Wild flowers in midsummer in the Sierra are spectacular, a real celebration of the short growing season. When hiking near North Lake, we came upon flowers in such profusion, the trails looked like English gardens. In early August, sterling blue lupine, paintbrush in colors from scarlet to mauve to magenta, hot pink penstemon, puffy white rangers’ button, and bright fuchsia colored fireweed all decorated the trails. There were so many yellow and white blossoms, I can’t start to name them all. I wanted to pick a bouquet for our dining table, but I follow trail rules—leave nothing but footprints, take nothing but photos. Steve did take the beautiful pictures, seen here.
Jacky Surber, of Alpenglow Gardens in Bishop, creates striking flower arrangements filled with the heirloom flowers she cultivates. Her bouquets capture the feel of the wild, and I get one on every visit to the cabin during flower growing season (late February to October; she then creates stunning dried arrangements in autumn and winter). They are always unique, always breathtaking. Last time I visited her, she asked if I could use her edible flowers in my cooking. That question, along with inspiration from our hikes and the flower strewn birthday carrot cake my good friend Karen Dannenbaum made, led to this recipe.
I haven’t yet done much baking at high altitude (our cabin is at 8,500’), and reading about the many adjustments needed to pull off a leavened cake at different elevations made my head spin. It seemed I’d need to test a cake dozens of times to get it right for every location. I decided I needed to find a template for a cake that doesn’t use leavening. Then I remembered Sabrina Ghayour’s delicious carrot cake in her excellent Persian cookbook, Persiana. That was my starting point. I personalized the recipe with spices and brown sugar, adding a frosting and then the flowers. I’ve tested the cake at 8,500’ and at my near sea level home in Los Angeles. It was great at both locations.
I had other goals for this recipe: because I’d be baking it at the cabin where I like to keep things simple and don’t have much specialty equipment, I wanted to be able to make the cake and icing without the assistance of a stand mixer or other appliances. This recipe needs only a bowl, whisk, wooden spoon, spoon and cup measures, and a deep 9” cake pan.
The cake tastes almost as good without the flowers, so don’t discount this recipe if you don’t have edible blooms on hand. I say almost as tasty, not because the flowers add much flavor, but because what we see influences our experience of the food we eat.
Mountain Carrot Cake
While the inspiration for this cake was wild flowers, the first time I baked it, I decorated with edibles I found in my Los Angeles yard—rosemary sprigs with tiny blue blossoms, yellow and white honeysuckle, rose geranium, lavender, pale blue catnip, roses, and rock roses, all pesticide free. Only the rosemary had been planted for cooking, but it was fun to learn that so many plants in my garden are edible. I suggest looking around your yard for pretty blossoms and herbs, then check on the internet to see if any are safe to eat. When I decorated the cake with flowers from Alpenglow Gardens (the one pictured here), I used purple and yellow viola, orange nasturtium, peach colored snapdragon blossoms, bright yellow marigolds and cute little blue and lavender borage. If you don’t have edible flowers, the dessert is handsome when garnished with walnuts.
Based on a recipe in Persiana cookbook by Sabrina Ghayour. The frosting is Alice Medrich’s—perfect, easy and not too sweet. You’ll need no special equipment other than a deep 9” diameter cakepan—I use a springform pan. If you don’t have all the spices, the cake is still delicious using only cinnamon, about 2½ teaspoons. My favorite cinnamon is Penzeys’ Vietnamese cinnamon. Since discovering it, I won’t use any other.
Mountain Carrot Cake
- 3 large eggs (4 at 8,500’)
- 1 cup (2 tablespoons less at 8,500’) packed brown sugar
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 2¼ cups almond flour or hazelnut flour
- 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons (2 tablespoons less at 8,500’) unsweetened shredded coconut
- ¾ teaspoon coarse kosher salt
- 1½ teaspoons ground cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon ground ginger
- ½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
- Pinch of ground cloves
- 11 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
- 2 cups coarsely grated carrots, about 8 oz
- 1 cup coarsely chopped walnuts
- 8 ounces cream cheese
- ½ cup 1 stick unsalted butter
- 1½ cups powdered sugar
- ½ teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- Edible flowers (pesticide free), such as roses, rock roses, rosemary sprigs with their blue flowers, honeysuckle, snap dragon blossoms, marigolds, violas, nasturtium, borage, catnip, rose geranium; or walnut halves or pieces
- For the cake: Position rack in center of oven for LA (lower position at 8,500’). Preheat the oven to 320°F. Line bottom and sides of a deep 9” cake pan (I use a springform pan) with parchment paper.
- In a large bowl, whisk together the eggs, sugar and vanilla until well blended and slightly foamy. Add the almond flour, coconut, salt and spices and mix well. Mix in the melted butter thoroughly. Finally, mix in the carrots and walnuts. Transfer the batter to the prepared pan, making top even.
- Bake until a crust forms and cake is firm to the touch, 1 hour to 1 hour 15 minutes (mine took 1 hour 15 minutes at 2,000’ and 1 hour 10 minutes at 8,500’, check at 1 hour). Cool completely on a rack. Cake is best if allowed to stand for a day before serving.
- For the frosting: Soften the cream cheese and butter by letting stand 2 hours at room temperature, or place in a microwave safe bowl and warm in the microwave at low setting just until soft enough to mix with a spoon, about 10 seconds. Using a wooden spoon, mix together until smooth. Add the powdered sugar and vanilla and beat with spoon until smooth.
- Remove the parchment from the cake and transfer the cake to a serving platter. Slide sheets of waxed paper under edges of the cake to keep platter clean while decorating. First make a thin layer of frosting on the top to catch any crumbs by placing small dollops of frosting over the top of the cake and smoothing to cover. Then spread frosting over sides of the cake. Now add more frosting to the top and smooth. Remove the waxed paper. Chill at least 1 hour to set the frosting. (Keeps chilled up to 5 days. Place 4 toothpicks into top of frosted cake, then gently cover with plastic wrap.)
- Garnish cake with flowers or walnuts. (Decorated cake can be refrigerated for 1 day or even up to 2 days if flowers aren’t too delicate.) Let cake stand at room temperature at least 1 hour before serving.