Food & Drink

Baker learned to love the holidays again, thanks to a carrot cake recipe from an unexpected place

Keijuane Hester once dreaded the holidays. He spent three long Thanksgivings and Christmases behind bars after serving federal time for drug trafficking in 1996.

“We eat the normal stuff but you are not with your family,” Hester said. “It’s the toughest time of the year. … It was bittersweet.”

Hester changed his life after he was released from prison. He used his entrepreneurial skills to open his own bakery.

Since 2004, he’s been the owner and chief baker at Favor Desserts. He started off baking cakes from his home. In February 2012, he opened Favor Desserts Bakery and Coffee Shop at 5607 N.C. 55 in Durham. And earlier this year, he opened a second Favor Desserts shop in Greensboro.

The Durham native attributes his redemption to the carrot cake he learned how to make in prison. It’s the cake he makes for family gatherings. It’s also one of the most popular cakes in his stores.

Keijuane Hester of Favor Desserts Juli Leonard

He mastered how to make the moist carrot cake from a fellow inmate in prison. Carrot cakes were only made during holidays or special occasions at the federal prison. The ingredients were too expensive for regular meal times.

Growing up, Hester looked forward to Thanksgiving and Christmas in part because it meant his Aunt Isabella was going to show up at the family gathering with her carrot cake. It was his favorite.

The large family gathered at his maternal grandmother’s house for the big meal. The table would be filled with casserole dishes with macaroni and cheese and sweet potatoes, platters filled with baked chicken and gravy, and baskets filled with hot cornbread. “It was the works,” he says.

His grandmother has since died, so about 40 aunts, uncles and cousins convene at a clubhouse for the Thanksgiving meal.

“That’s the one time a year we get together. We bond, laugh and love,” he says.

Hester, 42, brings his two daughters and son along with his prized carrot cake. He describes his moist cake, coupled with a decadent cream cheese frosting, as a crowd-pleaser at his home during the holidays.

Some even say it’s better than Aunt Isabella’s cake with black walnuts. The icing and crushed pineapple elevate his cake.

Hester savors the holidays again. He even named his bakery Favor as in the biblical term of “highly favored.” He’s no longer the angry man who veered off track when his beloved uncle died. He’s no longer walking around with his head down buried in the past.

“I redeemed myself through the carrot cake,” he says. “That one recipe sparked my whole bakery.

“Baking brought joy to my life,” he said. “It turned my negative situation around. It makes me feel good when people come in and buy my cakes. I always holler from the back and thank them for their support. They allow me to keep growing and that’s a blessing.”

Bridgette A. Lacy is a freelance writer and the author of “Sunday Dinner: A Savor the South cookbook” by UNC Press of Chapel Hill. Reach her at

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Redemption Carrot Cake

2 cups brown sugar

2 3/4 cups self-rising flour

2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 1/4 cups vegetable oil

4 large eggs, at room temperature

1/2 cup crushed pineapple

2 1/2 cups grated carrots

1 cup chopped walnuts

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1 cup raisins (optional)

Cream Cheese Icing

1 stick unsalted butter, room temperature

1 package cream cheese (8 ounces)

2 teaspoon vanilla extract

4 cups confectioners sugar

To make the cake: Heat the oven to 350 degrees.

Prepare two 8-inch round baking pans by coating them with nonstick cooking spray.

Combine the brown sugar, flour, cinnamon and baking soda together in a large bowl.

Add the vegetable oil and each egg, mixing on low speed for two minutes. Beat until the ingredients turn a caramel color.

Add the pineapple. Beat for a minute or a minute and a half. Fold the carrots, chopped walnuts and vanilla into the cake batter.

Then pour the batter equally between the greased cake pans. Bake for 30 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean. Allow the cakes to cool completely on a wire rack before icing.

To make the icing: Place room temperature butter, cream cheese and vanilla into mixer and blend for 1-2 minutes on medium until fully incorporated. Add powdered sugar, one cup at a time, until frosting is light and creamy and smooth. Don’t overbeat.

Frost cake and enjoy.

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