Making Ursula's birthday cake is always an exercise in balance. I learned my lesson big time last year when she asked for a rainbow cake and I decided to take the opportunity of her turning six, combined with the fact that the rainbow has six colors, to make her a six-layer chocolate cake frosted with a different color of the rainbow from the bottom up; red. . . orange . . . yellow. . . you get the idea. I almost didn't see life on the other side of that cake and swore I'd take it easier this year.
So when a few weeks ago she said, "Mom, all I want is a carrot cake. . ." I was thrilled. Simple, straightforward, a crowd pleaser. And then she added, "With raspberry frosting." The record scratched. "And also, not as sweet as last year, ok?"
The carrot cake and raspberry pairing was a hard one to swallow. I tried to think of a way around this one. At a certain point in my brainstorming I casually mentioned to her that I could make the frosting pink and decorate the cake with raspberries, and she said, "Yes, so it's raspberry frosting!" And with that, we agreed, quietly, to move forward.
I knew I had to make a large cake—she was having a pretty big party—and I knew from the details that continued to roll in that she didn't want raisins or nuts, but did want coconut, so I'd have to create a recipe just for this occasion. The sweetened coconut you often find in grocery stores has preservatives to extend its shelf life, so I prefer to use unsweetened coconut. To hydrate and sweeten it further, I splashed in a little whisky (don't worry, the alcohol bakes out). I used olive oil instead of the usual butter or canola oil, and almost started playing with whole wheat flour, but stopped myself.
As for taming the sweetness, as requested, on the frosting, I realized what this was about: in her short but birthday-cake-vibrant past, I usually bake these sort of fake-cake cakes; screwing with sugar ratios, sweetening things with maple syrup and such. Last year's rainbow tower cake threw that all to the side and I suspect she got overwhelmed. So this year, I went easy on the dye, just barely tinting her faux-raspberry frosting and settled on three layers for the finished cake. When we reviewed the party later, she said it was the best cake she'd ever had.
My job here is done.
Olive Oil and Whisky Carrot Cake
Serves 20-30, depending on slice size
2 3/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, sifted
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1 1/2 pounds carrots (8 to 10 medium), peeled and finely shredded on a box grater or with a food processor (about 3 cups)
2 1/2 cups finely chopped walnuts or pecans (1 1/4 cup finely chopped for batter, 1 1/4 cup coarsely chopped for decorating sides of cake), optional
1 1/4 cup shredded unsweetened coconut
1/3 cup whiskey
1 1/4 cup packed light brown sugar
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1 1/4 cup olive oil plus more for greasing the pans
5 large eggs, at room temperature, beaten
Position two oven racks: one on the lower third and one on the upper third of the oven. Pre-heat the oven to 350°F. Wipe three 10 x 2-inch cake pans with olive oil, line the bottoms with parchment, and oil the paper.
Whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, salt and nutmeg. Set aside.
In a separate bowl, stir together the carrots, 1 1/4 cup finely chopped nuts (if using), coconut and whiskey. Set aside.
Working with a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment set on low speed, or in a large bowl with a wooden spoon, stir the sugars and oil together until well-combined. The mixture will look like dark, wet sand. If you're working by hand switch to a large rubber spatula, and gently fold in one cup of the flour mixture, mixing only until the dry ingredients just barely disappear. Fold in about a third of the beaten eggs. Continue alternating the dry ingredients and the eggs until both are incorporated, taking care not to over-mix. Just as gently, stir in the carrot mixture, scraping down the sides.
Allow the batter to rest for 15 minutes.
Divide the batter evenly among the prepared baking pans and place the pans into the oven. Bake for 40 to 50 minutes, rotating the pans top to bottom and front to back after about 20 minutes. The cakes are done when the edges have pulled away from sides and a toothpick or paring knife tip poked into the center of the cake comes out clean. Cool on a rack for 5 minutes then turn the cakes out onto the rack, turn right side up, and let cool completely.
(At this point, the cakes can be wrapped airtight and kept at room temperature overnight or frozen for up to 2 months; thaw before frosting.)
Cream Cheese Frosting
In the bowl of an electric mixer set on medium speed, beat the cream cheese and lemon juice until creamy, about 2 minutes. Gradually add the butter, beating until completely incorporated.
Reduce the mixer speed to low. Gradually add the sugar, beating until incorporated. Add the food dye if using and beat slowly until uniform in color.
To assemble the cake:
Using a long serrated bread knife, carefully trim the rounded top off two of the cakes, leaving the cake with the most evenly round domed top whole. Place one trimmed cake, cut side up, on a serving platter. Using an offset spatula or a large spoon, spread 1 cup (should be about 1/4 of the total) frosting over the top of the cake, right up to the edges. Place the second trimmed cake, cut side down, on top of the frosted layer. Spread 1 cup frosting over the top of the second cake. Top with the remaining cake. Spread the remaining frosting over the top and sides. Gently press coarsely chopped pecans onto sides of cake. Refrigerate 1 hour before serving.
Covered tightly with plastic wrap, the cake will keep at room temperature for 2 to 3 days. It can also be frozen, uncovered, and then, when the cake and icing are firm, wrapped airtight and kept in the freezer for up to 2 months; defrost, still wrapped, in the refrigerator overnight.
(Images: Sara Kate Gillingham-Ryan)