Lessons From a Carrot Cake

Some traditions are worth keeping. Here’s a post from 5 years ago that’s still relevant for our lives. And it’s actually my husband’s birthday today, so the carrot cake is served. Enjoy!


Every year for Michael’s birthday, I make a homemade carrot cake. From scratch. Frosting, too. This endeavor has been a tradition in our family for over a decade. When we were first married, I tried the shortcut way of making his birthday cake from a boxed cake mix with store-bought frosting.

He made a face with the first bite and gently said, “What kind of cake is this?’

Then and there, I embarked on a quest to perfect the making of a bona fide homemade carrot cake. My quest was complete when my friend Wanda came over for dinner one night. She brought a cake pan full of yumminess, and my husband loved it. Surprisingly, so did I, and I don’t usually like carrot cake. I asked for the recipe.

It wasn’t hard. Just stir up a bunch of ingredients in a certain order, pour it in a pan, bake, and voilà!  Birthday cake that Michael loves! For the first few years, he didn’t seem to notice that I still used store-bought frosting. Then he raised the bar of excellence and asked me to make homemade frosting. At the time, we didn’t own one of those fancy mixers-on-a-stand, so it was the hand mixer for me. Maybe that’s where my I-only-bake-this-cake-once-a-year rule came from: making homemade cream cheese frosting with a hand mixer is no fun. I burned up the motor on a few mixers before Michael bought the KitchenAid we still own.

So this year, Michael’s birthday rolls around, and I make some choices that could potentially forever alter the way we traditionally celebrate his birthday every year. First, I decide to tweak the birthday cake recipe. I figure using whole wheat flour, stevia, and low-fat cream cheese can only make a yearly treat healthier. Right?

Which brings me to my second fateful choice: I add the ingredients in the same order as always, but this time, I let the KitchenAid do the whisking for me.

The end result? Carrot cake fail. Really. I begin the cake-making on the day before Michael’s birthday, determining to start a new celebratory tradition: birthday cake at midnight! I make the cake, and the frosting, using the healthier ingredients and the automated whisking. I think, “These layers look thinner than usual,” rationalizing that maybe it’s my imagination. After all, I only make this cake once a year. The layers come out of the pan okay, so I begin the frosting-making while the cake is cooling. I think, “This frosting looks kind of runny,” comforting myself with remembering that Michael always makes his own frosting because I can never get it quite right.

I put the cake together on the cake plate with the glass dome cover, working with the thin frosting as best I can. Michael encourages me with, “Your carrot cakes have never been about how they look. It’s how they taste that matters.”

At 12:05 a.m. on his birthday, Michael slices the birthday carrot cake and serves up three plates’ worth. He passes out the forks, and we all take a bite.

Y’all, Michael brags to others about my carrot cake. Which is wonderful because it means he really likes it.

Which is terrible when we taste this one.

Oh, it tastes okay, but talk about a jaw-workout! This cake is truly dense. “Maybe being in the cake-keeper overnight will moisten it some,” I think…secretly whispering prayers of thanks that I made this cake on the day before his birthday because now I have time to make another one.

Michael wakes up early on his special day to run some errands, including a stop at our church. I suggest we slice up the dense carrot cake because “someone at the church might actually like it.” My intentions are good. The cake tastes okay; it just didn’t bake up the fabulous way Michael’s birthday cake always turns out.

Then, to my chagrin, the cake is too dense to slice. I mutter to myself, “I’m going to have to throw this cake away.”

“Why?” Michael says. “It tastes all right.”

“I can’t slice it.” I hand him the knife. “Here. You try.” And my big burly strong-armed man struggles to slice his too-dense birthday carrot cake.

As I throw the entire cake in the trash (because, well, we can’t slice it), Michael heads to the grocery store for more carrot-cake ingredients. “I’ll get more ingredients, but you have to promise me something,” he says.

“What?” I ask.

“This time, don’t mess with the recipe.

It’s so true, especially in our journey with hidden disabilities, that we look for an easier way—a less-expensive therapy, an easier coping behavior, a better whatever (fill in the blank)—even when our method already achieves the desired goal. Why do we try to change what’s already working? Yes, sometimes, we need to question the rules. Sometimes, the recommended methods aren’t best for our family, for our loved ones, for ourselves. We need to ask the hard questions. We need to advocate for what brings life to all of us.

But when something works, and works well, when something brings life and health and peace, why do we still try to go with something “better”? Why can’t we just be content with the life God has given us and the way He’s given us to live it?

My husband says, “This time, don’t mess with the recipe.” So I don’t. I make the second birthday carrot cake with all-purpose flour, and sugar (2 cups!), and I whisk it all by hand in the big silver mixing bowl like I always do. I include original full-fat-content name-brand cream cheese in the frosting, and it all comes out perfect. We eat fabulous birthday carrot cake, and there’s enough left over for Michael to share with his buddies at the men’s retreat.

Rules can be broken, and recipes can be tweaked.
But once you find a fabulous method with consistent results,
don’t mess with the recipe.

The carrot cake recipe works so well (and I love her so much) that I break my I-only-make-this-cake-once-a-year rule and make another birthday carrot cake for my friend Betsy when she visits this week. It’s her birthday, too. As my own birthday quickly approaches, I briefly wonder how the cake would taste if I substitute bananas for the carrots, or maybe apples and cranberries, just for a change of taste.

Nah. I think I’ll stick with what works.

Candi’s Carrot Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting

In a large mixing bowl, mix by hand with a whisk the following ingredients one at a time, whisking after each ingredient is added:
3 eggs
1 ¼ cups vegetable oil
8 oz. can crushed pineapple
2 cups sugar
2 cups all purpose flour
1 tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp vanilla extract
Using a mixing spoon, stir the following ingredients into the cake mixture:
1 cup raisins
1 cup pulverized walnuts
2 cups pulverized carrots
Pour into 2 round cake pans and bake at 350° F for 30 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center of each cake layer pulls out clean.
Let cake layers cool completely before frosting.

With an electric mixer, mix together
½ cup sweet cream butter (1 stick @room temp) and
8 oz  cream cheese (1 package @room temp) (no low-fat) about 3 minutes on medium speed until very smooth. Scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl to ensure even mixing. Add
2 tsp vanilla extract and mix. Slowly add
6 cups powdered sugar, 1 cup at a time until thoroughly mixed.
Mix frosting on medium high setting for 2-3 minutes.
If the icing is too thick, add up to 1/8 cup of whole milk as you mix.
Frost the cooled cake layers, slice, and enjoy!

Thankful for birthdays and tried-and-true recipes,

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