Seeking Approval: Chocolate Carrot Cake

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

-Can you guess how?-

In recent weeks I’ve learned that I crave two things in my life: approval and recognition. The two often go hand-in-hand and though they can be separated they are best enjoyed together.

Recognition without approval has another name: infamy. Never a good thing. The consequences usually being jail time, tears, or landing in a situation that my father would refer to as “totally screwed in every which way.”

On the other hand, approval without recognition is a fickle thing. How much pleasure can be reaped from the situation and its worth as a whole when its based on opinion and personal belief? Are you happy with the satisfaction that a job well done is its own reward? Some people are. Sometimes and in some cases that’s just fine enough for me.

However, I find that people do well with recognition for their hard work. Honey versus vinegar and all that. Parents worldwide can avow that positive reinforcement simply proves more effective, and any human resources manager, heck, anyone who has ever worked a job ever can tell you that people are more motivated to work when they’ve been praised and given positive, constructive critique. Even a smile, thank you, or simple "Good work," does wonders for a person's inspiration and self-esteem.

Together they create an epic and nearly unrivaled sensation. There is nothing better than being appreciated for competence. It boosts the ego, enriches the soul, and inspires us to do more and go farther than we thought we could.

Situations where neither one are received are disheartening, as if you’ve been told to beat a drum that doesn’t make any sound. The delivery of the message that no, you/your work/your passion aren’t approved of and that what you are/what you have done isn’t recognized is like being shot in the chest with a .48. You feel the life drain right out of you only to rise up as some dark cloud casting a pallor over your empty husk.

-Knobby, awkward, colorful carrots from the Farmers' Market. So awesome that they don't care what you think of them-

It. Is. Miserable.

Recently, my thesis experience has been somewhat reminiscent of this - both the good and the bad. Assembled of hundreds of hours and years of work the thesis no longer feels like it exists just for a diploma - a state acknowledged and governor signed approval that I’m a smart guy. (For without it, how will I ever know if I am!?) Rather, it feels like an extension of me.

At this stage I am seeking the approval of my thesis committee, people I hold in high regards and assume know more about everything in my field of academia than I ever will. Essentially, they hold my thesis in their hands. (Given, in the broad view of things the thesis is all in my hands, but at certain points I have to simply let go and allow others to do their part.) Currently, they are reading my thesis chapter by chapter, and returning it with notes and critique. With each part I turn in I hope that they will enjoy it and give it to me with the go-ahead to continue.

My professors are honest and straightforward. In my world their word is final. While at times this may unnerve and even frighten me these are the reasons I asked them to read my thesis. I respect their knowledgeable approaches. It is because of this respect that I crave approval and recognition so badly from them. That, and, of course, graduation.

Recently, I received feedback via e-mail on my first chapter. The first thing I noticed was the length. It was epic, like a book of Psalms. My eyes began darting around plucking up small, disorienting keywords like pieces of broken glass off the floor. They were words like "problem," "concern," and "unclear."

-Chocolate and carrots. Add some spices and booze and you are so go.-

My breathing became shallow and quick as I attempted to read the e-mail in whole but found myself barely able to focus on a single idea. All I knew was that it seemed I had failed and my professor was displeased. With conflicting feelings of reluctance and desperation I pushed through the rest of the notes. It was like slowly pulling off band-aid. Each sentence was a sting that made me hesitant to continue. This, however, was worse - while you may choose to simply rip-off a band-aid in one quick tear-jerking tear, there is no equivalent for reading an e-mail from your professor.

Then, suddenly, at the end was a tiny blurb; barely even a paragraph: “Keep up the great work. You can bring the next chapter to me.”

I swear, my heart skipped a beat.

Approval and recognition achieved! It was if God himself had come down from the sky just to tell me how awesome he thought I was and asked if I wanted to go out for nachoes and beer. Yes, that little bit might not seem like much (like I said, my professors are succinct), but it meant the world to me. It was what I needed to hear.

I went back to the beginning of the e-mail and read through it with a new attitude examining the advice and comments that had been diligently and carefully written down for me. It was all practical, feasible, and a completely fair assessment of the work I had turned in.

The following day I submitted in the next chapter and went to work fixing the previous one.

-Honestly, sometimes, I wish I had stayed in genetics back in college...-

Still, I found the emotional turmoil of the situation draining. I had exhausted every ounce of energy I had in an adrenaline-fueled panic and was running on empty. When i find myself in such a situation I find that making cake is not only merited, it's darn well therapeutic.

