Maybe you’ve been told that carrot cake was a way for beleaguered bakers in times of rationing to keep producing sweet treats for the masses. But that’d be grade A artisanal baloney. Humble foods like carrot cake, cassoulet, and chicken and dumplings often fall victim to what food historian Robert Moss describes as a false poverty narrative, where dishes with a couple luxurious ingredients and a lot of starch are said to be invented as frugal ways to make the most of precious flavors. But in the case of carrot cake, nothing could be further from the truth.
George Washington served carrot cake at parties. 19th century French cookbooks written for wealthy kitchens published recipes for carrot cake. Early 20th century American bakers prepared carrot cake as an exotic German delicacy. In other words, carrot cake is rich eating. While the exact creator of modern, cream-cheese-shellacked American carrot cake are pretty disputed, everyone agrees that it originates in Medieval palace cooking as a steamed or boiled carrot ‘pudding,’ cooked low and slow to accentuate the carrot’s natural sugars, enriched with spices, and bound with flour and eggs.
As ovens for baking grew more widespread, the boiling and steaming were replaced by dry heat methods, and the cake developed a lighter consistency with higher quantities of flour and fat. But those Medieval carrot puddings were probably pretty good, and a distant cousin of them lives on in the form of gajar halwah, an Indian confection made of shredded carrots caramelized in ghee with sugar, spices, and sometimes dried fruit and nuts.