Thanks to Leap Day, there's one extra day on the calendar. So let's eat cake — carrot cake. Dense, moist and homey, carrot cake makes sweet use of winter's root crops, including parsnips and golden beets, if you have them.

The quintessential American classic evolved from a time when sugar was expensive, so root vegetables like carrots, parsnips and beets sweetened the batter. The dessert is so right for today as we seek ways to lighten and brighten our treats.

My favorite cake recipes are the simplest — as easy as whipping up a batch of cookies. Much as I admire the elaborate confections that require a day to make, I'd rather leave those to the pros; there are plenty in our town to support. And it's in such recipes that good ingredients are of utmost importance. Cakes have a way of showcasing "off" flavors. Make sure the carrots taste good, the nuts are not stale (or worse, rancid) and the dried fruit isn't as hard as marbles. And use high-quality eggs and butter, as they do make a difference. If the ingredients aren't right, the off flavors will pop up in each slice.

My favorite recipe is an old family favorite from "The Joy of Cooking." It's nicely spiced, the texture relies on the shredded carrots, parsnips, golden beets (alone or in combination), hazelnuts and dried cranberries. But feel free to use whatever you like and have on hand — raisins, chopped dried apricots, shredded coconut.

Not one to fuss, I prefer to bake this in an oblong pan, but the quantity will nicely fill two round cake pans if you're looking for a more refined two-layer beauty. The cake stores nicely for a day or two and freezes beautifully.

Please don't forget the velvety, tangy cream cheese frosting — it makes the cake.

Carrot Cake

Makes 1 (9- by 13-inch) cake, or about 16 servings.

This moist, dense, flavorful cake tastes even better the day after it's made and the flavors have had a chance to meld. Feel free to vary the nuts and dried fruit; just keep the total additions to 1 1/2 cups. Make sure the cake has cooled thoroughly before frosting. Any leftovers freeze beautifully. From Beth Dooley.

For the cake:

• 1 1/4 c. vegetable oil

• 1 c. granulated sugar

• 1 c. light brown sugar

• 1 tsp. salt

• 4 large eggs

• 1 tbsp. ground cinnamon

• 1/2 tsp. ground nutmeg

• 1/2 tsp. ground ginger

• 1 1/2 tsp. baking powder

• 1/2 tsp. baking soda

• 2 c. unbleached all-purpose flour

• 3 c. grated carrots (or a mix of grated carrots, golden beets, parsnips)

• 1 c. chopped hazelnuts, pecans or walnuts, toasted (see Tip)

• 1/2 c. dried cranberries

For the frosting:

• 1/2 c. (1 stick) butter, room temperature

• 1 (8-oz.) pkg. cream cheese, room temperature

• Pinch coarse salt, to taste

• 2 tsp. pure vanilla extract

• 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 c. powdered sugar

• Milk, as necessary for thinning


To prepare the cake: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a 9- by 13-inch pan with parchment paper.

In a large bowl, beat together the oil, both sugars, salt, eggs, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, baking powder and baking soda. Add the flour to the batter and stir to blend well. Stir in the carrots, nuts and cranberries until just blended. Pour the batter into the prepared pan.

Bake until a cake tester inserted into the center comes out clean, about 35 to 40 minutes. (It's OK if a few moist crumbs are still sticking to it.) Cool the cake completely before frosting.

To prepare the frosting: In a large bowl, with an electric mixer beat together the butter, cream cheese, salt and vanilla until light and fluffy. Beat in enough of the sugar to reach the preferred consistency. If the frosting is too thick, add milk, a tablespoon at a time, beating after each addition.

Frost the cake and refrigerate before serving. Leftovers are best well-wrapped and refrigerated for two days.

Tip: To toast the nuts, spread out the nuts on a baking sheet and toast in a 350-degree oven until they begin to brown and crisp and smell "nutty," about 3 to 5 minutes, watching carefully so they don't burn. Remove and cool before chopping.

Beth Dooley is the author of "The Perennial Kitchen." Find her at