This cake is sort of a motley character. It seems to be unable to decide what it wants to be; a chocolate cake, a carrot cake, a bourbon cake, maybe a spicy tres leches cake with some pizazz? Either way I find it best not to dwell and simply to eat.

At the same time I might very well say that dwelling can be beneficial. Time is this cake's best friend and the more of it that goes by the deeper the flavors become. I suggest you consider soaking it with heavy cream or bourbon. While the liquid soaks dwell on the accolades that will undoubtedly be heaped upon you once you serve the cake.

Sweet approval and recognition.

Blogging, work, school, hobbies, proposal, projects, friends, families and relationships. We seek approval for them all and from them all. We want out friends to recognize our struggles and family members to congratulate us for overcoming them. Isn’t dating the search for approval and recognition crystallized into something solid and far too tangible? (If so, then, is a successful relationship the embodiment of achieving them?) It's a constant search. Thesis wise, there is still a lot of mountain to climb.

Either way, I hope that you are getting the approval you seek and the recognition you deserve. If for some reason you aren't make this cake and serve it to whomever. Or, if you don't have whomever around, just get a plate of your own and pat yourself on the back.

Chocolate Carrot Cake

3/4 cup All-Purpose flour
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 heaping teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 Tablespoon freshly grated fresh ginger
Zest of one orange
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups grated carrots
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup plain whole milk yogurt
2 large eggs
1/2 cup cream (optional)
1/4 cup bourbon (optional)

1. Preheat the oven to 350ºF. Butter and flour a 9×5-inch loaf pans (or line it with parchment paper.

2. Sift together the the flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, baking soda, ground ginger, and salt (do nto skip this step as likely your cocoa powder will have large clumps). In another bowl, mix together: the carrots, orange zest, and ground ginger.

3. In a large bowl, whisk the oil and sugar together. Once the sugar and oil have been combined, whisk in the yogurt until the mixture is smooth. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating until the batter is smooth and light. Add the carrot, orange zest, and grated ginger.

4. Add the flour mixture to the egg mixture in two additions, folding in until just combined. Pour into the prepared pan.

5. Bake for 30-45 minutes, until well-risen and firm to the touch, or until a cake tester comes out clean. If the top begins to get a little overdone, place a piece of foil over it to prevent burning.

6. Cool the cake in the pan on a cooling rack. You can serve this right away but it is best to keep self-control and let the cake sit for a day or two wrapped in plastic wrap to allow the flavors to intensify. This cake is great on its own but cream or bourbon can be added. 10 minutes before serving pour the cream or bourbon over the cake and allow the cake to soak up the liquid. (Do not use both as the bourbon can curdle the cream.) Serve slices with a little extra liquid for good measure.


  1. Keep it up! Finishing a thesis might be the hardest thing you ever do, but it's sooo worth it.

    I had a professor on my committee who was so disappointed with my thesis, that he made 60 minute appointments with me twice a week to read it aloud to me. He wanted me to hear how terrible it was. It was heart-wrenching. But in the end, I did whatever it took to make him happy and I got his signature. I've seen that same professor in town a few times and I duck and run like a fugitive. I just might punch him if I see him face to face.

    Stick with it! You'll finish!

  2. I love the idea of chocolate carrot cake! Hang in there on the thesis. I quit partway through graduate school, and although that ship has long since sailed for me, it was something I definitely regretted not finishing.

  3. Help, Garrett!
    I'm in the process of preparing this now. In step 2, I assume you mean grated, rather than ground, ginger. (No matter, I'm out of fresh and am subbing more ground...don't judge!) Also, when do I add the carrot mixture?
    Thanks in advance.

  4. Pattypro: Yes, ground ginger in step 2. Add the carrot mixture to the wet oil-sugar mixture. Sorry about that. I have fixed the recipe. =)

  5. Thanks, Garrett. I consulted another recipe and folded the carrots in at the end, but I'm sure it won't adversely affect it. Almost finished baking...smells wonderful!

  6. I work in a profession where there is very little approval or recognition; people just expect that you'll do a great job, every time. It can be tough, but patting yourself on the back helps, as does seeking validation in other areas of life! Like through baked goods. ;) Good strategy!

    Question: the post seems to indicate we can use both bourbon and milk, but the recipe says to avoid doing so, as it might curdle. Which is it? Thanks, looks delicious!

  7. Dawn: Pick one or the other. I suppose you could use both if you eat quickly and not let it sit too long.

  8. I love chocolate cake and my husband loves carrot cake - can't wait to make this and please us both!

    At work, I am often faced with situations at where the people I have to work with are incredibly frustrating. Even though my first impulse is to scream at them, I have found I can get a lot more done if I use some cleverly structured positive reinforcement. Its always better to get along I think!

