the cake sprung from, the carrot pudding. It may be that the English books took the idea from the Continent, see the history notes here, which suggest a French and Swiss connection.
The history is further explicated in this uncredited article from the splendid, virtual World Carrot Museum.
The European Jews always had tzimmis, a sweetened carrot pudding eaten for the High Holidays. The rather anodyne one pictured in Wikipedia is not what I remember, ours used well-minced carrot to form a smooth but substantial pudding. It had salt, white pepper – the Montreal Jewish homes I knew always used white, never black – and honey, not too much it. That was it, but some people added pieces of prune or other fruit. Dumplings sometimes went in too, just plain white ones, the kind in chicken soup from matzo meal. Sometimes pieces of beef brisket or flank meat are mixed in, or the next day if you see what I mean.
This pudding is always served hot with the main courses and has a decided carrot taste. It is quite different from carrot cake, but one can see that medieval carrot puddings, of which tzimmis is probably a descendant, morphed into the cake form known today.
The recipe shown, from the Lorraine volume (1980) of the superb regional gastronomy series of Editions S.A.E.P Ingersheim, Colmar, is styled cake (gâteau) and clearly meant to be served cold, as dessert. But it bears some resemblance to the kind of carrot pudding of which tzimmes is an example. It has no flour, just a little starch to bind, and almond, which appears in some American carrot cake as well. The kirsch addition would lend a spicy cherry note, and is an analogue to the spicy, often fruity note in American carrot cake.
The Lorraine version kind of stands mid-way between medieval and Middle Ages carrot pudding and the modern American cake.
U.S. carrot cake may derive from the Alsace-Lorraine, Swiss, or German form. Lots of families have that background in the Midwest in particular. Later, maybe to reduce the carrot taste, flour was added to arrive at the form we know today. An English origin seems less likely to me even though many classic American foods have that history. One reason is that today’s carrot cake seems not to exist in Britain before the 1800s. I doubt the Mayflower brought it over. There are desserts associated with New England which must have a provincial English origin, apple pandowdy, say, but carrot cake is probably not one.
Note re images: Images shown were extracted from the book identified in the text. They are included herein for educational and historical purposes. All intellectual property in the sources belongs solely to the publisher stated in the text. All feedback welcomed.