I was charged w/ making dessert for Easter dinner and figured that a carrot cake would be fitting. As much as I like carrot cake, I've never actually made it before so spent a little time doing some internet research, including archived posts on CH.
As you can imagine, there are all kinds of variations floating about...with walnuts, pecans, crushed pineapple, shredded coconut, orange zest and a unique combination of spicing. Furthermore, recipes called for anywhere from 2-4 cups of grated carrot and 1.5-3 cups of sugar (some using brown sugar). Icing was also another "layer" of complication as recipes seemed to really vary on amounts of cream cheese and sugar. Some even called for butter and other flavorings like citrus zest and maple syrup.
I began looking for the classic carrot cake and didn't quite find it in any one recipe. I figured that Cook's Illustrated would have a very solid, classic one, but their website is a pain and I don't want the free recipes w/ registration because they have aggressive spamming. So what's a CH cook to do? Make up my own, of course!
Classic to me means no pineapple or coconut or raisins (ew!), but I gotta have walnuts. No pecans, just walnuts. The cake should be moist but not too moist (or wet) and should have a semi-dense crumb that slices cleanly and doesn't break up into shaggy chunks. There should be a fresh, carrot flavor, and the walnuts should lend a little texture (not too much) and nutty depth. Spicing should enhance but not overpower the carrots. Icing should have that nice cream cheese tang but be sweet and luscious (as icing should be!). While lemon zest in frosting isn't what I consider to be classic, I had to include it anyway. And there must be a good amount of icing to generously slather between layers and all over the cake...none of that minimalist BS or leaving the sides naked.
So here's my version of the ideal carrot cake w/ some specific brands I used in parentheses:
1.5 c. superfine (or caster) sugar (C&H)
1 c. neutral oil (Trader Joe's canola)
1 tsp. bourbon vanilla
2 c. unbleached AP flour (King Arthur)
1 tsp. baking soda
1.5 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
1 tsp. cinnamon (Penzeys Vietnamese)
1 tsp. ground ginger
3 c. finely grated carrot
1 c. walnuts, toasted, chopped in food processor or by hand (I like mine on the finer side for this recipe)
1/2 c. unsalted butter (Plugra), room temp.
12 oz. cream cheese (Philadelphia on sale at Safeway right now!), room temp.
about 4 c. sifted powdered sugar (C&H)
zest of 1-2 lemons (optional)
Preheat oven to 350F. In bowl or stand mixer, whisk eggs til a little frothy. Stream in superfine sugar until well incorporated. Gradually stream in oil, pausing to make sure it emulsifies w/ the base a little at a time. Mix in vanilla. In separate bowl, combine flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, cinnamon and ginger. Stir w/ a whisk to combine evenly and get out lumps. Add dry ingredients to wet in increments and stop mixing just when batter comes together. Stir in carrots and walnuts by hand and distribute evenly.
Pour batter into two 9-inch cake rounds, one deep 9-inch round (that's what I used), or one 9X13 pan. Prepare pan(s) by spraying/greasing and lining w/ parchment. The one deep 9-inch round took about 60 min. to bake. I rested a sheet of foil loosely on top for about the last 10 min. to prevent it from getting too brown. Cool for about 10-15 min. in pan and then remove from pan to finish cooling on rack.
Photo of batter in deep pan:
Photo of batter up close (see those purty carrots?):
Photo of cake cooling:
Beat butter w/ mixer. Add in cream cheese and beat til incorporated and creamy. Slowly mix in sifted powdered sugar til you reach desired sweetness. Mix in lemon zest, if using.
Slice cake in half w/ serrated knife to make two layers, if necessary. Frost and decorate as you wish. I decorated w/ some additional chopped walnuts pressed around the side.
Photo of one layer so you can see crumb:
Photo of frosted cake before I added chopped walnuts to sides:
Sorry, no photo of finished sliced cake.
This was a darn good carrot cake, if I do say so myself! The cake itself was perfect for me, fitting all my criteria outlined above. I don't think I'd change a thing about the cake and will continue to bake in one large pan and slice into two layers. It baked very evenly, and I swear that superfine sugar delivers miracles! The icing was pretty close to perfect too, but I'm wondering if I had too much butter to cream cheese. Next time, I plan to reduce the butter to maybe 1/4 c. and see how I like it. I had about 1/2 c. of frosting left over, so this could help w/ portioning. The kids and adults alike approved after our Easter meal, and I'm thinking the Easter bunny would approve too...
PS. I think these would make the best little cupcakes! Most cupcakes are disappointing IMO, but these would live up to their look.