Ms. Johanna, by her own reckoning, is not an easy woman to be around. There’s several reasons for this that generally emanate from her explosive temper.
“I just don’t understand why people do such stupid things,” she’ll say after the telling of one or another blow up. “How did they grow up?”
The underlining implication here is that she’s always right, a belief best to hold if you want to spend extensive time with her, such as the duration of her garden’s growing season.
A man walks into the garden and begins to work on constructing a couple of net supports for the overflowing bean beds. Ms. J watched him grow up to be one of the boys who ran wild in the late 80s when crack washed through East New York. She doesn’t hide her opinion that his mother was to blame. He was her youngest of four boys and she doted on him which Ms. J says is the worst mistake a mother can make. But she also admired her for seeing the light and saving her son before it was too late.
Now he’s a master carpenter and, from time to time, comes around to the garden to see if Ms. J needs his help. They have an easy rapport, a back and forth today in which he takes note of the exact measurements she wants for her bean supports. Through the morning he calls her over to check out his progress, clearly mindful that he’s on fragile ground after knowing her all his life.
Everything’s going well. Ms. J approves of the supports and the foiled package of steak and plantains he brought her for lunch. Then he tells her she should come over later to his church where some of the Caribbean men in the congregation are preparing a huge spread. And she knows that whenever Caribbean men cook it’s going to be more than delicious.
“Just bring some around,” she replies.
He says she doesn’t have to attend the all day service. Show up towards the end for the meal. After a couple of her sharp “nah nah nahs!!,” he says he’ll bring some food for her anyway, and takes his leave.
“He KNOWS I don’t go in for all that Seventh-Day stuff but he always has to try even though I’ve told him again and again church and me have nothing to say to one another,” she says.
And this is how her carrot cake recipe comes up.
“One time, he told me the church was having a pot luck and would I bake a cake for them. I told him I’d be happy to bring my carrot cake and got to thinking I’ll make it special for them. I remembered I had a jar of raisins soaking in rum for about a year sitting in my closet and put those in.”
Ms. J claims she didn’t know Seventh-Days Adventist frown on alcohol. She’s truly respectful of other people’s belief but nobody can expect her as a very good baker to not add well-soaked rum raisins into her carrot cake because that’s what makes hers so special. Anyway, she points out, the rum evaporates in the cooking. (Ms. J instructs to always have a jar of rum-soaked raisins on hand because you never know when there’s cause for them.)
“I go down and put my cake on the table and the first lady comes up and says, ‘can I have a piece of your cake,’ and I cut her a big slice and after she tastes it she leans over and says, ‘oh, Ms. Johanna, I never had a carrot cake so good like this one. What’s that wonderful flavor?’ I tell her that’s the rum raisins and I’m telling you she about falls right over and says, ‘What am I going to tell my husband?!’ He must’ve been the minister or something but I said to her, ‘don’t tell him nothing.’ And OH, I have to tell you, wouldn’t you know my cake was the first to go!’
You can ask as many times as you want and use all the interviewing tricks you know but she won’t give you the recipe. “They’d go ahead and screw it up and then it’d be ‘oh, Ms. Johanna’s cake isn’t good at all,’ all over around here.”
She laughs in not a mean way. It’s just the truth.
This leaves the following to be an approximation of hers. She uses pineapples and the drunk raisins, likes to add walnuts and, close to Christmas, throws in a handful of dried fruit that may or may not be plump with alcohol.
I don’t like nuts nor the idea of the cake being turned into a fruit cake. I didn’t use rum because we’re a whiskey house and had to settle for four soaking days.
And, of course, she was right, I screwed up from the start–a true cascade of I Can’t Believe I Did This moments. Things started to crumble immediately, starting with adding double the amount of baking powder that I did my best to correct by picking out the hard bits I found in the flour. Next, I’d bought a can of pineapple chunks rather than crushed and fixed it by pulsing them in a food processor. Finally, I had the very bad idea to replace the cup of vegetable oil with a melted butter-like spread which I think contributed to the biggest blunder.
Ms. J’s cake is two layers but I figured I’d make a loaf since only the husband and I are around to eat it. To insure I got the measurements right, I found a recipe that seemed about right. Unfortunately, I didn’t note that it was for a sheet cake pan. This resulted in the loaf being far from done after the stated 45 minutes. I discovered this after I took it out, let it cool, then tried to remove it from the pan upon which it began to collapse with batter oozing from its center. I was able to get it back into the pan and returned it to the oven where I first bakes it for another ten minutes, then fifteen more and another 12 before the center firmed.
“Is it finished yet?” The husband kept asking throughout the day. After five hours, he added, “what the hell?”
This exchange was akin to me asking him, “what’s wrong?” every time Netflix fails to work–which happened last night when we’re on the final season of Dark, a situation that we can all agree is a legitimate cause to panic. Eventually he and I mended our marriage on both accounts. I frosted the carrot cake this morning and then we shared a huge slice.
Carrot Pineapple Cake
Makes 1 loaf or cake.
For the cake:
2 cups raisins soaked in enough rum (or whiskey) to cover. Let brew for a few days, months or years
2 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 3/4 cup sugar
1 cup vegetable oil (DO NOT SUBSTITUTE MELTED BUTTER-LIKE SPREAD!)
3 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups shredded carrots
1 8-ounce can crushed pineapples, drained
Optional: 1 cup chopped walnuts.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour a loaf pan or a tubed cake pan.
Stir the dry ingredients together then make a well in the center and add sugar, oil, eggs and vanilla. Mix until smooth. Drain the raisins and stir them into the batter with the carrots and pineapple.
Pour the batter into the prepared loaf pan. Bake for about 55 minutes (a little less for a cake), or until a knife or skewer comes out clean from the center. Let rest until the pan cools a little, then turn out onto a wire rack while you make the frosting.
For the frosting:
1 8-ounce packages of cream cheese, softened
1/4 cup butter, softened
2 cups confectioners’ sugar
Cream the butter and cream cheese together until smooth. Add confectioners sugar and beat until creamy.
If you decide you want to make the loaf two layers, double the amount of frosting and carefully slice the cake horizontally. Remove the top layer with the help of a spatula. It will probably sag a bit, maybe break in half, but that’s okay. frosting covers a multitude of sins.
Spread a thick amount on the bottom layer. If the frosting has become too soft, put the cake in the refrigerator to stiffen before proceeding to replace the top layer. Once it’s firm again, finish frosting the cake.