True story: We never got to cut the cake on our wedding day. Instead, we got so carried away dancing with our friends and family, the tradition slipped our — and everyone else’s — minds. The cake in question was a homey, three-layer carrot cake, my husband’s favorite. When we discovered it sitting there untouched, Andrew and I were relieved. Having everyone watch us feed each other cake was never our idea of fun.
Instead, we repurposed the cake at the post-wedding brunch the following day and presented it as a birthday cake for Andrew’s grandfather. It wound up being a win-win.
It wasn’t until this assignment that I really went down the delicious carrot cake rabbit hole. Sure, I had made it from time to time, but it was always in a hurry to deliver a cake for a special occasion: a birthday, a Father’s Day celebration or random joyful moments we wanted to commemorate. I didn’t have a go-to recipe, and while the cakes I was making were fine, they weren’t extraordinary enough to be bookmarked. I moved from recipe to recipe, hoping to strike gold with one but not succeeding.
I was looking for more in my cake: It needed to be sufficiently (but not overly) carroty and moist, with a delicate crumb and varied textures. I opted for plump golden raisins, with their sweet honey notes, and toasted pecans, very finely chopped. To bump up the rich, warming flavors, I chose a symphony of spices: cinnamon, cardamom, allspice, nutmeg and ginger, both fresh and powdered. For a bit of tang, I added buttermilk.
The resulting cake layers are everything I wanted them to be and more. Friends and colleagues who tried it said the texture was perfect and the flavors balanced.
With the cake layers done, I moved on to the frosting. Inspired by a few recipes, including those from Jocelyn Delk Adams and Claire Saffitz, brown butter-cream cheese frosting sounded like an excellent idea. Melt and brown the butter — no need to wait for it to soften — then stir it over an ice bath until it is the texture of solid room-temperature butter, a process that takes about 25 minutes. Then, proceed to make the frosting as usual.
While I’m not big on hot takes, here’s one: Cream cheese frosting is the best part of carrot cake. In fact, it happens to be our family’s favorite frosting, and I make it so often, I forget its softer, more spreadable texture compared with its buttercream cousin. Keep that in mind when making it: If the frosting seems softer than usual, that’s normal. Too soft? Chill it for 20 minutes or so.
And depending on how generous a layer you want, you’ll likely have leftover frosting. I prefer a conservative approach, wanting the cake layers and frosting to complement one another. I freeze the excess frosting for next time I’m making a cake and reduce the next batch of frosting by about a third so I don’t wind up with too much again.
In our house, we love this carrot cake so much, we decided it’s our go-to cake for birthdays, Mother’s Day — any celebration, big or small.
Here is a classic carrot cake that, with its few fun twists, will astound you with its exceptional crumb and taste. A blend of fragrant warming spices — cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, allspice and nutmeg — delivers an aromatic bouquet, while finely chopped toasted pecans add sweet nuttiness and vary the texture without disrupting it. Golden raisins contribute gentle honey notes and moisture throughout. What takes this cake into a different stratosphere is the brown butter-cream cheese frosting, which is at once familiar and unexpected; you may never go back to regular cream cheese frosting after this. Be sure to sift your baking soda to get rid of any clumps. If not well-blended, baking soda may turn your carrots green; the cake will still taste fine. We got the most consistent results using Philadelphia cream cheese for our frosting; other cream cheese brands might use a different combination of stabilizers and may result in a frosting that weeps and may slide off your cake. Keep in mind that cream cheese frosting is less stiff than its buttercream counterpart, however, if your frosting is too soft to spread, refrigerate it for about 20 minutes to firm it up. The cake may be prepared, tightly wrapped and refrigerated, up to 1 day in advance. The frosting can be prepared up to 5 days in advance.
Makes one 8-inch layer cake (14 to 16 servings)
FOR THE CAKE: ½ cup well-shaken buttermilk 2 teaspoons finely grated fresh ginger 1 teaspoon vanilla extract 1 cup pecan halves, plus more for decorating the cake (optional) ¾ cup canola oil or another neutral oil, plus more for greasing pans 1 ½ cups all-purpose flour 1 teaspoon baking powder 1 teaspoon baking soda, sifted 1 teaspoon kosher salt 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon 1 teaspoon ground ginger ½ teaspoon ground cardamom ¼ teaspoon grated nutmeg ¼ teaspoon ground allspice 3 large eggs, at room temperature 1 cup granulated sugar ¼ cup packed dark brown sugar 11 ounces carrots (4 to 5 medium), scrubbed and trimmed ¾ cup raisins, preferably golden
FOR THE FROSTING: 1 ½ sticks (6 ounces) unsalted butter 12 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature 2 teaspoons vanilla extract ¼ teaspoon kosher salt 3 ½ cups (1 pound) confectioners’ sugar, sifted if very lumpy
Make the cake layers: Position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees.
In a liquid measuring cup, combine the buttermilk, fresh ginger and vanilla.