  9. I really like this post. I am in desperate need of approval in my work situation right now. A year and a half of work without even a thank-you--just a paycheck. I need the check, of course, but you're right, there's nothing like getting approval and recognition. Even money doesn't compare.

  10. Oh beautiful - this looks so moist and moreish...

    Strength for your thesis :)

  11. Just submitted my thesis at CSUS (different dept.) last semester. Toward the end I referred to it as "Myyy pressccioussss" and to myself as Gollum and rewarded myself DAILY with giant chocolate chip or ginger cookies.
    You are so successful in many ways, keep patting yourself on the back and know you deserve it. Good luck!

  12. I have been a blog "stalker" on your site for over a year now, but your post so encapsulated the agony of finishing a big project that I had to comment. Reading your cooking blog, trying a few of the recipes, and enjoying your well-written prose actually got me through my dissertation last year. It was a lovely diversion to the pain-staking task of wrapping up 5 years of hard work. As someone who went through it - and came out successful on the other side, I can attest to the feelings of rejection and approval. Those comment emails (or comments on drafts) were killer, each time. But do know for the most part, like you discovered, your committee wants you to succeed. And it's easier to critique before it is easier to bestow compliments. So read their comments, go make another delicious baked good or eat some tasty cheese, and return to the comments with a clear head. Remember, they want you to finish - and finish strong. You know, like an extra bit of bourbon poured over this amazing cake. Good luck.

  13. Hi Garrett, I came here via Simply Recipes (I tried your butterscotch cookies...WOW). You have such a beautiful, well written blog! And I wish you the best on your thesis.

    I tried this cake yesterday and it came out wonderful. Not too sweet, and probably flavorful with each day but never got to see it past the second day. Maybe next time :) Thank you for sharing.

  14. Oh if only the classical dance world understood this. They are rather stuck in the middle ages. If someone had been nice to me once in a while, I would have had far fewer injuries and my career would have lasted much longer. Unfortunately I'm just a pat-on-the-head kind of gal at the end of the day. Or at least I'm not a kick-in-the-gut-and-keep-on-plugging-away kind of gal. Good luck with your thesis work. It's good to hear you're getting some recognition.

  15. Keep it going! Wow... it sounds like you are doing great. I can't imagine the work that you are putting in to this thesis. Two of my good friends are professors and are on the "approval" board, it's interesting to hear them talk.
    Love the cake as well! Chocolate and carrot together... I approve!!

  16. Great piece. I'm inspired by the hard work and dedication it takes to complete a thesis. You get a hardy thumbs up from me. And the cake - genius. Chocolate in carrot cake?! Nothing wrong with that.

  17. Well, congrats and good job, Garrett! Keep writing! :)

    And I've made carrot cake before, but never with chocolate. Hmm, I may have to try it out!

  18. I can't imagine writing a thesis and having someone parse out critiques for what you worked so hard on and not take it personally. It was always so difficult for me when I was in art school, showing my work in the crits. Though in retrospect, I guess I learned the most when the critiques were the harshest.

    That said, one of the reasons I left my day job was the management didn't understand how a simple "thank you" could effect their employees. I thought I might have been too sensitive but I feel vindicated that nearly every person I worked with has since left as well. Ha!

    Also, this cake looks amazing. I love the idea of chocolate and carrot and bourbon. Mmmm...

  19. I made this for friends and it was a hit! Love how it's just sweet enough but not too sweet. Also the ginger gives it such a nice aroma.

    Thanks for a fantastic recipe!

  20. I've had carrot cake with chocolate chips at work (mini chocolate chips got mixed into the cinnamon, and it was too late to pick them out), and we put both regular and chocolate cream cheese icing on them. Delicious. Sort of a more interesting Mexican chocolate combo.

    Good luck on the thesis, I remember reading back years ago when you were starting out on it. Keep it going!

  21. Oh my, this looks amazing. I love carrot cake and my wife loves chocolate cake. Now we have the perfect combo. Thanks :)

  22. I made this two days ago, ate half, and brought the rest to my parent's house. Two of my dad's favorite things in life are carrot cake and chocolate. I left it on the counter and when I called two days later my dad said it was the best cake he'd ever eaten. And he's eaten a lot of cakes in his time. Nice job!

  23. Yoko & Roxy: I'm so glad that you guys enjoyed this cake!

    Everyone else: Thanks for the cheering on the thesis! Here's hoping for the final push and that my professor doesn't hate my last two chapters.


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