My Saturday nights these days are booked out for months at a time. They’re earmarked for the sole purpose of settling in for the latest episode of a reality TV competition. My friends and I rotate through each other’s homes each week, where we eat and drink, and cheer on our favorite performers, drag queens and wannabe chefs. Last November, as the credits rolled after the finale of an amateur baking competition, announcing the search for next year’s batch of contestants, my friend Andrew looked at me and said, “So, when are you starting your application?” Together that night we fleshed out my character for the screen, carving my speculative niche; we imagined me, a calm creative, bringing a distinctively queer, artsy flair to the show’s challenges with my vegan bakes; Britain’s Next Baking Superstar.
I don’t exactly know why it was that, after years of excuses to put it off, I finally decided to sit down and get to work. But our night of wild speculating somehow made it seem real, a genuine possibility for the first time. It took me the best part of six weeks to finish compiling an exhaustive — and exhausting — list of everything I’ve ever baked, with photographic evidence to match. The whole of December was spent baking and writing. Night after night, after full days at my retail job, cookies, meringues, breads and pies emerged from my oven. Their captioned images were uploaded onto Instagram and checked off my list one by one. I may have lied about a single experience of making filo pastry — because, seriously, who has the time? — with the intention of following it up later to cover my back. But at this point, I’m not admitting to any wrongdoing.
I actually did quite well in this and subsequent stages of the competition. I made it through several rounds before crashing out only just before making it onto television screens around the country. And while I didn’t get as far as I’d hoped, thanks to the hard work that went into it, I recently got a job as a pastry chef.
As such, I won’t be eligible to apply next year. To be honest, I’m grateful that I’ll never have to go through that tedious process again. However, amongst the dry technical run throughs, there were questions in that application which I’d never had to consider as a baking hobbyist, but which have helped me understand the kind of chef I am, or at least want to be. For example, I was asked to ‘describe the bake that defines you.’ I think it’s fascinating to think about dishes in this way; I began to discover how my philosophy on food, and indeed life, are reflected in the plates I create and serve.
I’m not one for the highly decorative or the overly polished. I was once commissioned to make a pink ombré frosted, four-tier cake with hand-painted gold drip details (see the term: basic bitch), and I resented every single minute of that three-day long job. The fact that this cake was also plain vanilla — aside from the metallic tang of artificial food dye— was a painful twist of a knife in the side of an adventurous baker like me.
So, if not that, then what kind of baker am I? Am I represented by one hundred identical choux swans swimming on a melted sugar lake? I considered how this reflects my dreams of being a pâtissière, and the self-destructive perfectionism by which I am constantly wracked in the kitchen. While all true, I don’t think so. Too fussy, too delicate. What about bread dough which, basking in the oven light as it proves and ferments, presents a thrilling multitude of outcomes from so few ingredients? I think we’re getting closer. Bread is by far my favorite thing to make because it is both versatile and volatile, uniquely susceptible to changes in the environment. But still, we’re not there yet.
I decided during the course of writing the application that, despite an extensive portfolio of bakes to choose from, I am best represented by my humble recipe for carrot cake. It’s a classic that I’ve been making for years; true to the foundations of baking, with ‘secret’ ingredients that are traces of many kitchen experiments. There is attention to detail applied to every stage of this otherwise simple cake; important decisions about the right combination of sugars, the correct proportion of carrots to batter, and the pre-roasting of pecans to enhance their toasty, buttery flavor.
Most of all, though, it’s because this cake is of huge sentimental value to me. The TV chef Ina Garten — known to Food Network fans as the Barefoot Contessa —, coined a wonderful term Remembered Flavours to describe food’s ability to recall past experiences. I love this phrase because this is something that happens to me everywhere; Challah bread is associated with my first Shabbat dinner with my best friend’s family in Los Angeles; empanadas will always be compared to those I shared with my parents at a market in Berlin — my first time seeing them in months, after I’d moved there to study. This warm, nostalgic relationship to food is the cornerstone of my cooking. I run a recipe blog, and every post is framed by the story of where and when I first enjoyed the foods that I now create in my own kitchen. Cooking is a way of reliving and honoring memories of people, places and moments that are dear to me. As something so necessary, relatable and socially ingrained, I believe that there are few things in this world that have as much power to achieve this as food.
