For the most part, I believe that everything has its place in the kitchen and on the palate, and I’m not a great fan of shaking up these hierarchies. Across our many diverse food cultures we’ve spent thousands of years working out what works together and what doesn’t. So when I tell you that tomatoes and white chocolate do not play nicely, it’s not just my opinion; it the consensus of a species. But occasionally we have to put our individual and cultural preconceptions aside. Sometimes the counterintuitive is just spot on.
Consider, for example that rascally old 80s player, the carrot cake. If you’d never heard of such a thing, would you think it remotely appealing, or just laugh-out-loud wrong? An earthy orange root-vegetable in a dense, sweet cake- madness surely. But it works – very, very well as we all know.
Interestingly carrot cake has been through hundreds of years of rising and falling from grace. Probably originating in medieval Scandinavia, it was just one of many carrot-based desserts of the era. As sugar was rare and costly, alternative sweeteners such as carrot and various beets were commonly used. The original carrot cakes took all their sweetness from carrots, and were probably heavily spiced to conceal overt their carrotiness. Once cheap cane sugar came onto the market such foods were shunned as lowly peasant fodder.
The modern, sugar-sweetened version of carrot cake didn’t really surface until the long lean years of rationing in Britain. Here the carrot served more as a sugar and flour extender, than an ingredient in its own right. But unlike the vast majority of rationing-era improvisations (mock cream, anyone?), carrot cake wasn’t half bad, and over ensuing years gained quite a following, especially once American bakers started slathering it with sweetened-cream cheese icing. As a child I used to annoy my mother by begging for carrot cake at cafes, licking off the icing and then feigning fullness for the cake proper.
A number of other vegetables have appeared in similarly cakey form over recent years. Most successful of these I think is pumpkin cake, followed closely by the somewhat subtler zucchini cake. Both are effectively imitations of the traditional carrot cakes of cafés, bake sales and 1980s cook books, but are also fine cakes worthy of inclusion in any cooks repertoire, and are great ways of using up two of the more productive backyard crops.
An even less likely vegetable-cake is that recurrent star of the Foodlovers archives, the beetroot chocolate cake. At face value this sounds dreadful enough to be a practical joke. ..Until your first mouthful. It quickly becomes clear that beetroot and cocoa are practically a match made in heaven (or by way of evolution anyway). Both have similarly earthy depths and a certain mulchy resonance on the taste buds. In the guise of this cake you really don’t know where the beetroot finishes and the cocoa starts. In addition to working some serious flavour alchemy, the beetroot also adds moisture and sweetness, and serves to further darken the cake to quite immeasurable depths. A lovely and thoroughly successful marriage, of two otherwise disparate parts.
Although here in New Zealand we usually think of pumpkin as something to be roasted, mashed or made into soups, elsewhere in the world it’s a very common ingredient in cakes, candies and desserts. In parts of Asia it rarely ever appears in savoury dishes, and in Italy is second only to citron (cedro) as the most popular candied fruit.
Pumpkin and squash have a particular affinity for sweet, rich custards. The Royal Thai dessert Sankaya consists of a de-seeded miniature pumpkin filled with custard made from coconut cream, eggs, palm sugar, pandan leaf and cinnamon, and then baked or steamed. If you need convincing that pumpkin belongs on the desserts trolley, look no further than this sublime dish.
By far the most famous pumpkin based dessert is the American (and Canadian) Pumpkin Pie. Like most American pies this is really a sort of open tart or flan, made with sweet short-crust pastry and filled with a baked custard made from pumpkin, cream, eggs, sugar and various spices including cinnamon and nutmeg. It’s usually served at Halloween and Thanksgiving, dressed with great drifts of aerosol whipped cream. Sadly, these days most Americans make their pumpkin pies from canned filling, which rather like shop-bought mince pie filling results in a pale and wildly calorific imitation of the real thing. If your experience of pumpkin pie does not extend beyond the Thanksgiving episodes of American sitcoms, it’s high time to get baking. Real, homemade pumpkin pie is a fine, fine thing.
These are just a few of my favourite collisions of conventional kitchen wisdom, but there are myriad other incongruities abroad in the world today, from the very clever to the downright depressing. I once found a recipe for potato ice cream which filled me with such despair for the future of food that I couldn’t cook for two days. But for every absurdity there are dozens of delights.
Tell us about your favourite unlikely but lovely recipes –or the ones that make you shudder