How To Make a Classic Carrot Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting
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.
Key Steps for Carrot Cake
Pan prep is paramount! 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.
Add carrots to the wet and dry mixes. 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 Your Carrot Cake
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
Makes1 layer cake
Serves12 to 16
For the cake:
- 1 pound
large carrots (about 5), or 3 cups shredded carrots, divided
- 2 1/4 cups
- 1 1/4 cups
packed light brown sugar
- 1 cup
- 2 1/2 teaspoons
- 3/4 teaspoon
- 2 teaspoons
- 1/4 teaspoon
Pinch of ground nutmeg, or 4 to 5 scrapes from a whole nutmeg
- 1/2 teaspoon
- 1 teaspoon
vanilla extract or vanilla bean paste
- 1 1/2 cups
- 1/2 cup
- 1 cup
pecan or walnut pieces, toasted
For the frosting:
- 20 ounces
cream cheese (2 1/2 cups), cut into 1-inch cubes, at room temperature
- 1 1/2 cups
(3 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes, at room temperature
- 2 cups
- 1 tablespoon
(9-inch) cake pans
Food processor fitted with shredding disc or box grater
Small metal spatula
Cake tester or toothpicks
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. Arrange a rack in the middle of the oven and heat to 350°F. Spray 2 round 9-inch cake pans with cooking spray. Cut 2 rounds of parchment paper to fit snugly into the bottoms and place them in the pans; set aside.
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 to the wet ingredients. Add half of the shredded carrots and half of the nuts to the egg mixture and stir with a spatula to combine.
Add the remaining carrots and nuts to the dry ingredients. Add the remaining carrots and nuts to the flour mixture and stir to combine.
Add the egg mixture to the flour mixture. Add the egg mixture to the flour mixture and stir to combine, scraping the side and the bottom of the bowl with the spatula, until no streaks or lumps of flour remain.
Transfer the batter to the prepared pans. Divide the batter among the prepared pans. Gently smooth the tops with the back of an offset spatula or butter knife.
Bake and cool 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.
Remove the cakes from the pans. Run a small, sharp knife around the inside perimeter of each cake pan. Invert a wire rack over one of the pans. Slide one hand under the pan (using an oven mitt if necessary) and press the other hand on the rack. Pressing them together firmly with both hands, gently flip the pan and rack. Remove the pan. Repeat with the second cake and another wire rack. Gently remove the parchment paper from the cakes. Let cool completely, about 1 hour. Meanwhile, make the frosting.
Make the cream cheese frosting. Place the cream cheese in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with paddle attachment. (Alternatively, use an electric hand mixer and large bowl.) Beat on medium speed until light in texture, 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. Sift in the sugar and beat well to incorporate. Add the vanilla and beat until combined.
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 on 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 a 1/2-inch border.
Frost the top layer. Place the second cake layer directly on top of the first. Use an offset spatula or knife to spread about 1/3 of the remaining frosting on top and spread in a very thin layer to the edge.
Frost the sides. Spread 1/2 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 1/2 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.
Storage: The unfrosted cake can be wrapped in plastic wrap or aluminum foil and kept at room temperature for several days or frozen for up to 3 months. The frosted cake can be wrapped with plastic wrap and stored in the refrigerator for up to 5 days. Let come to room temperature before serving.