Spread the pecans out on a small, rimmed baking sheet and toast in the oven for about 10 minutes, shaking midway through, until the nuts are deep golden brown and fragrant. Remove from the oven (leave the oven on) and transfer the nuts to a plate to cool. Once the nuts are cool, transfer to a food processor and pulse until very finely chopped.
While the nuts are toasting, lightly brush the bottom and sides of two (8-by-2-inch) cake pans with oil. Line the bottom of the pans with parchment paper and brush the paper with oil.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, ground ginger, cardamom, nutmeg and allspice until combined.
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, combine the eggs with the granulated and brown sugars and beat on medium-low speed to break up the eggs. Increase the speed to medium-high and beat until the mixture forms thick ribbons as it falls off the whisk, about 5 minutes.
While the eggs and sugar are being whipped, grate the carrots.
When the egg-sugar mixture is ready, slowly add the oil in a thin stream and beat until the mixture is glossy, plush and emulsified.
Switch to the paddle attachment and add about a third of the flour mixture to the egg mixture. Mix on low speed just to combine. Stop the mixer, add half of the buttermilk mixture and then return the mixer to low speed just to combine. Add the remaining dry ingredients in two more additions, alternating with the remaining buttermilk mixture. When the last whisper of flour disappears, stop the mixer and use a spatula to scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl, then fold the batter to ensure it is evenly mixed. Add the carrots and mix on low until just combined. Unlock the mixer bowl and, using a spatula, gently fold in the pecans and raisins. Evenly divide the batter between the cake pans. (Each portion should weigh around 700 grams, depending on the weight of your carrots.) If needed, smooth out the tops of the cakes with a small offset spatula.
Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, or until a cake tester inserted into the middle of the cakes comes out clean, and the cakes spring back when lightly pressed on top and start to pull away from the sides of the pan. Transfer the cake pans to a wire rack and let cool completely. Run a thin offset spatula or butter knife around the perimeter of each pan, place a plate over each cake layer and gently invert. Discard the parchment paper.
Make the frosting: While the cakes are baking, in a medium bowl, prepare an ice bath. In a small saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter and cook, stirring and scraping the bottom and sides constantly, until the solids turn brown, 8 to 10 minutes. Scrape the butter with the browned bits into a bowl and set the bowl over the prepared ice bath; stir every couple of minutes until the butter returns to solid, 13 to 15 minutes. Do not let it get too hard; you want the consistency of room-temperature butter.
In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the cream cheese and butter on medium-high speed, stopping the mixer and scraping down the sides and bottom of the bowl from time to time, until the mixture is completely smooth, about 2 minutes. Add the vanilla and salt and mix on medium-high to incorporate.
Turn off the mixer and add about a third of the confectioners’ sugar. Start with the mixer on low to incorporate the sugar, and then add the remaining sugar in two more increments, pausing the mixer between additions and scraping the sides and bottom of the bowl. Once all of the confectioners’ sugar has been incorporated, increase the speed to medium-high and beat until the frosting is smooth, thick and fluffy, 1 to 2 minutes. Check the bottom of the bowl to make sure all of the confectioners’ sugar has been incorporated; if not, briefly beat to recombine. The frosting will be soft and spreadable; if it feels too soft for spreading, refrigerate for about 20 minutes to firm it up.
Assemble the cake: If your cake layers have prominent domes, use a long, serrated knife to trim the tops (you can eat them as a cook’s treat), so the layers are even and level.
Place a cake layer bottom side down on a cake stand or serving plate, and slide strips of parchment paper partially underneath and all around the cake to keep your work area neat during frosting.
Using a small offset spatula, place about 1 cup of frosting in the center and spread it out to the edges. Place the second cake layer, bottom side up, on top of the first and top with another 1 cup of the frosting in the center. Using the offset spatula, spread the frosting in a thin layer over the top and sides of the cake to form a crumb coat, adding a little more frosting at a time as needed.
Transfer the cake to the refrigerator and let the coating set up (it will be soft and somewhat tacky), about 30 minutes. (You can leave the remaining frosting at room temperature in the meantime, though if it gets too soft, refrigerate it as well while the crumb coat chills.)
Remove the cake from the refrigerator and use more frosting to generously cover the top and sides of the cake. (Leftover frosting can be frozen.) To make decorative swirls, move the offset spatula in a figure-eight shape all over the frosting. Refrigerate the cake just until the frosting is set, at least 1 hour and up to 1 day in advance, then slice and serve.
Variation: To make traditional cream cheese frosting, follow the instructions above, skipping the butter browning process. Be sure to have the butter at room temperature.
Storage notes: The assembled cake can be refrigerated, properly covered, for up to 5 days. The cake layers may be tightly wrapped in plastic wrap, then foil, and frozen for up to 3 months; defrost overnight in the refrigerator. Leftover frosting may be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 5 days or frozen for up to 3 months.
Per serving (based on 16 servings): 549 calories, 32 g total fat, 11 g saturated fat, 82 mg cholesterol, 323 mg sodium, 63 g carbohydrates, 2 g dietary fiber, 60 g sugar, 6 g protein
Recipe from food writer Olga Massov.
Massov writes for The Washington Post.
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