My relationship to carrot cake evolved in many stages.
The first stage, which lasted until around age 12, was one of total antagonism. To my mind, carrot cake barely qualified as dessert—it was just a poorly disguised effort to foist more vegetables on children.
In Stage II (my early teens), I discovered carrot cake as a vehicle for cream cheese frosting. Forget forks—my method of consumption involved sweeping an index finger around the cake’s perimeter, then excavating the sweet mortar between its layers. (The layers themselves went mostly ignored.)
Stage III marks a more holistic approach. In this stage, I finally accepted carrot cake as a middling member of the dessert kingdom. I respected the few proficient carrot cakes that crossed my path (mad props, Cafe Bernardo), but I didn't seek them out.
In Stage IV (the final stage?), I am born again. While I still demand a healthy ratio of frosting to cake, my love for a well-executed carrot cake now knows no bounds. Well-executed is the operative term here, because, despite my best efforts (and I promise, with no lingering emotional baggage to cloud my judgment), I still find it remarkably difficult to purchase a good carrot cake.
Now that I think of it, perhaps that’s been the source of my ambivalence (and the ambivalence of so many other carrot cake waverers) all along. It’s not that I ever (after age 12) disliked carrot cake in the abstract. It’s just that I so rarely met a version that I could truly support. Cream cheese frosting, for the most part, will always be good. But inconsistency in a carrot cake can have disastrous results, rendering the cake dry, or stringy, or worse. Go ahead and call me a fair weather fan, but I speak the truth.
That’s why it seems so important to have a competent carrot cake in one’s repertoire. And I’m pleased to report that this cake is exactly that.
I share credit for this cake with my friend, a self-declared carrot cake lover and first-time cake baker. It was she who volunteered the idea, and her enthusiasm that encouraged us to persevere sans electronic mixer. (“There must have been a way people did this before the standing mixer was invented,” I reassured myself.)
Two hours and two tiers later, this was the result: a delicious, deftly spiced carrot cake with just enough crunch. If my 12-year-old self had met this carrot cake, I’m sure even she could be convinced.
Carrot Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting
Adapted from Epicurious
The original recipe called for a three-tiered cake; we made a full batch for two 9-inch pans, discarding the leftover batter. I'm not ashamed to say that, without scaling down the recipe, we consumed almost all of the frosting—the cake still could have used more between the layers. (The heat was partially to blame, as the frosting seemed to melt a bit.) In case you’d like to improvise, I’ve recommended a few substitutions below.
For the cake:
2 cups sugar [I used a little less]
1½ cups vegetable oil
4 large eggs, at room temperature
2 cups all purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1½ teaspoons ground cinnamon
3/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
3/4 teaspoon ginger
3½ cups finely grated peeled carrots
1/2 cup chopped toasted pecans or walnuts, plus more for garnish
1/2 cup raisins
For the frosting:
2-3 cups powdered sugar, or to taste
2 8-ounce packages cream cheese, at room temperature
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, at room temperature
2-3 teaspoons vanilla extract
1½ teaspoons lemon juice
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Lightly grease three 9-inch cake pans. Line bottom of pans with waxed paper. Lightly grease waxed paper.
Using electric mixer, beat sugar and vegetable oil in bowl until combined. Add eggs 1 at a time, beating well after each addition. Sift flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon and nutmeg into sugar and oil mixture. Stir in carrots, chopped pecans and raisins.
Pour batter into prepared pans, dividing equally. Bake until toothpick inserted into center comes out clean and cakes begin to pull away from sides of pans, about 45 minutes. Cool in pans on racks 15 minutes. Turn out cakes onto racks and cool completely. [Can be made 1 day ahead. Wrap tightly in plastic and store at room temperature.]
For the frosting: Using an electric mixer, beat all ingredients in medium bowl until smooth and creamy.
Place 1 cake layer on platter. Spread with 3/4 cup frosting. Top with another cake layer. Spread with 3/4 cup frosting. Top with remaining cake layer. Using icing spatula, spread remaining frosting in decorative swirls over sides and top of cake. Garnish as desired. Serve cake cold or at room temperature.
• Toast the nuts.
• Decrease oil to 1 cup and add 1/2 cup of applesauce or one 8-ounce can of crushed pineapple.
• Add 2 tablespoons minced peeled ginger to the batter. (Omit the ground ginger.)
• Add the juice and zest of one lime to the frosting. (Omit the lemon juice.)