I have many carrot cake notches in my belt; I make it often and each time the recipe gets a little tweak. Carrot cake is a great culinary example of how cooking is a never ending quest to discover the best combinations of ingredients. Even when you're making a tried and true classic.
The last carrot cake I made didn't break all the rules, but it broke one cardinal rule of baking.
First a little history: by now I've cooked for plenty of people with dietary needs, whether they are vegetarian, allergic to sugar (yep!), garlic (yep!), or nuts and dairy, and most recently the gluten-free crowd. Recently, I found myself making a carrot cake under a different set of challenging circumstances.
A few weeks ago, I helped celebrate a very special birthday for someone who is vaguely vegan — we say vaguean — and confessed that she couldn't remember ever having a homemade birthday cake. When I learned this I knew I had to remedy it. She told me it didn't have to be vegan, but how about something mildly healthy, with just a hint of reason? Obviously the answer was carrot cake.
To satisfy the birthday girl's desire for both nutrition and decadence, I made the carrot cake with small adjustments. I cut that cream cheese frosting with some goat cheese, whose protein is easier to digest than cow's milk and gives the frosting a wonderful tang. I bumped up the usual carrot content and added orange zest to both the cake and the frosting to give it more brightness. I used a little less sugar than usual, but not by a lot. Instead of butter, I swapped in olive oil.
Obviously, making a vaguean carrot cake this wasn't the real challenge.
The real challenge was that I was away for the weekend in a house with no measuring cups or spoons; fine for grilling steaks or making a bowl of pasta, but not ideal for a baking project. The cardinal rule in baking is measure. A glimmer of hope came when I fond a stack of 9-ounce plastic party cups; not an exact cup but close. I also found a coffee scoop, which measures 2 tablespoons.
To my great relief, it turned out well. In fact, it was the perfect fall birthday cake and no one, not even the children, left any cake behind.
Later on when I was home with my measuring tools, I made it again and corrected any little hiccups. Surprisingly, I was pretty close. When you love a dish that much, you really can almost make it with your eyes closed. So yes, some rules are made to be broken, but you better go back and check to see if you pulled it off anyway.
Carrot Cake with Tangy Orange Frosting
For the cake:
2 1/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoons ground nutmeg
3/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup buttermilk
2/3 cup brown sugar, lightly packed
2/3 cup granulated sugar
3 large eggs
2 teaspoons orange zest
2 teaspoons pure vanilla
3 cups grated carrots
1 cup chopped walnuts
For the frosting:
6 ounces cream cheese
6 ounces goat cheese
2 teaspoons freshly grated orange zest
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
3 cups confectioners' sugar
Whole walnuts, to garnish
Preheat the oven to 375°F and place a rack in the center of the oven.
Grease two 8-inch cake pans and line both with a round of parchment paper.
In a medium mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon and nutmeg. Using an electric mixer on medium-low, combine the olive oil, buttermilk, sugars, eggs, orange zest and vanilla. Slowly add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients. With a spoon, fold in the grated carrots and walnuts.
Divide the batter equally between the two pans. Bake for 30-40 minutes, or until a cake tester inserted in the middle comes out clean. Remove the cakes from the oven and allow them to cool on a rack for 10 minutes, then carefully invert them out of the pans, peel off the parchment, and set them right side up to cool completely on the rack.
While the cakes are cooling, prepare the frosting. With an electric mixer on medium-low, combine the cream cheese, goat cheese, orange zest and vanilla. Slowly add the confectioners' sugar until the frosting reaches desired consistency.
To frost the cake, first spread a small dab of icing on the cake plate. Cut narrow strips of parchment or paper and place them in a grid on the cake plate, leaving the center open. They should be close enough together that the cake layer sits on top of the paper with no part of the diameter exposed directly to the plate. (See: How to Frost a Layer Cake)
Using a serrated bread knife, carefully carve off the domed top of one of the layers as evenly as possible. Center this first layer on the plate. Using an offset spatula, apply a "crumb coat": a thin layer of frosting meant to keep the crumbs down. (Refrigerate the layer at this point if the crumbs are coming up.)
Stir the frosting and place about 1/3 of it over the bottom cake layer. Spread the frosting with the spatula until even and smooth. Make sure that the frosting is thicker around the edges.
Place the second layer on top and apply a crumb coat. Refrigerate. Place about half of the remaining frosting around the sides of the cake, working the frosting around the edges. Spread the remaining frosting across the top of the cake, dipping the spatula in warm water and wiping it off between strokes to keep it warm and clean for a smoother finish.
Remove the strips one at a time, pulling it out in a straight line, parallel to the floor. Garnish the cake with walnuts, herbs, flowers and/or birthday candles.
(Images: Sara Kate Gillingham-Ryan)