This time of year feels like late fall and spring, sometimes all in the same day; in the kitchen it can feel like a big pot of soup — or in my case, gumbo — kind of afternoon, all with the longing for fresh spring salads, carrots and peas and tender herbs. As we continue to hunker down, baking has been a huge stress reliever for many of us. However, a double or triple-layer cake of any kind seems a bit daunting. And although it’s hard to improve on a deep, thick, moist carrot cake, I decided to simplify and bake it all in one layer, a cookie bar-like dough with a tangy cream cheese swirl.
Since carrots and cream cheese last quite a long time and can be used in both savory and sweet recipes, I try to keep both on hand. But obviously, we’re making do with what we have or can trade with friends and neighbors, so use what you can and substitute when needed. Here are some tips, but note that I have not tried these with this particular recipe.
For eggs, according to Bob’s Red Mill, you can “use flaxseed meal as an egg replacer in recipes for muffins, cakes, cookies, and pancakes. Use one tablespoons of flaxseed meal and 3 tablespoons of water to replace each egg called for in the recipe.” Or try 1/4 cup applesauce or mashed sweet potato per each egg. For butter, substitute 3/4 cup oil for 1 cup butter or try plain yogurt for butter in a 1:1 ratio. And if you don’t have carrots for this recipe, try grated apple or zucchini, and include whichever spices you prefer — think warming spices like nutmeg and cardamom and allspice. If you have some walnuts or pecans on hand, chop and toss those in, or maybe some candied ginger bits or golden raisins. As it all bakes together, may the scent transport you to warmer, happier days. If nothing else, it’s an opportune time to experiment in the kitchen.
Carrot cheesecake bars
Makes 24 bars
1 1/2 cups unsalted butter, softened
1 1/4 cups firmly-packed brown sugar
1 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs
4 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger or chopped candied ginger (optional)
1 teaspoon fine-grain salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg (optional)
1 1/2 cups lightly packed grated carrots (about 2 medium)
1/2 cup chopped walnuts or pecans (optional)
Cheesecake layer (recipe follows)
For the cheesecake layer:
16 ounces cream cheese, softened
3/4 cup granulated sugar (1 cup if you prefer sweeter)
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
2 large eggs
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease a 9- by 13-inch baking pan and line with parchment paper, so there’s a 2-inch overhang on either side — this will help with easier removal from pan.
2. Place softened butter and both sugars in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with paddle attachment — or a bowl if using a hand mixer — and beat until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes, stopping to scrape down sides of bowl, as needed. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition.
3. Combine in a large bowl, flour, cinnamon, ginger (if using), salt, baking powder, baking soda, and nutmeg, if using. With mixer on low speed, gradually add flour mixture to egg and sugar mixture, beating just until combined. Beat in grated carrots. Spread about two-thirds of the mixture in bottom of prepared baking pan; the mixture will be more like cookie dough rather than cake batter. Try to spread it as evenly as possible. Top with cheesecake layer. Take remaining carrot mixture — you can use your hands — and pull the carrot cake dough apart and dollop it intermittently across the cheesecake layer. Bake until edges are set, about 50 to 55 minutes; the center will jiggle just slightly. Remove pan, let carrot cheesecake bars cool completely in pan on a wire rack. Enjoy as is or refrigerate, covered, at least 4 hours and up to two days. Use excess parchment as handles and lift from pan and cut into bars.