April 20, 2017
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The Nonnegotiables of Good Carrot Cake
robicelli’s carrot cake – yossy arefi-4056

Cream cheese frosting is crucial, nuts are fine, and raisins don’t belong anywhere within a two-mile radius.

Cold, hard fact: I make the best carrot cake in the entire universe. Even if you don’t like carrot cake, you will like my carrot cake. That is not innuendo, but it can be if you’d like that. We don’t have to tell my husband. My carrot cake is flavorful and moist. It does not care if you have a problem with the word “moist,” because it is a fierce, confident cake that will make no apologies for who it is. It’s here! It’s moist! Get used to it!

The more you think about carrot cake, the less it makes sense. Like the name implies, it contains carrots, yet is not “carrot-y”—their subtle flavor is overpowered by the high caramel of brown sugar, the warm embrace of cinnamon and nutmeg and clove. It is impossibly tender, but not so much that it falls apart into a million errant crumbs. It is the least enticing cake in the bakery case, but in a Grand Royale Taste Test Cake-Off, carrot cake wins. It will always win. At least, mine will. I’m sure of it.

Carrot cakes come in all shapes and sizes, adorned with all sorts of nuts, candied carrot ribbons, and little carrots made out of colored icing, but there are a few things that carrot cake must always have:

Carrots, of course, even though they’re second banana to everything else in this show. (Speaking of bananas, you can replace the carrots in this recipe with same amount of smushed bananas for banana cake. That cake will overwhelmingly taste like bananas, while no carrot cake has ever tasted like carrots.) In fact, I cannot think of another dessert that relies on carrots for a dang thing. Are the carrots here only for a healthy shot of vitamin A? That sounds good. Let’s go with that.

Cream cheese frosting, unless you want everyone to hate you. No one is coming for carrot cake with plain vanilla frosting, or whatever “playful twist” you’ve decided to disappoint your friends with. This cake, even one as spectacular as mine, is always at heart merely a vessel for frosting. It is uncouth to scoop frosting out of a bowl and lick it off your fingers. Pair it with cake? All good. Pair it with carrot cake? Why, that sounds like a very adult and responsible sort of cake! Go forth and eat two cups!

Spices, because they balance the cream cheese frosting and make it better than it could ever be on its own. If cream cheese frosting is John Hall, then toasty spices are Daryl Oates.

Things that a carrot cake can sometimes have:

Nuts, specifically toasted pecans or walnuts. They add textural contrast, which is very nice with a cake this melt-in-your-mouth tender, and a bit of savoriness that helps the spices balance all that sweetness. I am very pro-nuts. Once again, that is also not meant to be innuendo, but it can be if you’d like. This is a very naughty cake.

Things that a carrot cake can never, ever have:

Pineapple, because this is not a pineapple cake. That is a totally different cake. This probably happened because of some Dole recipe contest back in the days when it seemed exotic, like a tropical vacation in a can. We, the people, have accepted you, pineapple. You don’t need to be stealing carrots’ thunder, because they’ve got image problems of their own. Besides, you have piña coladas now, so you’re all good.

Coconut, same goes for you. Stay in your lane.

Raisins, because they are the fucking WORST. I don’t care if you like them or if you think I’m some sort of elitist food snob: You are wrong and you need to know that. Nuts add good textural contrast. Raisins make people think, “My goodness, is that a sugary booger in my mouth?” Raisins make you think you’re getting chocolate chips, but instead you get that crap that the worst people in the neighborhood hand out at Halloween. If I want raisins in my carrot cake, I’ll ask for “carrot raisin cake.” They don’t just get to show up in desserts, acting like they belong there when they have no business stepping outside of the world of trail mix. Uninvited raisins are like a Pauly Shore cameo in Schindler’s List.

This cake has, literally, sugar and spice and everything nice, and now, when you make it for your friends, they’ll go off to lands far and wide and sing the praises of your carrot cake. The enormity of this carrot cake is too much for me to carry alone, and so I share its light with you. From this day forward, it shall be ours, together.

Ingredients

  • For the Cake
  • 2 cups packed freshly shredded carrots
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 cup light brown sugar
  • ¾ teaspoons salt
  • 1⅓ cups canola oil
  • 4 eggs, beaten
  • 2¼ cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • ¾ teaspoons cinnamon
  • ½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
  • ½ teaspoon ground ginger
  • ¼ teaspoon ground cloves
  • For the Frosting
  • 2 8-ounce bars cream cheese
  • 3 tablespoons flour
  • 3 tablespoons corn starch
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 cup half and half
  • pinch salt
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • ½ cup powdered sugar
  • 2 cups chopped, roasted pecans or walnuts (optional)

Carrot cake may never have been the flashiest dessert, but as countless dessert trends have come and gone, it still stands tall: an indisputable classic. Its perfection is in its simplicity, proving that not every dessert needs a gimmick to shine. The cream cheese frosting here eschews the norm of copious amounts of butter and powdered sugar, instead mounting cream cheese into a mix of sugar and half and half that’s been thickened to a paste with flour and cornstarch. This results in a frosting that’s not too sweet, allowing the tangy richness of cream cheese to really shine.

  1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. In a mixer, combine carrots, sugar, brown sugar, and salt, and beat on medium speed until the mixture resembles coarse, wet sand—about 3 minutes. Briefly stir together the oil and beaten eggs; then, with the mixer running, slowly stream into the carrot mix. Continue beating for one minute until smooth.
  2. Sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and spices. Dump all at once into the carrot batter, and then mix on low until just combined.
  3. Grease two 8" cake pans and line the bottom with parchment. Divide the batter equally between them and bake in the center of the oven, rotating once, until a skewer inserted in the middle comes out clean—about 40 minutes. Move to cooling racks and allow to cool completely before frosting.
  4. In a medium saucepan, whisk together the flour, cornstarch, and sugar to combine, then slowly pour in the half and half until well mixed. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until it becomes a very thick, gelatinous consistency. Pour into the bowl of a stand mixer, or a large bowl if using a hand mixer. Whip on high until completely cool—about 10 minutes.
  5. Beat the cream cheese in one block at a time; add salt and vanilla. Turn heat to high and beat frosting until light and airy. If the frosting seems too loose, add powdered sugar a bit at a time, beating continually, until desired consistency is reached.
  6. To assemble, trim the tops of the cake layers until even. Place one layer, cut side up, on a plate, and spread 1 cup of frosting over it. Top with the second layer, cut side down. Frost cake and garnish with roasted nuts, if desired.

Allison Robicelli

Allison Robicelli is a D-list celebrity-chef chef, author, humorist, entrepreneur, general polymath, and all-around good time. You may remember her from such places as Food52, Eater, Food Network, VH1, and many other quirky corners of the food Internet. She is the author of the critically acclaimed cookbook/memoir Robicelli's: A Love Story, With Cupcakes, which has been called one of the funniest food-related books of all time. You should buy it.

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