Each fall for the past five years Ellie DeBonis drives from Troy to Niskayuna to get a special piece of carrot cake, and this year, she brought some friends along for the drive.
“It’s the best carrot cake I’ve ever had,” said Lynne Cramm, agreeing with her friend. “It’s delicious.”
This isn’t your average carrot cake, but one that can only be bought once a year. It’s the signature carrot cake made for Congregation Agudat Achim’s annual Carrot Festival.
“It’s well worth the drive,” said DeBonis on Sunday.
In its 33rd year, the Carrot Festival is the congregation’s largest fundraiser and most likely its oldest, according to food and baking co-chair Anita Merims.
The festival started in 1978, after the congregation needed funds for a new parking lot. Members Paul and Rose Westheimer were reputable carrot growers from Schoharie County who mainly provided their roots and other vegetables for Beech-Nut Baby Food products, said Merims, who has been involved with the event since the beginning.
Since then, the festival’s carrot cake has been its main draw, though, in the beginning, the Westheimers did entice eventgoers to partake in their famous carrot juice.
The majority of the money now goes to fund the congregation’s Hebrew school.
The more than 750 cakes are made in July and then frozen until September, but because they are made so early, local produce could not be used.
“We sent away for nearly 300 pounds of carrots from Israel,” said Merims. “So if the cakes seem extra special this year, that’s why.”
Besides their signature cake, there’s a two-layer cake made with pecans, coconut, and raisins, with praline filling in between; also made were apple chunk, banana chocolate chip, and pineapple carrot cakes. And new this year were gluten-free carrot cakes and cookies.
“We know how important it is now to offer that to those who want to enjoy the day like everyone else and all of our cakes are non-cream based,” said Merims. “We use Tofutti cream cheese.”
The event also offers traditional Jewish and Middle Eastern foods, all of which are kosher.
Co-Chair Hillary Fink said because of the day the event fell on, this year’s theme was “Remember-Honor-Celebrate,” and a small ceremony was performed in honor of those who lost their lives on Sept. 11, 2001.
Merims and Fink agreed that the day is a special one for not just the local Jewish community, but also for the town.
“Besides Niska Day, I believe this is the biggest festival in Niskayuna,” said Fink.
Meir Amslem said he has gone to the festival each year since moving to Niskayuna from Israel nearly five years ago. He now lives in Schenectady. “It’s a way for me to get out and spend time with members from the congregation and meet people,” he said.
His daughter, 4-year-old Yàmel who attends Sunday School at Agudat Achim, loves the animals.
Each year the event has a petting zoo, pony rides, a reptile show and other children’s activities from Radio Disney and the Schenectady Children’s Museum.
Miranda Peterson of Scotia said she attends each year to spend a fun day with her children, 2-year-old Dean, 4-year-old James, and 6-year-old Samantha.
“We come every year because there is a lot of good, free stuff for kids and we always bring home a carrot cake,” she said. “They’re the best.”