|Philadelphia Inquirer, November 11, 2001|
famed Commissary carrot cake returns.
By Rick Nichols
Once its identifying insignia is applied - the toasted coconut on the sidewalls and, finally, the piping of neon-orange carrots - we are going to weigh this big, lovable galoot of a cake.
Anne Clark has always wondered, all these years, how much one weighed.
She teaches school now. But in a past life, she was the creator - "the mother, father and baker," as restaurateur-turned-caterer Steve Poses puts it - of the legend that was (that still is) the Commissary carrot cake.
This is extreme carrot cake.
The coconut is flaked and crunchy, not mere strands. The spicy layers are fall-apart moist, based on an oil, not butter, batter. The filling is sweet, creamy veins of caramel studded with pecan jacking up the layers.
The frosting is over the top, too - half butter, half cream cheese.
The cake would become, for an exuberant Annie Hall moment, the dessert of tout Philadelphia - a final post-'60s blowout. "Go right ahead," it barked. "Have your cake and eat it, too!"
Lunchers at the defunct Commissary, the gourmet cafeteria at 17th and Sansom, would daintily order a mixed green salad (with mustardy Frog dressing), then chase it with a giant slab of the cake.
It graced countless wedding tables. At one street festival, Poses later wrote, crowds begged to buy the crumbs left in the trays after the last of 2,500 squares had been sold.
Clark had tried a pineapple filling. She had composed a more sophisticated version for Poses' Frog Restaurant on 16th Street in the mid-'70s: a spongy carrot genoise with orange butter-cream frosting. But something wasn't right.
Poses found it too "mundane"; Clark, too highfalutin. "You can't dress up a carrot cake," she says. "It needs to be itself."
We're talking in her windowed Society Hill kitchen, her cake wheel squeaking in arthritic protest. She is assembling the old warhorse one more time. For old times' sake.
She has sawed the cake - made in an angel-food pan - into its three layers. Now she packs in fistfuls of the pecan filling by hand. It's that filling, as much as anything, that elevates the cake from homespun to, well, unabashedly indulgent.
It is an excess, among Philadelphians of a certain age, that is sorely missed, along with the carrot-festooned shopping bags; brave storefront cafes; and kitchens filled with devoted amateurs.
Through the last half of the '70s and a good piece of the '80s, Anne Clark was at the core of that cadre, along with Becky Roller and Poses. Their celebrated cookbook, The Frog Commissary Cookbook, sold 100,000 copies before eventually going out of print.
Later this month, it's coming back, reissued by Camino Books ($19.95), complete with the forbidding, unabridged instructions for making the Commissary carrot cake.
In commemoration, Poses is reissuing the finished product as well, available by special order.
The price is $30 for an 8-inch cake big enough to serve 10. Or maybe 12.
Of course, if you bake it to Clark's original specs, it'll feed up to 20.
It is a hoss of a cake.
Seven pounds, it turns out.
Frog Commissary Catering, 435 Fairmount Ave., 215-923-6500
Rick Nichols' e-mail address is email@example.com.