This lightly spiced cake illustrates what Mitchell Davis calls "my fascination with cakes that have unusual ingredients." You can experiment by substituting celery root or carrots for the parsnips.
Making caramel can be tricky, but it's a valuable skill to have in your repertoire. In this versatile frosting, the caramel adds a dimension to the sweetness.
- For the cake
- 2 sticks (8 ounces) room-temperature unsalted butter, plus more for greasing the pan
- 1 cup sugar
- 1 cup lightly packed light brown sugar
- 4 large eggs
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 2 cups flour
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- Pinch salt
- 3 cups (16 ounces) finely grated parsnips
- 1 cup toasted walnuts (or pecans), coarsely chopped; see NOTE
- For the Caramel Cream Cheese Frosting
- 3/4 cup sugar
- 1/4 cup cold water
- 1/2 cup heavy cream
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 1/2 cups (12 ounces) cream cheese, at room temperature
- 3/4 stick (6 tablespoons) room-temperature unsalted butter
For the cake: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease a 9-by-13-inch rectangular pan (may use two 9-inch round cake pans).
In the large bowl of an electric mixer on medium speed, beat the butter with the sugars until light and fluffy. Add the eggs, 1 at a time, and the vanilla extract, mixing to combine.
In a separate bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon and salt.
Reduce the speed to low, and add half of the flour mixture to the butter mixture, blending until almost combined (you may prefer to do this by hand). Add the remaining flour mixture; when it is almost incorporated, add the parsnips and nuts. Transfer the batter to the pan and bake until the cake has risen, set, browned and pulled away from the sides, 35 to 40 minutes (30 minutes for the layers). The cake should spring back to the touch.
Place the pan on a rack and cool completely. If making layers, let cool for 15 minutes in the pan, then invert onto a wire rack and cool completely.
For the frosting: In a medium saucepan over medium-high heat, combine the sugar and water, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Bring to a boil and cook until the bubbles get slower, the syrup thickens and the sugar starts to darken and caramelize, 8 to 10 minutes. The color change will begin in one or two sections of the pan. As soon as you see it, start swirling the pan to even out the caramelization process. Watch carefully, as the sugar can burn very quickly. Keep swirling until the mixture has turned a deep mahogany color. Remove from the heat and immediately but carefully pour in the heavy cream to stop the cooking. The caramel will bubble and froth at first, but keep swirling or stirring and the sauce will become smooth, thick and rich-looking. Add the salt. Transfer to a small bowl and cool to room temperature, about 1 hour. The caramel will thicken considerably as it cools. You should have about 3/4 cup.
In the large bowl of an electric mixer or in a heavy bowl with a wooden spoon, beat together the cream cheese and butter, scraping down the sides, until smooth and light. Beat in the cooled caramel until well blended, about 2 minutes. Use the frosting as is, or chill it to stiffen somewhat before using.
To assemble: If using a rectangular pan, spread frosting on the cooled cake. If using layers, spread some of the frosting on top of one layer. Place the other layer on top and spread frosting on the top and sides.
NOTE: Toast the walnuts in a small, dry skillet over medium-low heat, until fragrant and lightly browned, shaking the pan to avoid scorching. Cool completely before using.
Recipe adapted from Mitchell Davis's "Kitchen Sense" (Clarkson Potter, $35).
Tested by Leigh Lambert.
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