Good carrot cakes balance many variables. They have to be sweet, yet spicy; moist, yet delicate; and beautiful, but not pretentious. Finding a recipe that embraces all of these and holds its own under a mountain of fluffy cream cheese frosting is a challenge — but we've done it!
Cake Is Cake, Bread Is Bread
I love carrot cake. I love it so much that my wedding cake was carrot cake with cream cheese frosting. Carrot cakes easily turn into uber-dense (albeit flavorful) snack breads and head off into hermit cookie-land. They are loaded with fruits, and use baking soda as a predominant leavener. That's fine, but that's carrot bread — not a cake. Many carrot cake recipes lean heavily toward quick breads. This cake, on the other hand, is distinctly cake-like, yet still moist.
What Balance Means for Carrot Layer Cake
Many carrot cakes are extremely sweet. Most folks say it's because we Americans love our sweets extra sweet. That may well be true, but sugar is also a tenderizer, and for cakes, that's important. When paired with a very sweet, milky frosting, like a cream cheese frosting, the cake should be sweet enough that you know it's dessert, but not so sweet that your teeth ache.
Baking Pans and Parchment Rounds
The parchment rounds that line your baking pans are important. It might seem like a tool you can skip, but it makes a big difference. The cakes are turned over to remove them from the pans, so the bottom, where the parchment is, actually becomes the top. It's important that the cake is even, especially on top — frosted or not — so you have to get the cake out with ease, and parchment rounds are a real help with that (you can cut them yourself; learn how here). I buy pre-cut parchment rounds to fit the diameter of my cake pans (usually 9 inches) when I order cardboard cake rounds online. Make sure you use cake pans that are the same as one other. You can't get consistent results when one pan is dark on the outside and the other dark on the inside, or one is nonstick and the other isn't.
Carrot in Every Bite
The best baking recipes with berries, chocolate chips, and dried fruit folded in suggest that you add the mix-ins into the dry ingredients. Most carrot cake recipes do not follow that method, but I have found that it works like a dream. In this recipe, half the carrots are mixed in with the dry ingredients and the other half with the wet. The flour encasing prevents the irksome it-all-sank-to-the-bottom problem and ensures a twirl of carrot strands in every bite. It's a quick extra step that makes a big difference in overall outcome of the cake.
Frosting and Decorating
Decorating is up to you. Pipe 1/2-inch to 1-inch rosettes around the edges for a classic diner-style look. Toast a cup of coarsely ground nuts and coat the sides. Love candied nuts? Coarsely grind and use those. Feeling super creative? Take about 1 tablespoon of marzipan, work in some orange food coloring, shape into a carrot shape, and score with a knife to get those little carrot ridges you see before peeling. You can even make some green leaves. But you can also simply spread on this yummy frosting and serve.
Read More: How To Frost & Decorate a Layer Cake
How To Make Carrot Cake
What You Need
For the cake:
5 large carrots (about 1 pound total), finely shredded (about 3 cups), divided
2 1/4 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
Pinch of ground nutmeg, or 4 to 5 scrapes from a whole nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup sugar
1 1/4 cups light brown sugar
4 large eggs
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract or vanilla bean paste
1 1/2 cups vegetable oil
1/2 cup buttermilk
1 cup pecan or walnut pieces, toasted
For the frosting:
20 ounces (2 1/2 cups) cream cheese, cut into 1-inch cubes, room temperature
1 1/2 cups (3 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes, room temperature
2 cups powdered sugar, sifted
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
2 (9-inch) cake pans
Food processor fitted with shredding disc or box grater
2 mixing bowls
Small metal spatula
Cake tester or toothpicks
3 wire cooling racks
Stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment or a handheld mixer
Offset spatula or butter knife
Cake stand, serving platter, or cardboard cake round
- Prepare for baking: Preheat the oven to 350°F. Spray 2 cake pans with nonstick baking spray. Cut 2 rounds of parchment paper to fit snugly into the bottoms.
- Prepare the carrots: Trim and peel the carrots. Shred the carrots in a food processor fitted with a shredding disc (or if you wish, grate the carrots on a box grater using the medium-sized shredder).
- Mix the dry ingredients: In a mixing bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, salt, and sugars and whisk together until blended well.
- Mix the wet ingredients in a separate bowl: In a separate bowl, combine the eggs and vanilla and whisk with a fork or clean wire whisk until frothy and foamy, about 1 minute. Continue whisking as you drizzle in the oil. Whisk in the buttermilk.
- Add half of the carrots and nuts: Add half the carrots and half the nuts to the egg mixture and mix well with a silicone spatula.
- Add the remaining carrots and nuts: Add the remaining carrots and nuts to the flour mixture and, with a different silicone spatula, mix well.
- Add the egg mixture to the flour mixture: Add the egg mixture to the flour mixture and mix well, scraping the side and the bottom of the bowl with the spatula. There should be no lumps of flour.
- Transfer the batter to the prepared pans: Pour half of the batter into each pan. Gently smooth the tops with the back of an offset spatula or butter knife. The pans will be filled about 1 3/4 inches deep, leaving about 1/4 inch.
- Bake the cakes: Bake the cakes until a toothpick or a cake tester inserted into the center comes out clean, but not dry, without any goopiness or sticky crumbs, 35 to 40 minutes.
- Cool the cakes: Place the cakes, in their pans, on wire cooling racks and let them cool for 8 to 10 minutes.
- Remove the cakes from the pans: Run a small, sharp knife around the inside perimeter of each cake pan. Place a wire rack on top of one pan. Slide one hand under the pan (using an oven mitt if necessary) and press on the rack with the other. Pressing them together firmly with both hands, gently turn over, so that the bottom of the pan faces up. Lift off the pan. Repeat with the second cake and another wire rack. Gently remove the parchment paper from the cakes. Allow to cool completely, about 1 hour.
- Make the cream cheese frosting: While the cake is cooling, in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with paddle attachment, or if you are using a handheld mixer, in a mixing bowl, mix the cream cheese until light in texture, about 5 to 7 minutes. With the mixer running, add the butter, 1 or 2 pieces at a time, making sure each addition is fully incorporated before adding the next.
- Add the sugar and vanilla: Sift in the sugar and mix well to incorporate. Add the vanilla and mix well until blended.
- Frost the bottom layer: Place the least-nice-looking cake layer onto a cake stand, serving dish, or cardboard cake round, and with a pastry brush, brush off the sides and top to remove any excess crumbs. Using an offset spatula or a butter knife, place about 1 cup of the frosting in the center of the cake and gently spread to cover the top surface, pushing the frosting but not dragging it (crumbs will get picked up and dragged along), leaving an edge of about 1/2 inch unfrosted.
- Frost the top layer: Place the second cake layer directly on top of the first. Use an offset spatula or knife to spread about a third of the remaining frosting on top and spread in a very thin layer to the edge.
- Frost the sides: Spread half the remaining frosting around the side of the cake, in a very thin layer. This should catch any loose crumbs. Frost the side again with half of the remaining frosting, spreading it decoratively around the sides.
- Finish the cake: Scoop the remaining frosting on top and smooth decoratively with a spatula.