Big Mary’s Carrot Cake

published Sep 1, 2022
Kitchn Love Letters
Big Mary's Carrot Cake Recipe

This moist, tender carrot cake gets its texture and flavor not from carrots, but from jars of carrot baby food. No carrot-grating required!

Serves12 to 15

Prep15 minutes

Cook45 minutes to 1 hour

Jump to Recipe
We independently select these products—if you buy from one of our links, we may earn a commission. All prices were accurate at the time of publishing.
Post Image
Credit: Kristina Vanni

For years my mother has been compiling recipes from various corners of her universe. There are tear-outs from newspapers and now-defunct magazines, decades-old spiral-bound cookbooks from PTA fundraisers at the local elementary school, and, my personal favorites, the handwritten recipes (in cursive!) on faded index cards from Big Mary. 

Big Mary was my Grandma Mary’s older cousin (hence the nickname). While my grandmother was not much of a baker and didn’t much like to cook, Big Mary by all accounts was the exact opposite. I never met her, but my mother tells me stories about how companies would try to buy her baking recipes and she — a private person — would have none of it. 

She did, however, share a few of her prized creations with her family, which is how a handwritten recipe for this carrot cake ended up on that faded index card in my mom’s hands and, eventually, my own.

What’s remarkable about this carrot cake is that it doesn’t require you to grate a single carrot. That pronounced carrot flavor is derived from jars of baby food. (Bonus: It also makes for an extra-moist cake.) It might sound funny now, but when I was growing up it never occurred to me that carrot cake would be made any other way. In our houses, it still isn’t.

And to this day, it’s the one we make for family celebrations or when my sister randomly requests it. (It’s her favorite cake and, according to her, “It tastes like fall.”) While the walnuts are optional, particularly for some nut-averse family members, I consider them a must have — both mixed in the cake batter and sprinkled atop the icing. They add a nice crunch to an otherwise homogeneous texture. 

I like to take the cream cheese out ahead of time, so it softens some by the time I get around to beating the icing. (Fun fact: My mother still does this by hand with a vintage potato masher.) Sometimes if I’m feeling extra generous I’ll increase the icing measurements by a third to get even more coverage of that tangy-yet-sweet frosting. But the recipe below is Big Mary’s original, which is what I’d want the world — outside of our own universe — to enjoy.

Credit: Kristina Vanni

Big Mary's Carrot Cake Recipe

This moist, tender carrot cake gets its texture and flavor not from carrots, but from jars of carrot baby food. No carrot-grating required!

Prep time 15 minutes

Cook time 45 minutes to 1 hour

Serves 12 to 15

Nutritional Info

Ingredients

For the carrot cake:

  • Cooking spray

  • 4

    large eggs

  • 2 cups

    granulated sugar

  • 1 1/2 cups

    neutral oil, such as vegetable or canola

  • 3 cups

    all-purpose flour, plus more for the pan

  • 2 tablespoons

    plus 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

  • 2 teaspoons

    baking soda

  • 1 1/2 teaspoons

    ground cinnamon

  • 1 1/2 teaspoons

    kosher salt

  • 16 ounces

    carrot baby food (about 1 3/4 cups)

  • 3/4 cup

    chopped walnuts (optional)

  • 1 teaspoon

    vanilla extract

For the icing:

  • 6 ounces

    cream cheese

  • 2 tablespoons

    whole milk

  • 1 teaspoon

    vanilla extract

  • 2 cups

    powdered sugar, plus more as needed

  • Chopped walnuts, for garnish (optional)

Instructions

Make the carrot cake:

  1. Arrange a rack in the middle of the oven and heat the oven to 350°F. Coat a 9x13-inch baking pan with cooking spray. Dust the pan with all-purpose flour, tapping out the excess.

  2. Place 4 large eggs in the bowl of a stand mixer (or large bowl if using an electric hand mixer). Beat with the paddle attachment on low speed until combined, about 30 seconds. Add 2 cups granulated sugar and beat on low speed until combined, about 1 minute. Add 1 1/2 cups neutral oil and beat on low speed until combined, about 1 minute.

  3. Place 3 cups all-purpose flour, 2 tablespoons plus 1 12 teaspoons baking powder, 2 teaspoons baking soda, 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon, and 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt in a medium bowl and whisk to combine.

  4. Add half of the flour mixture to the egg mixture and fold with a flexible spatula until just combined. Add 16 ounces carrot baby food and fold until just combined. Add the remaining flour mixture and fold until just combined. Add 3/4 cup chopped walnuts if using and 1 teaspoon vanilla extract and fold until just combined. Transfer to the baking pan and spread into an even layer.

  5. Bake until a tester inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean, 45 to 60 minutes.

  6. When the cake is ready, place the pan on a wire rack and let cool completely, about 2 hours. Meanwhile, place 6 ounces cream cheese in the clean, dry bowl of the stand mixer (or large bowl if using an electric hand mixer). Let sit at room temperature to soften.

Make the icing:

  1. Beat the cream cheese with the paddle attachment on medium speed until fluffy, about 3 minutes.

  2. Add 2 tablespoons whole milk and 1 teaspoon vanilla extract and beat until combined, about 30 seconds. Add 2 cups powdered sugar and beat until smooth and combined, about 1 minute. If the icing is thin, beat in more powdered sugar a tablespoon at a time as needed.

  3. Spread the icing onto the cooled cake in an even layer. Garnish with more chopped walnuts if desired.

Recipe Notes

Storage: Leftover cake can be covered and refrigerated for up to 4 days.