Like many other great desserts, the origin of carrot cake is unclear. The modern version is a far-distant relative of carrot puddings enjoyed by Medieval Europeans—or, perhaps even a 10th-century Arabian recipe that involved pounding fresh carrots in a mortar, then cooking it in a copper cauldron with honey and walnut or pistachio oil until thickened.
Back then, carrots were used in lieu of sugar, a rare and expensive ingredient at the time, according to food historian Alan Davidson. Cakes, puddings, and other desserts made with the orange root vegetable appeared in cookbooks throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, from 1803’s Frugal Housewife by Susannah Carter to Esther Howard’s 1845 cookbook, New England Economical Housekeeper. But, carrot cake wasn’t always a food of the frugal: even George Washington was said to serve carrot cake at parties.
During the first few decades of the 20th century, cookbook authors continued to publish their own iteration of carrot cake. When sugar was rationed during the Second World War, British housewives used grated carrots to sweeten cakes. In 1963, a recipe for carrot cake as we know it today in all of its cream cheese-frosted glory, was first published in the Washington Post and Times-Herald. Also during that last quarter of the 20th century, particularly during the health food fads of the 1970s, people started to perceive carrot cake as a better-for-you dessert thanks to the addition of carrots, walnuts, and raisins.
All in all, carrot cake’s popularity has had its ups and downs, but its presence in households and bakeries is enduring, unlike some other desserts (but hey, cake pops and cronuts may rise again one day). It’s even a staple in vegan bakeries from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania’s Vegan Treats to Erin McKenna’s Bakery in Los Angeles. And, of course, you can make it at home.
This vegan carrot cake recipe has a light and airy sponge while being packed with carrots and walnuts, plus a deliciously sweet dairy-free cream cheese frosting. Though it’s designed as a sheet cake, you can use it for any style of cake, including cupcakes and layer cakes.