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Not your garden-variety carrot cake

I must confess that this entry in the weekly baking series had me a little nervous, and I even considered lying by omission with respect to one of the key ingredients when I brought it into work on Monday. I mean, I’m a massive fan of the lowly parsnip and consider it utterly inoffensive, but I know people can have weird knee-jerk reactions when it comes to vegetables, especially in baked goods. I’ve known people to freak out over plain old zucchini bread.

But I obviously worried over absolutely nothing, because I can’t even adequately describe what a huge hit this was with the coworkers. The “parsnip” prominently displayed on the accompanying Post-It note doesn’t seem to have deterred anyone, and people were gushing and demanding the recipe for days after. And who could blame them, when these muffins are so fantastically spicy, chewy, sweet and moist that the cream cheese frosting I offered on the side really was viewed as superfluous?

So what possessed me to mix parsnips into a carrot cake recipe in the first place? It was a lucky impulse born of nostalgia and facilitated by the fact that, just as I do with cranberries, I hoard parsnips this time of year. They start showing up in supermarkets right before the holidays before disappearing rapidly again in January. Don’t ask me why, since I think they’re lovely even after Christmas has passed, but produce buyers can be short-sighted that way.

I had been intending to make carrot cake for the past month or so, since our anniversary. My prior love of carrot cake for its own sake was amplified when it unexpectedly became our wedding cake thanks to the very obliging host of the B&B His Lordship and I had eloped to. We hadn’t planned on having one and had in fact gone all-out at dinner, but were surprised and touched when we got back to our room and found the prettily decorated top tier of her friends’ anniversary cake, which the host had brought home for us from their party. It made a great breakfast the next morning, and ever since I’ve had a special craving for carrot cake this time of year.

While I was pulling the carrots out of the vegetable bin, I saw the parsnips and thought what the heck. Parsnips are practically the same as carrots anyway, and although they’re pretty rare, I had heard of parsnip cakes before. Just to play it safe, I went with a 50-50 ratio and added the resulting shred to my favorite carrot cake recipe, which is already fabulously easy and delectable.

Do you notice the parsnips? Well, not unless you really concentrate. They’re so pale that they disappear into their speckled surroundings once baked, and all you see are the sturdier carrots. If you focus, you can taste their distinctively spicy sweetness behind the cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves, but the non-cognoscenti could just as easily assume that was a pinch of cardamom or ginger instead. If you’re really skittish about the parsnip thing, or want to try this in May when there’s nary a parsnip to be found, you can make it with all carrots instead, and I promise you’ll love them just as much.

If you do fancy an adventure or want to sneak some additional variety into your kids’ or your coworkers’ diets, though, try this out! It’s fun, and who says you shouldn’t play with your food?

Carrot-Parsnip Spice Muffins
(Adapted from Carrot Cake in America’s Test Kitchen’s The New Best Recipe)
Makes 2-3 dozen muffins

1 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 cup “white” whole wheat flour
1 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
1 1/4 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
1 1/2 cups grated carrots (about 3 medium)
1 1/2 cups grated parsnips (about 3 medium)
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
4 large eggs
1 1/2 cups canola or grapeseed oil

For the frosting (seriously optional):

8 ounces softened cream cheese
5 tablespoons softened unsalted butter
1 tablespoon sour cream
1/4 cup honey
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup confectioner’s sugar

Adjust the oven rack to the middle position and preheat oven to 350F. Line 2-3 muffin tins with paper liners.

In a large bowl, whisk together the flours, baking powder, baking soda, salt and spices.

Combine the sugars and eggs in a food processor fitted with the metal blade and process until the brown sugar has completely broken up and distributed throughout, about 30 seconds. With the machine running, add the oil through the feed tube in a steady stream, and continue processing until the mixture is light in color and resembles mayonnaise.

Add the liquid mixture to the dry ingredients and fold until the flour is mostly incorporated, then fold in the carrots and parsnips.

Fill the tins with the batter half to two-thirds full, depending on how many muffins you would like to end up with and how ample their tops. Bake until a skewer inserted into a muffin comes out clean, 25-28 minutes. Cool the muffins completely in their tins.

In a food processor, combine the cream cheese, butter, sour cream, honey and vanilla. Process until well combined, then add the powdered sugar and continue processing until smooth. If the frosting is not sweet enough, add a bit more honey and pulse again.

Ice the cooled muffins with the frosting, or serve the frosting alongside as a spread. Unfrosted muffins will keep at room temperature for a day, but frosted ones and any leftover frosting should be covered and refrigerated.

Notes:

If it seems as though I’m using a lot of this “white” whole wheat flour, which is made by King Arthur and a few other vendors, it’s because I really love the stuff. Not only is it a snap to swap out some of the white flour in a recipe and add some extra nutrition value without any textural harm at all, but the extra wheatiness really plays well in recipes with a lot of spice, like this one. If you don’t want to go that route, simply use 2 1/2 total cups of all-purpose flour instead.

I didn’t want any embellishments this time, but if you’re a fan of walnuts and/or raisins in your carrot cake (I like the former but can seriously leave the latter), you could stir in 1 to 1 1/2 cups of either or both along with the carrots and parsnips.  In that case, you will probably also have to add at least 5 more minutes to the baking time.

In the future, I may try making this entirely with parsnips. If it’s a success, I’ll definitely report back.

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