So, what is it about this carrot cake? It’s a storied bake that has lived through many incarnations, good and bad; the most requested and well-loved of all my recipes; the first cake to be ‘veganised’ five years ago, prophetic to what would become my entire food ethos; it has seen off good friends traveling as far as Australia, and been present at many a birthday party; at one Christmas dinner it became the subject of a formal protest because, despite being not only delicious, but also far more holiday appropriate due to its spice and molasses flavor, chocolate cake has become the expected dessert for the table each year; and finally, I write this now after a long shift at my new job, having just baked this cake for my colleagues and customers for the first time. My manager has declared it her favorite.
Amongst them all, there’s one iteration of this cake that stands out. It lives in a kind of marvelous infamy, a food story still brought up at every dinner party to date.
When people ask me where my love of food comes from, I struggle to come up with a confident answer. Cooking was a passion that had presented a gentle but persistent niggling throughout my time as an art student and in my early professional life. It’s certainly been neglected at several points over the years; whether due to my poorly stocked kitchen in Berlin, or in my final year of university, when everything I ate came in a package from the Waitrose in Kings Cross. But it always finds its way back to me and it’s of little surprise that I’ve ended up pursuing it professionally.
Moving into student halls in 2013 and having my own kitchen for the first time was a defining moment in my culinary journey. It also provided a group of six readily available taste testers in the form of my new flatmates. It’s here that this particular carrot cake story takes place. November arrived and brought with it my mother’s birthday and plans for a weekend visit from my parents, an occasion that obviously called for cake. Carrot cake, specifically. I approached it as I always had to back then, with barely any equipment, a really crappy oven and a lot of enthusiasm. I set to work with what I had to hand to get grating, roasting, whipping, folding and baking.
As the freshly baked layers sat in their tins on the countertop, Nicki entered the kitchen and inhaled. ‘Mmmmm, smells like Fall in here.’ Her Americanisms which, like her accent, now wash over me unnoticed, were at that time a great source of amusement. Hannah, Meg, Adi and Sam followed the scent shortly after to bear witness to the final assembly of the cake — it was always a bit of an event to see something actually get cooked in our student flat.
Even in those early days, I was a perfectionist in the kitchen. Unfortunately, I was also terribly impatient. Any pastry chef will tell you it’s dangerous to be both. Perhaps I also felt pressured by the sudden congregation of my flatmates to just get on with it. We all gathered around the counter and watched with collective satisfaction as I smoothed on vanilla specked icing, which quickly turned to horror as the still-warm cake slowly but definitively began to collapse. As cake fell in on itself, frosting spewed outwards, a spice-laced river flooded the serving plate. It was like an episode of Hell’s Kitchen where I was both Chef Ramsay and the quivering contestant; profanities yelled into the open kitchen as I had nobody else to blame but myself for this cake, which now better resembled a scale model of an ecological disaster. Happy Fucking Birthday, Mum!
I was distraught but not deterred. The puddingy mess was quickly scraped in its entirety into a bowl and shoved into the back corner of the fridge to be dealt with later, while I vowed to learn my lesson and get to work on some last minute cupcakes. Mum could never know.
Luckily, the cupcakes and the whole weekend went down as a huge success, and peace was restored to Flat D1A, Don Gratton House. Distracted by walks along the Thames, museum trips and dinners out, the carrot cake disaster had been forgotten about, pushed back into some far corner of my mind just as the physical thing itself had been banished to the fridge. That was at least until a few nights later, as we all settled into the corridor under a pile of pillows and blankets — we had no living room then—, ready to watch a movie. Nicki emerged from the kitchen to join us, the bowl of cake in one hand and six spoons in the other. I prodded at its dark, sticky surface with disgust — not so much at the cake itself but at the vivid memories it triggered of its own sad, slow collapse.
The first spoonful was a revelatory experience. This cake, which usually disappeared in one sitting, had been allowed time to steep in its own spices for several days by this point. The icing — sweet and gently tangy— had swirled itself throughout in ideal proportion to sponge, making every mouthful a perfect morsel of flavor combinations. It remains to this day the best tasting thing I have ever made. Together the six of us ate every last bit. It was lovingly christened ‘Bowl Cake,’ and both its horrifying becoming and joyous consumption are still remembered with a lot of laughter and fondness.
To return, then, to this question of how and why this cake defines me. I suppose it’s framed by this shared moment of sitting amongst friends on the floor, spoons digging at the bowl and fighting for the last scraps, the film long forgotten about — I don’t even remember what we watched. When I mentioned to Hannah that I was writing about our beloved Bowl Cake, she said, ‘I still think about that cake at least once a month.’ Its shoddy appearance couldn’t overshadow how good it tasted, silencing even the critical voice that took residence in my head years ago. That’s why I’d pick it over a pink and gold ombré princess cake every single time. And while it was already delicious in its own right, I’m sure the collective joy in eating it together only served to further improve its flavor.
