When I set out to make bolo de cenoura, a carrot cake found in Portuguese and Brazilian cuisines, I wanted to recreate what I’d had at bakeries or seen on Instagram: perfectly plated slices in vivid contrasting colors, an orange-amber crumb under a dark chocolate glaze.
Often made at home in a blender or food processor and sold at traditional bakeries, bolo de cenoura comes together with just five key ingredients: carrots, flour, sugar, eggs and oil. For celebrations, the Brazilian version is usually topped with a semi-glossy chocolate frosting called brigadeiro that’s anchored by condensed milk and cocoa powder. It adds more than just a little sweetness: It turns a bright, starch-forward cake into a rich dessert.
It was all so simple. And yet, I found myself thinking about how I wanted to modify this carrot cake, which was quickly becoming my favorite on earth.
Whenever I adapt recipes, I try to ensure that each tweak reveals something about me, that it allows a little of my personality to peek through. So I’ll add an ingredient that excites my palate, preference masquerading as personal touch. Sometimes I make a substitution because I sense a connection with a different dish rooted in similar ingredients. These adaptations end up help ing me learn the boundaries of a recipe, what modifications it can take. But they also illustrate the food memories I’m always chasing — feelings I keep coming back to, flavors that make me feel at home.
Mariana Vieira, a professional baker from Bauru, Brazil, and a co-owner of Brigadeiro Bakery in Manhattan, makes no modifications to her classic bolo de cenoura.
“It’s very homemade, and it’s not a fancy cake,” Ms. Vieira said. (At the bakery, she makes it only in single batches.)
The steps are straightforward: Gather your ingredients, purée in the blender, pour in a prepared pan and bake. Then, make the brigadeiro while the cake cools.
The carrots can be peeled or just scrubbed. The most important thing, Ms. Vieira says, is that “they should be very crispy,” in order to make the cake moist and ensure a soft crumble with every pass of a ravenous diner’s fork.
Although I love the classic version, I sneaked in a few changes to suit my taste. I folded a spoonful of sour cream into the batter for a delightful tang, and used sweetened condensed coconut milk in the brigadeiro frosting for a creamy coconut-flavored topping that coats every bite.
That hint of coconut reminds me of the sweet afternoon snacks of my childhood in Lagos, Nigeria: a small bag of coconut caramels, chuk chuk (a freshly grated coconut tossed in a pale golden caramel) or gurudi (a brittle cracker of coconut and cassava), a little burst of joy picked up on the way home from school, sometimes followed by a kanjika, a cold corn-coconut pudding finished with nutmeg. This version of brigadeiro brings me right back.
And just as those coconut-infused treats were there for me, this cake is there for Ms. Vieira’s boys, helping them build a connection to Brazil from many miles away. In their home, bolo de cenoura is served with guava jam or butter, or drizzled with a simple ganache and requested for birthdays and celebrations.
“It’s such a versatile cake,” she said. “It’s amazing.”
And, like any baked good, a subtle adjustment may be all you need to give it your own personal touch, something to remind you of home.