The Culture of Food and Drink

Home / Cooking  / Baking  / Root Veggies’ Sweet Side

Root Veggies’ Sweet Side

During this long, cold winter, I’ve turned to root vegetables often, roasting beets for hearty salads, mashing turnips and celery root to serve with short ribs, pureeing carrots for spicy soups and oven-frying sweet potatoes. After I made a focaccia dough a week ago, incorporating a mashed russet potato to give the bread a fluffy texture and moist crumb, I got to thinking about other ways to use root vegetables in baked goods. It was time to make a root vegetable cake.

The idea wasn’t to sneak something healthy into an ostensible treat, à la Jessica Seinfeld (although I can’t deny that in a sadistic way I did look forward to revealing to my vegetable-hating children that they had just consumed a whole lot of shredded beets along with their chocolate). But neither did I want to bake something that was instantly recognizable as rutabaga-based. It would be nice, I thought nostalgically, to use some of the vegetables from my Amagansett CSA’s root cellar to bake a moist, wholesome cake that an eastern Long Island farm wife might have made in February, in the days when the Hamptons had more farms and fewer shingled mansions with four-car garages.

It makes sense that resourceful bakers of yore used root vegetables for cold weather cakes. Many root vegetables aren’t even harvested here until October or November, since they get sweeter as the weather gets colder, their starches converting to sugars after a frost or two. Once they are pulled from the ground, they can stay fresh in a cool (35 to 45 degrees) root cellar for two months or more. Instead of dipping into the sugar bowl, why not use the vegetables’ natural sugars to sweeten cakes?

British food historian Alan Davidson says that carrot cake and pudding recipes appear in many 18th and 19th century British cookbooks, but traces today’s root vegetable cakes to World War II-era Ministry of Food recipes, disseminated to help citizens deal with sugar rationing by baking with the sugar-rich produce, including carrots, sweet potatoes and parsnips, from their victory gardens. Carrot cake made with vegetable oil and whole wheat flour gained popularity in the U.S. during the “health food” craze of the seventies. But instead of going the way of the lentil loaf and macrobiotic sprout salads, it stuck around, solidifying its standing in the American baking canon. There is evidence that root vegetable desserts are today’s fine dining trend. A recent story in the Chicago Sun Times surveyed local chefs at top restaurants and discovered they were featuring apple-rutabaga pie, parsnip custard and sweet potato spice cake on their menus. Baking with root vegetables brings together several current chef obsessions: Using seasonal and local ingredients, referencing old-fashioned comfort recipes, and displaying one’s kitchen economy as a sign of virtue and good taste.

After considering beets, carrots and sweet potatoes, I settled on parsnips for my cake because of their sweetness and bright flavor, which is a little nutty with hints of celery and parsley (parsnips are related to both). I used melted butter in my one-bowl recipe, not only for farm-fresh taste but because I don’t love the spongy texture of cakes made with oil. And I spiced up the batter with a combination of cinnamon, black pepper, cardamom and cloves. For snacking or brunch, the cake doesn’t need any frosting. But a simple combination of browned butter, confectioners’ sugar, heavy cream and spices makes a rich and deeply flavored finish.

If you were one of those Chicago chefs, you’d wait until March and then pull up early harvest parsnips (some gardeners believe the sweetest vegetables are allowed to sit underground for the entire winter) from your own garden. But you can still make a creditable parsnip cake with vegetables purchased in February. Shop for them at a reliable natural foods market with a reasonable turnover (supermarket parsnips can be very old). Although parsnips will keep in a root cellar for months, they will become limp and lifeless after a few weeks in the refrigerator. Avoid gigantic specimens, which may have woody cores.

Parsnip Spice Cake with Brown Butter Icing

Serves 9


For the cake:

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
½ teaspoon ground cardamom
½ teaspoon ground cloves
½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
2 large eggs
¼ cup milk
½ teaspoon vanilla
1⅓ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
½ cup finely chopped toasted walnuts
2 cups peeled and grated parsnips (2 or 3 parsnips, depending on their size)

For the icing:

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 4 pieces
1¼ cups confectioners’ sugar
Pinch salt
3 tablespoons heavy cream
½ teaspoon reserved spices from above


  1. Make the cake: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Coat the inside of an 8-inch square baking pan with cooking spray and dust with flour, knocking out any extra.
  2. Combine the cinnamon, pepper, cardamom and cloves in a small bowl. Transfer ½ teaspoon of the spice mixture to another small bowl and reserve for icing.
  3. Whisk together the butter and brown sugar in a large mixing bowl. Whisk in the eggs and then the milk and vanilla.
  4. Stir in the flour, baking powder, salt and remaining spice mixture until combined. Stir in the walnuts and parsnips.
  5. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top with a rubber spatula. Bake the cake until it is golden and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, 35 to 40 minutes. Let the cake cool in the pan for about 15 minutes, invert it onto a wire rack and then turn it right side up on a rack to cool completely.
  6. Make the icing: Heat the butter over medium heat in a small skillet until the milk solids on the bottom are a dark chocolate brown, 3 to 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and let cool slightly. Whisk together the confectioners’ sugar, salt, cream, and reserved ½ teaspoon spices. Whisk in the brown butter and whisk until smooth. Spread frosting over the top of the cake and let stand until set, about 30 minutes, before slicing into 9 squares and serving.

Zester Daily contributor Lauren Chattman is a cookbook author, freelance writer and former professional pastry chef. Her recipes have appeared in Food & Wine, Bon Appetit, Cook’s Illustrated and The New York Times. She is the author of 14 books, most recently “Cake Keeper Cakes” (Taunton, 2009) and “Cookie Swap!” (Workman, 2010).

Photo: Parsnip cake
Credit: Lauren Chattman

Zester Daily contributor Lauren Chattman is a cookbook author, freelance writer and former professional pastry chef. Her recipes have appeared in Food & Wine, Bon Appetit, Cook's Illustrated and The New York Times. She is the author of 14 books, most recently "Cake Keeper Cakes" (Taunton, 2009) and "Cookie Swap!" (Workman, 2010).