I’ve never once heard someone say, “Thank goodness it’s March.” Or “ Hot diggitity, it's parsnip season!” Parsnips plod through winter just out of sight, either cellared or left underground to be unearthed in early spring. I think it’s safe to assume very few exclamation marks get attributed to them.
It's more like a vegetable with a question hanging off the end of it. What do you do with a parsnip? What is a parsnip good for? It's frequently underutilized and often misunderstood. It looks like a frightfully pale carrot that’s never been allowed out of the basement. Literally. Often, it’s paired with turnips. And none of these things help its reputation very much. Which is a shame because it is really a lovely and versatile root vegetable.
So I’ve decided to bring parsnips out into the light of day, to keep company with all those toothache-inducing bunny rabbits and Easter bonnets. Because parsnips that have nestled underground all winter can taste pretty sweet. Sweet enough for cake? Well, if the carrot can do it, then so can the parsnip.
And where better to road test such a cake than my monthly staff meeting: which is stacked with dietitians. At this point you would be wise to flush out any preconceived notions about dietitians. At least the ones in my office. We do not go around tisk-tisking sugar and subsisting on baby carrots. Mostly we go around ooh and ahh-ing about cake. We are ladies that love cake. And we shamelessly use staff meetings and birthdays to exploit it.
So this month I took a carrot cake recipe and parsnip-bombed it. Then I spiced it up with ginger and allspice. Out went the raisins, and in went some dried figs that I soaked in Cointreau. I punched up the cream cheese frosting with a bit of rum. And voilà!, the lowly parsnip suddenly had panache. It didn't even wobble with all that booze.
My boss met this cake with the trepidation one might expect. “Oh … parsnips?” she said slowly. Her hesitation apparent with the question mark that dangled at the tip of her parsnip.
But this cake caused such a stir—such a commotion—that I can no longer associate the parsnip with anything other than impassioned exclamations. This boss of mine—a refined woman whom often looks like she’s stepped off L’Avenue des Champs-Élysées—had three pieces.
A co-worker that was celebrating a certain special half-century milestone took home a leftover slice. She confided the next day that she had urged a fellow commuter on the train home to try her cake. That she simply must try her cake. Her parsnip cake.
I’m not exactly sure how it all went down, but I picture two women … with one fork … on a train … giggling over cake. She also later said that she would remember her fiftieth birthday—not for the age—but for the cake that she had to celebrate it. Which, when we get right down to it, is just the punctuation the parsnip deserves!
Inspired by Ina Garten’s recipe for carrot cake
For the cake
¾ cup dried figs, cut into a bite-sized dice
~ ¼ cup Cointreau
2 cups sugar
1 1/3 cup olive oil
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour plus 1 tbsp
1½ tsp cinnamon
½ tsp ground ginger
¼ tsp nutmeg
1/8 tsp allspice
2 tsp baking soda
1½ tsp kosher salt
1 pound parsnips, peeled and grated (about 3 cups)
Zest of one orange
¾ cup walnuts, roughly chopped
For the frosting
¾ pound cream cheese, at room temperature
½ pound unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 tsp vanilla extract
Pinch of salt
¾ pound confectioners’ sugar
~1/4 cup dark rum
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Combine the figs and Cointreau in a small bowl and set aside. Butter and flour two 8 inch cake pans and set aside. Beat the sugar, oil, and eggs in a stand mixer until light yellow and slightly fluffy; add in the vanilla and then add in the figs and Cointreau that were set aside. In a medium bowl, sift together the two cups of flour, spices, and baking soda; add in the salt and then add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients. Toss the parsnips, orange zest, and walnuts with 1 tbsp of flour; add this to the batter, folding it in with a rubber spatula.
Divide the batter between the two cake pans and cook for 10 minutes at 400 degrees and then decrease the heat to 350 degrees and cook for about 40-50 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean. Let cool completely on a wire rack. Meanwhile, combine the cream cheese, butter, vanilla, and salt in a stand mixer with a whip attachment; add the sugar in slowly and beat until fluffy. Finish by pouring in the rum, adding more or less as desired.
When the cakes are fully cooled, gently turn them out of their pans. Then, turn one cake upside down (with the flat side up) on a serving platter lined with parchment paper that can be pulled off after the cake is frosted. Spread this layer with frosting and then place then second cake on top with the right side up (the rounded side). Spread a thin layer of frosting on the cake, starting with the top of the cake and working your way down the sides; this will create a thin coat of frosting and it doesn't have to look pretty. In fact, it probably won't. This is called the crumb coat and it will help the finishing frosting go on smoothly. A detailed explanation can be found here.
Place the cake in the fridge for 30-60 minutes to firm up the frosting and then frost the cake with the remaining frosting by starting at the top of the cake and working down the sides. Remove the parchment paper. The cake can easily be covered and refrigerated (frosted) overnight, if not serving right away.
Makes 1 double layer cake.
-I know there are no "active" shots of this cake. But can we just agree that the inside looks as nice as the outside?