Today, I have cake for you. Not just any cake – carrot cake with cream cheese frosting. I know, it’s been all cake and sorbet and more cake around here lately, but we are entering picnic and barbecue season, and doesn’t carrot cake just makes you want to take a picnic blanket to the park along with lemonade and potato salad and slaw, and just sit under a tree for hours with friends, feasting and lounging away. My favorite weekend days is when your biggest accomplishment for the day is eating. There is nothing, and I mean, nothing wrong with that.
Saturday was that lovely kind of a day: my biggest accomplishment consisted of cooking some supper that involved a roast chicken, some guacamole and some pasta with tomato sauce and sausage – I know, lots of random things, but food had to be rescued and cooked. I also found excellent use for these plates – sliced kiwi looks amazing on them. When you start the day around noon, have brunch at 2pm and then for the rest of the day you resolve – no plans, no obligations – it is, I will tell you, an amazing day. Weekends like these are my favorite.
But this post isn’t so much about lazy weekends, as it’s about carrot cake. A carrot cake for my friend Bill’s birthday. The very same Bill of the mascarpone cake fame, except this time, I’m not a year behind in writing about it.
For Bill’s cake, I looked through every baking book I had (surprisingly few feature carrot cake, actually) until I came across a recipe that made me do a double-take. The recipe was called “Big Bill’s Carrot Cake” – it was as if cake fates have led me straight to it. Now, Bill isn’t particularly big per se, but the title sounded so commanding and the recipe was so perfect, that I decided then and there that this was going to be the cake. Besides, with the recipe coming from the one and only Dorie Greenspan – how could you go wrong?
If you’re like me and believe in the universe speaking to you via baked goods (because when you’re looking for a cake for your friend Bill and you find a recipe with his name in the title – is that not the universe sending you a sign?), then you will put to rest all the other recipes. Dorie knows her cakes, and after you read through any book by her, you feel like she’s your fairy godmother of baking. You know her. You trust her. You’ve had conversations with her while you baked from her books. She has never steered you in the wrong direction. She has never, ever, let you down. Her recipes are detailed, exact, certain, full of the kind of instructions you want to have in so many other books. Few baking personas are as universally adored and revered as Dorie – perhaps because she makes us all feel competent, even if a recipe looks intimidating. She whispers softly to us, “You can do it.”
Well, friends – meet my new favorite cake. It even outpaces the peanut-butter chocolate one I’ve been so enamoured of. This is a cake that’s got it all – spice, nuts, raisins, a tangy cream-cheese frosting. It’s not too sweet, the frosting doesn’t overpower. It’s a perfect picnic cake, after-dinner cake, Mad Men themed birthday cake. It is, despite that long list of ingredients and preparation instructions, is manageable and unfussy. And it’s a cake that is going to be made a few times over in my kitchen this summer season – and I hope in yours as well.
Adapted from Baking: From My Home to Yours by Dorie Greenspan
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp baking powder
2 tsp baking soda
2 tsp ground cinnamon
3/4 tsp salt
3 cups grated carrots (about 9 carrots; easily grated in a food processor with a shredding blade; you can also grate the carrots by hand)
1 cup coarsely chopped walnuts or pecans
1 cup shredded coconut (sweetened or unsweetened)
1/2 cup moist, plump raisins (dark golden) or dried cranberries
2 cups sugar
1 cup canola or safflower oil
4 large eggs
8 oz cream cheese, at room temperature
1 stick (8 tbsp) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 lb (3 3/4 cups) confectioners’ sugar, sifted
1 tbsp fresh lemon juice or 1/2 tsp pure lemon extract
1/2 cup shredded coconut (optional)
Prepare the cake:
Finely chopped toasted nuts and/or toasted shredded coconut, for topping (optional)
Position the racks in the oven in thirds and preheat the oven to 325F degrees. Butter 3 9×2-inch round cake pans, flour them on the inside, making sure to tap out the excess. Place two pans on one baking pan, and one on another.
In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon and salt. In another large bowl, stir together carrots, chopped nuts, coconut and raisins.
In a stand mixer bowl, fitted with a paddle attachment, or with a hand mixer in a large bowl, beat oil and sugar together until smooth, on medium speed, about 6 minutes or so.
Add eggs one at at time continuing to beat on medium speed until the batter becomes even smoother. Once eggs are added, reduce mixer speed to low and add your dry ingredients mixture, mixing only to incorporate the dry ingredients. Once they disappear, gently mix in the chunky ingredients. Do not overmix. Divide the batter evenly among the pans.
Bake the cake layers for about 40 to 50 minutes (my oven did it in 40 because it runs infernally hot). Rotate the pans from top to bottom and front to back at the midway baking point. Bake until a cake tester, inserted into the center of the cake, comes out clean and the cakes have just started to pull away from the sides of the pan.
Transfer the cakes to cooling racks for about 5 minutes, then run a knife around the perimeter of the cakes to un-mold them. Invert and cool to room temperature right side up. (You can also wrap the cakes airtight and freeze them overnight or freeze for up to 2 months. I recommend you freezing them even for a bit to get a crumb coat on, especially, if you are going to frost the entire cake.)
Prepare the Frosting:
Working with a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment (or with a hand mixer with a large bowl), beat the cream cheese and butter together until smooth and creamy. Slowly, gradually, add in sugar and continue to beat until the frosting is velvety smooth. Beat in the lemon juice or extract.
If you prefer coconut in your frosting, separate frosting in half and mix the shredded coconut in with one half.
Putting the Cake Together:
Put one layer top side up on cardboard cake round or a cake plate. Protect either by lining trips off wax or parchment paper. If you added the coconut to the frosting, use half of the coconut, use half the coconut frosting part to cover generously the first layer (or if you have opted to skip coconut, cover the first layer generously with plain frosting since that’s all you will have).
Top with the second layer, this time placing the cake top side doe, and frost with the remained of the coconut frosting (or plain frosting). You might want to shave the top of the second layer a bit to flatten it (this is the side that will wind up on the bottom facing the first layer) and it’s much easier to do with a frozen layer, using a serrated knife.
Top with the last layer, right side up, and frost the top and the sides (if you like) of the cake. Finish the top with swirls of frosting. If you want to top the cake with toasted nuts of coconut, sprinkle them on now, while frosting is room temperature and is soft.
Refrigerate cake for about 30 minutes, just to set the frosting, before serving.