One of the best entries in recent years was the Caramelized Parsnip Layer Cake, which my coworker Kyle won the winter 2010 competition with. And deservedly so...it was really good.
The recipe comes from In the Sweet Kitchen: The Definitive Baker's Companion by Regan Daley. From this book, I've also made the Sticky Spiked Double-Apple Cake (in fact, it was one of my recent dessert contest entries). I highly recommend it if you want a good apple cake.
When I tell people about this recipe, invariably their eyebrows raise at the mention of parsnips. But really, they shouldn't--at least I don't think they would if parsnips were a more popular vegetable. And frankly, I'm surprised it isn't, as it's amazingly good and quite versatile. Last month, I sautéed them for Orzo with Sweet Winter Vegetables and roasted them for Risotto with Sausage, Parsnips and Kale. I imagine they'd be good in soup too. With this recipe, they transition with grace from entrée to dessert.
Parsnips become very sweet when roasted, making them an ideal root vegetable for incorporating into dessert. The first step in this recipe is to roast sliced parsnips for almost an hour, bringing out their sweetness and lightly browning them.
The roasted parsnips are then mashed and combined in the cake batter with the other key flavors: toasted pecans, sliced pears and shredded coconut. The results are similar to carrot cake, but definitely a unique taste.
The recipe calls for frosting the cake with a caramel-cream cheese frosting. Unfortunately, I ran out of powdered sugar and only had about 4 cups instead of the 5.5 to 6 the recipe called for. Thus my frosting was a little thin (you can see it pooling at the base of the cake below). Be prepared to have two boxes on hand to make sure you have enough. Even so, it tasted really good and no one seemed to mind, as I wasn't the only one who had seconds.