I have found my perfect carrot cake.
Let me explain. Ever since I can remember, I’ve adored carrot cake. If someone were cruel enough to make me choose my favorite kind of cake, carrot cake would come out on top. The combination of cinnamon, carrot, and a rich moist crumb just does something to me. It’s homey, old-fashioned, a little retro, smelling of cool weekend afternoons in a warm kitchen with Mom and a mixing bowl. And, of course, there’s the frosting–cream cheese, always cream cheese, sweet and white and just gooey enough to be fun. A good carrot cake can get my juices going like almost nothing else.
But. As with so many other things I love, I’ve found myself getting picky over the years. There are a lot of mediocre carrot cakes out there. I don’t want a cake that tastes like a muffin, with big floppy crumbs and intermittent airy pockets. I don’t want health food carrot cake, heavy and dense and aggressive with the carrots. I don’t want raisins, or walnuts, or canned pineapple, or coconut flakes (coconut flakes? really?). And I definitely don’t want any of your “it’s just a delivery system for frosting” nonsense. If I wanted frosting, I’d eat frosting.
So what do I want? I want this cake, the one I made for my birthday last week. It’s fluffy and plush and almost melts away on the tongue. At the same time, it’s sturdy and spongy enough to stand up to the tip of a knife or the side of a fork. It’s beautifully fragrant, with cinnamon and orange and just the quietest, shyest whisper of olive oil. It’s that magic medium, sweet-but-not-too-sweet, with just enough brown sugar to make it unmistakably a dessert. It’s unbelievably moist, the kind of dewy moisture that only comes from brown sugar and olive oil working in tandem. And it’s first and foremost a carrot cake, with tiny orange strands threaded delicately through the brown batter.
Oh, and that frosting. That frosting. It’s a cream cheese frosting, all right–not even a slip of butter to fatten up the proceedings. Just cream cheese and powdered sugar, whipped until light and lush. I added a drizzle of dark maple syrup, too, for a boost of resiny sweetness. This is my favorite frosting I’ve ever made: just the right kind of sweet, thicker and tangier than its butter-based cousins, but no less creamy and wonderful when it’s clinging to a mass of cake.
Carrot Cake (makes one 8- or 9-inch round layer cake, or one 9 x 13 sheet cake)
Adapted from The Kitchn
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup whole wheat flour
2 tsp ground cinnamon
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
3/4 cup olive oil (not extra virgin)
3/4 cup packed brown sugar
4 large eggs, at room temperature
4 cups finely grated carrots (just shy of 2 lb)
1 tbsp finely grated orange zest (about half an orange’s worth)
Maple cream cheese frosting (recipe below)
Special equipment: two 8- or 9-inch round cake pans OR a 9 x 13 baking pan
Preheat the oven to 350º F. Grease two round cake pans or a 9 x 13 baking pan.
In a medium mixing bowl, whisk together all-purpose flour, whole wheat flour, cinnamon, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Set aside.
In a large mixing bowl, whisk together oil and sugar until smooth. Beat in about 1/3 of the dry ingredients. When the flour is nearly incorporated, beat in 2 eggs, one at a time. Beat in another 1/3 of the dry ingredients, followed by the last 2 eggs, one at a time, and ending with the last of the dry ingredients. When the last addition is mostly incorporated–a few streaks of flour are fine–use a flexible spatula to fold in the carrots and orange zest. The batter is done when the carrots are evenly distributed and the last of the flour disappears.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan(s) and gently shake to even it out. Tap the pan(s) firmly against the counter a few times to dislodge any air bubbles. Bake for 35-45 minutes–shorter for a layer cake, longer for a sheet cake–or until the cake is puffed in the middle and browned at the edges, and a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean
Remove the cake from the oven and let cool completely in the pan before frosting. The unfrosted cake can sit, uncovered, at room temperature for about 3 days; you can also remove it from the pan(s), wrap it tightly in a double layer of plastic wrap, and freeze it for up to 3 months (make sure to thaw before assembling).
If you made round layers, turn them out of the pans and level them with a serrated knife before assembling and frosting your cake (great video tutorial here). For a sheet cake, just slather the frosting on top and serve it straight from the pan. The frosted cake can be refrigerated for up to 2 hours before serving; let it stand at room temp for about 20 minutes before slicing.
Maple Cream Cheese Frosting (makes about 3 cups)
Adapted from CHOW
16 oz cream cheese, at cool room temperature
3/4 cup powdered (confectioners’) sugar
1/4 cup pure maple syrup, or to taste
Combine all ingredients in a medium mixing bowl. Beat with an electric mixer on low speed until the sugar is incorporated, then boost the speed to medium-high and continue beating for another 3-4 minutes, or until the frosting is light and fluffy. Use immediately, or transfer to an airtight container and refrigerate for up to a week.