I Tried Cook’s Illustrated Rule-Breaking Carrot Cake (and Honestly, I Can’t Stop Eating It)
If you’re serious about cooking, you’ve probably heard of Cook’s Illustrated. It’s a brand connected to America’s Test Kitchen, known for publishing recipes that are well-tested, detailed, and meticulous. They not only teach you how to make their recipes, but also explain why they work. So when picking out recipes for our carrot cake recipe showdown, I knew I needed to include them.
Cook’s Illustrated’s cake is unlike any of the others I tested. It’s baked in a half sheet pan, cut into quarters, and stacked between layers of frosting made with buttermilk powder for extra-tangy flavor. The resulting cake is log-shaped, dramatic, and totally unexpected. But would it be any good? I tried it to find out.
Get the recipe: Cook’s Illustrated’s Carrot Layer Cake
How to Make Cook’s Illustrated’s Carrot Cake
Cook’s Illustrated’s carrot cake recipe is a bit unusual and is assembled more like a layered tea cake versus a standard carrot cake. You’ll start by greasing a 9×13-inch sheet pan and lining it with parchment paper. In a bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg, salt, and cloves. In a separate bowl whisk together light brown sugar, vegetable oil, eggs, and vanilla extract. Stir in shredded carrots and dried currants, then fold in the flour mixture. Transfer the batter to the prepared baking pan and bake until it’s firm to the touch. Invert onto a wire rack and let cool.
As the cake is cooling, make the frosting: In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat butter, confectioners’ sugar, buttermilk powder (not to be confused with liquid buttermilk), vanilla extract, and salt until smooth. Slowly add chilled cream cheese that’s cut into cubes and beat until smooth.
To assemble the cake, cut the cooled cake into four equal-sized rectangles. Place one of the cakes onto a piece of cardboard that’s roughly the same size and frost the top. Repeat with two more pieces of the cake, then place the last piece on top and frost the sides and top of the cake with the remaining frosting. Press chopped pecans into the side of the cake and chill for one hour.
My Honest Review of Cook’s Illustrated’s Carrot Cake Recipe
Although this cake was a bit of a project, it was totally worth the effort. The cake was light and fluffy, yet perfectly moist. The currants added a nice texture and pop of tart flavor, while the carrots were bold without being vegetal.
The recipe says that baking the cake in a half sheet pan not only means it cooks more quickly, but also that you don’t have to split or level any layers before frosting. I loved that about this recipe. Cutting the cake into four equal pieces was super easy and took way less time than I thought it would. The frosting was also delicious and tasted like a classic, straight-forward cream cheese frosting. (Which is always good!) I’m not sure the buttermilk powder made a huge difference, but it was delicious nonetheless.
The presentation of the cake was super unique and unlike any of the other recipes I tested. It made the cake feel a bit more fancy — as if it came straight from a bakery. The only thing I didn’t like about the recipe was the amount of pecans it used. In order to cover the sides of the cake, you need to use a lot of chopped pecans. While I generally like nuts in my carrot cake, I found that there was just too many. Eating a corner slice felt like like eating nuts with a tiny bit of cake. But overall it was a really good cake and I was pleased with the results.
If You’re Making Cook’s Illustrated’s Carrot Cake, a Few Tips
1. Feel free to skip the dried currants. I’m not the biggest fan of dried currants, so if I were to make this recipe again I would omit them or swap them out for raisins. (The latter is also much easier to find in grocery stores.)
2. Assemble the cake on a piece of cardboard. Cook’s Illustrated recommends building the cake on a rectangular piece of cardboard. This made it super easy to press the chopped walnuts into the sides and made assembly a breeze.
3. Omit the buttermilk powder if you can’t find it. I don’t think the buttermilk powder is a make-or-break ingredient, so feel free to omit it if you can’t find it. (You might just have to add additional powdered sugar to the frosting to make up for it.)
Have you ever made Cook’s Illustrated carrot cake recipe? Tell us what you thought!