Monday, December 5, 2011

United Layers of Carrot Cake . . .

I don't know about you, but carrot cake sure seems like a distinctly American dessert to me. Despite the fact that carrots have for centuries been used in just about every conceivable culinary form, I want to believe that the modern carrot layer cake, blanketed in cream cheese frosting, stands tall as an American invention. Having moved beyond trendiness decades ago, the lofty treat has become a classic fixture on menus from coast to coast. A really good carrot cake is not something to be disregarded. A really good carrot cake is, on the contrary, something to be revered.

Famed Cake Love bakery owner Warren Brown, in his fun (and whimsically designed) cookbook, United Cakes of America, offers up a carrot cake recipe that I found pretty intriguing. One of its unique aspects involves mixing the shredded carrots with sugar and then letting them sit for a while to drain. I don't recall ever before seeing a carrot cake recipe that suggested doing that, but I don't think I'll ever make a carrot cake again that doesn't require this step.

It allows some of the excess juice to drain off while the carrots take on the sugar's sweetness. On top of that, the recipe calls for a relatively small amount of carrots--only 3/4 of a cup, which I also liked. Often, it seems to me, cakes featuring one particular ingredient (carrots, beets, bananas, etc.) tend to go overboard in its use. Not so in this case.

Though I made several small adjustments to Brown's recipe, rewriting it in the process, I tried to keep with the spirit of his formula. One ingredient that undoubtedly makes his cake special, and that I unfortunately did not have on hand, was dried, chopped pineapple; I decided to substitute moist raisins instead, knowing that my husband likes them. Also, Brown calls for 1/4 cup of whole wheat flour; instead of regular whole wheat I opted to use white whole wheat flour, which is somewhat lighter and fluffier. Brown's version calls for the use of no spices at all. Though I found that omission interesting, I decided to add in a modicum of cinnamon, a dab of ground ginger, and a scant pinch of allspice. I also reduced the amount of chopped nuts in the batter from 1 cup to 3/4 cup.

This cake also differs from the norm in that it's not as super-moist and heavy as most typical carrot cakes seem to be. It's not oil-saturated, if you know what I mean. It uses a combo of melted butter along with a little oil, and it produces a carrot cake that, texturally, won't necessarily weigh you down the way some of them are bound to do. It has nice chewy bits of carrot and coconut. It's just really good. 

I also think it's a cake that tastes best after being frosted and spending at least a day in the fridge. Gives the flavors a nice chance to mingle before serving. (Oh, and before I forget . . . you won't need your mixer to make the cake batter, but you will need it for the frosting.)

Carrot Layer Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting

(For a printable version of this recipe, click here!)

Wet ingredients:
3/4 cup shredded carrots (I grated mine small, using a hand grater, and used well cleaned but unpeeled organic carrots.)
3/4 cup granulated sugar (Brown recommends superfine sugar, so use that if you want to.)
1 and 1/2 sticks (6 oz.) unsalted butter, melted
3 Tbsp. vegetable oil (I used canola oil.)
5 large eggs, lightly beaten

Dry ingredients:
1 cup granulated sugar (Again, Brown suggests superfine sugar; use that if you like.)
1/2 cup light brown sugar, lightly packed
2 cups all-purpose flour (I used unbleached.)
1/4 white whole wheat flour (Brown suggests regular whole wheat flour, but white whole wheat is lighter and has the same nutritional value.)
1 Tbsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt (I used 1 generous tsp. of kosher salt.)
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp. ground ginger
1 scant pinch allspice
1 cup coconut, dried, unsweetened, and finely shredded (This "dessicated" coconut can be found in health food stores; look there if you can't find it in the grocery store. If you can't find this, you can still use sweetened coconut, but chop it finely before adding it to the batter.)

3/4 cup walnuts or pecans, chopped small
1 cup raisins (Use moist raisins to start with, or soak your raisins in warm water for about 15 minutes then drain them thoroughly before adding to the batter.)

For the cream cheese frosting:

16 oz. of cream cheese at room temperature (Definitely use a thick, rich brand like Philadelphia.)
3/4 of a stick (3 oz.) of unsalted butter, softened
2 tsp. vanilla extract
4 cups (about 16 oz.) confectioners' sugar
1 very scant pinch of fine-grain salt (Add this if you like. I think it helps cut the sweetness.)


Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease two 9" round baking pans. Line them with circles of parchment paper, and then lightly grease the parchment.

Mix the carrots and 3/4 cup of sugar in a medium size bowl and dump them into a sieve or colander. Set it over the bowl and let this drain while you prepare the rest of the batter. You'll end up discarding the drained juice.

In a medium size bowl, whisk together the melted butter, oil, and lightly beaten eggs.

In a large bowl, stir together the granulated sugar, light brown sugar, all purpose flour, white whole wheat flour, baking powder, salt, spices, coconut, and chopped nuts.

In a small bowl, stir together the raisins and carrots.

Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients and pour in the wet ingredients (butter, oil, eggs). Stir well to combine. Toss in the raisin and carrot mixture, stirring just to blend evenly.

Divide the batter between the two prepared pans and smooth it out with an offset spatula or the back of a large spoon.

Bake for about 30 to 35 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the top comes out mostly clean. Don't overbake; the sides of the cake should just be starting to pull away from the sides of the pan. Cool the cakes in their pans, on a rack, to room almost temperature. Invert them onto racks and peel off the parchment paper. Let them finish cooling completely before assembling with frosting.

To make the frosting:

In the large bowl of your mixer, on medium speed, beat the cream cheese until smooth. Add in the butter and vanilla until well combined. Gradually add in the confectioners' sugar on low speed, stopping to scrape as needed. If the frosting is extremely soft, chill it a bit before frosting the cake. Frost the layers when they're cool and, if you like, pat more chopped nuts onto the sides of the cake all around (you'll need about another cup of chopped nuts for this). Keep the finished cake in the fridge until shortly before serving.

*(And if you'd like to see another carrot layer-cake recipe that I posted previously, for a very moist cake made with crushed pineapple in the batter, check out this link).

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