Costco’s carrot cake is my favorite cake to bring to classroom or office parties. It’s affordable and delicious. And your friends smile as they swoop a finger through the frosting before stuffing it in their mouth. What is it about cream cheese frosting? Peace treaties could be built on the stuff.
So, when two of my friends told me that carrot cake is their favorite birthday cake, I decided that it was time to figure out a great recipe. I researched carrot cake and even though George C. Page created the first carrot cake recipe to get rid of his military surplus of dehydrated carrots from World War II. I think that he was onto something brilliant; a moist spice cake filled with shredded carrots and topped with cream cheese frosting. I flipped through various cookbooks and searched my favorite food blogs and collected carrot cake recipes. One night standing in line at New Season’s, the cover of Cook’s Illustrated caught my eye and I read about their square carrot cake and knew that was where I wanted to start.
I decided to bake up three different cakes and have the birthday boy and girl help me tweak a special recipe for each of them. I baked up the Cook's Illustrated Square Carrot cake, the Bon Appetite carrot cake that Molly Wizenberg posted on her blog Orangette, and tropical carrot cupcakes filled with rum soaked gold raisins, macadamia nuts, and crystallized ginger topped with coconut cream cheese frosting. Then I sliced up the cakes, texted my friends and dropped by their houses to have them sample the cakes and give me their feedback. Five stops later, we had come to a consensus and the two carrot cake lovers agreed to the same cake concept.
The night before the birthday party, I baked the three layer Bon Appetite Carrot Cake and topped it with Fine Cooking’s cream cheese frosting and pressed toasted pecans into the sides. The warm evening softened the frosting to the consistency of toothpaste and I was afraid that the pecans were going to slide down the sides of the cake into a puddle so I quickly closed the sides of the cake box and slid it into the fridge. I was relieved that it firmed up nicely. And then I let it rest in the fridge overnight to help bring all the flavors together.
After the grilled barbecue birthday dinner, we sat out on the patio enjoying the beautiful evening and smiled and laughed over our slices of carrot cake. And one of my friends said, “Laura, this cake is perfect.” And I thought, we did a great job picking out this cake!
P.S. I'm sorry that I forgot to take pictures of the cakes.
Carrot Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting and Toasted Pecans
Adapted from Bon Appétit, Orangette, and Fine Cooking
For the cake:
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
2 (slightly heaping) tsp. baking powder
2 (slightly heaping) tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
½ tsp. freshly grated nutmeg—make sure to use the freshly ground!
¾ tsp. ground ginger
1 ½ cups sugar
1 cup vegetable oil
4 large eggs
½ cup unsweetened applesauce mixed with several spoonful’s of apple butter*
3 cups finely grated peeled carrots
2 cups pecans, coarsely chopped and toasted in a 350-degree oven for 10 minutes.
Position racks in the top and bottom third of the oven, and preheat to 325°F. Lightly grease 3 (9-inch) round pans with butter or cooking spray. Line the bottom of the pans with parchment paper, and then grease the paper too.
In a medium bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger. Whisk well to blend.
In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat the sugar and oil until combined. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well to incorporate after each addition. Add the applesauce, beating to mix. Add the flour mixture, and beat to incorporate, scraping down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula if needed. Add the carrots and beat briefly.
Divide the batter evenly between the prepared pans. (It will look pretty skimpy, but don’t worry; the cakes will rise nicely in the oven.) Slide the pans into the oven – I put one on the top rack and two on the bottom and rotated them once or twice during baking – and bake until the cakes begin to pull away from the sides of the pan and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Bake for 30 minutes or a little less. Check on them at 25 minutes. Cool the cakes in their pans on a wire rack for 15 minutes; then turn them out onto the rack to cool completely.
When the cakes are cool, make the frosting.
Cream Cheese Frosting
by Fine Cooking
1-1/4 lb. cream cheese, at room temperature
2-1/2 sticks (1-1/4 cups) unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 tsp. vanilla extract
1 (2-lb.) bag confectioners’ sugar (about 7-1/4 cups)
To make the frosting
Beat the cream cheese, butter, and vanilla together in the bowl of a stand mixer (or in a large bowl if using a hand mixer) on low speed to combine. Increase the speed to medium-high and beat until aerated and light, about 2 minutes. Stop the mixer and add a few cups of the confectioners’ sugar, incorporating it into the cream cheese mixture on low speed until combined. Repeat with the remaining sugar, adding it to the mixer in two additions. Once all of the sugar is added, increase the speed to medium-high and beat until fluffy, about 1 minute.
To assemble the cake, place one layer on a platter or cake stand. Spread it with ¾ cup frosting. Optional—swipe a layer of apricot jam on top. Carefully place another layer atop it. Spread with ¾ cup frosting. Top with the third cake layer, and then spread the remaining frosting over the top and down the sides. Press the toasted pecans into the side of the cake. Refrigerate overnight. Serve at room temperature.
Note: You can make the cake layers one day before assembling the whole cake. Wrap them tightly in plastic wrap, and store them at room temperature. The assembled cake can be prepared up to 2 days before serving. Store it in the fridge, covered with a cake dome, and allow it to come to room temperature before serving.
Yield: 10-12 servings
*Apple butter is my secret ingredient in this cake. I find that it adds a caramel note to the cake. But omit if you don’t have it.