I’m proud that this recipe has carried me through all these years, from the infamous failure that still draws both a laugh and a longing sigh from my friends, to finding its way to the tables of one of London’s best vegan cafés. Of course, there they arrive in perfectly formed slices, but I’m still convinced that there will never be a better tasting thing on this earth than Bowl Cake.
Tarryn’s (In)Famous Carrot Cake
Can be served as a layered cake or, indeed, dumped into a mixing bowl and eaten with a spoon, preferably with friends.
375g carrots, grated. Just top and tail them, no need to peel!
4 tbsp milled or crushed flaxseed (also known as linseed)
200g caster sugar
175g soft light brown sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
270ml flavorless oil (such as sunflower or vegetable oil)
250g plain flour
3 tsp ground cinnamon
2 tsp baking powder
2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1/2 tsp salt
2 tbsp grated fresh ginger
300g dairy free butter, softened — I recommend margarine blocks as opposed to vegan spreads as they set firmer at room temperature
425g icing sugar
2 tsp vanilla bean paste or vanilla extract
1-3 tsp apple cider vinegar (start with less and then add to taste. This is what helps achieve the cream cheese-like ‘tang’ for this icing. Lemon juice also works well.)
Pinch of salt, to taste
25g pecans, roasted and chopped
Preheat oven to 180C / 160C fan. Grease and line two 20cm round cake tins with parchment paper and oil. Put a small amount of plain flour into the tins, then tap around the inside to coat the sides. Tip out any excess.
Ensure you either grate your carrots on a box grater, or use a grater attachment to a food processor. Chopping with a blade in the food processor will cause them to release too much water. Squeeze out some of the liquid from your carrots and then dry them on top of a paper towel.
Prepare your flax ‘eggs’*. Mix your 4 tbsp milled flaxseed with 12 tbsp warm water, mix and leave to stand as you prepare the cake.
Place pecans on a baking tray and roast in the warming oven for 10 minutes**. Once out of the oven and when cooled slightly, roughly chop and toss in plain flour to coat***.
Stir together both types of sugar, then add the flax eggs, vegetable oil and vanilla. Whisk or beat together until well combined and slightly lighter in color.
Sieve in flour, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda, cinnamon and salt. Mix until just combined. Fold in carrots and ginger, then finally the pecans.
Divide mixture equally between both tins and bake for 35-45 minutes, until a skewer inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean. Leave the cakes in the tins for 20 minutes, then turn out onto a cooling rack and leave to cool fully — Bowl Cake has taught us all the importance of this step!
While the cakes cool, make the icing. Beat the butter until pale and fluffy. Gradually add the icing sugar, beating until fully combined. Add the vanilla, vinegar and salt. I recommend refrigerating until you’re ready to use it, and then letting it stand at room temperature for five minutes to make it perfect spreading consistency.
At this point it’s up to you whether you’d like to make an elegant sandwich cake to impress, or to simply throw it all into a mixing bowl, stir it around, and return to it later spoon in hand à la Bowl Cake. In case it’s the former, I’ll provide some quick direction.
Place the bottom layer of cake onto your serving board or plate. Spread on a generous layer of icing — I use an offset pallet knife but a spoon or knife works just fine for a rustic finish —, then place the next later on top. Top the cake with the remaining icing. Start by spooning a pile of icing into the centre and gradually push it outwards towards the edges, allowing some to softly fall over the sides.
To serve I like to top with more chopped roasted pecans for a nice finish, plus added texture and flavour.
*Flaxseed mixed with water does well to replace eggs in most recipes that use them as a binder. 1egg is equivalent to 1 tbsp flaxseed and 3 tbsp water.
**This process brings out their delicious buttery flavour and gets rid of any bitterness.
*** Coating cake ingredients such as nuts, dried fruit and chocolate chips in flour helps suspend them in the batter, helping them to distribute evenly throughout the cake and stop them from sinking to the bottom.
Tarryn Williams is an artist, writer and chef living and working in London. Since graduating with a degree in Fine Art from Central Saint Martins in 2017, Tarryn has been working on a multitude of projects across all of those disciplines; she has shown in exhibitions in the UK and internationally, her poetry was recently published in ‘Over There: A Queer Anthology of Joy’, and she most recently landed a job as a pastry chef. Tarryn runs a food-related Instagram under the name The Starving Artist.