How to Make a Show-Stopping Carrot Cake

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[Photographs and video: Vicky Wasik]

Of all the cakes I make, none are requested as often as carrot. Mom prefers white cake, and my brother is partial to yellow, but when I factor in the habits of my friends and extended family, as well as all the requests for special occasion cakes that I had to field in my restaurant days, carrot has always been number one.

Maybe it's all the cozy autumnal spices and crunchy pecans, or perhaps the tangy layer of cream cheese buttercream—whatever the reason, carrot cake always seems to be a welcome guest at birthday parties and special occasions of all kinds. For that reason, I make mine in three stately layers to ensure that it's grand enough for any celebration and that there's always enough to go around.

Unlike many other recipes, mine makes use of brown butter instead of oil, a simple swap that layers in some toasty toffee flavors while keeping the cake as moist and rich as those made with oil. To play off the nutty flavors of brown butter and toasted pecans, I also cut the all-purpose flour with a bit of whole wheat.

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It adds a comforting, graham cracker-like vibe that pairs nicely with spices and carrots alike. Even better, the bran in whole wheat flour gives it a high capacity for moisture absorption that keeps the cake fluffy and tender despite the high volume of carrots—like most vegetables, carrots are mostly water, which is why so many carrot cakes can seem dense and wet. It has such a nice effect that I used to make carrot cake with 100% whole wheat flour, but over time I started scaling back so its hearty flavor wouldn't overpower the earthy sweetness of the carrots.

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Speaking of which, the volume of shredded carrots will vary considerably depending on the grater style and the degree to which those shreds will compact in a measuring cup, so this recipe benefits from the precision of a kitchen scale even more so than typical cakes. Shredding carrots is a bit of a pain, but it's a chore that can be done up to a week in advance; just transfer the shredded carrots to an airtight container and refrigerate until needed. It's a great way to break up the recipe into bite-size chunks that can be knocked out in the days leading up to a special occasion, so the cake can be baked and assembled with minimal fuss.

Due to the density of the ingredients involved, carrot cake benefits from a foundation of whipped eggs and sugar to help lighten things up. I start by combining the sugar (both brown and white), spices, eggs, and vanilla in a mixing bowl, and then whip it on a stand mixer until the mixture is thick and pale. On a Kitchen-Aid Pro, my stand mixer of choice, this takes about eight minutes, but it's more important to pay attention to the visual cues. Just check out the before and after pics that make up the first two images of this collage—when the foamed eggs are ready, they'll be thick, foamy, and pale.

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Keep mixing as you drizzle in the warm brown butter (including all the brown bits at the bottom), then add the all-purpose and whole wheat flours all at once. Once incorporated, shut off the mixer to gently fold in the shredded carrots and toasted pecans by hand.

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The batter will seem super chunky, more carrots and pecans than cake, but that'll all change in the oven. At this stage, what's important is to make sure the batter is well mixed from the bottom up before it's portioned out into layers (more info on my cake pan recommendations here). After baking, the cakes will be golden brown and firm to the touch (though your fingers will leave a light impression in the puffy crust).

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As with my other cakes, I prefer to cool carrot cake in the pan, then level with a serrated knife for neatly stacked layers that can then be filled and frosted with cream cheese buttercream.

Unlike the quick and easy cream cheese frosting I developed as a low-effort topping for my single-layer blackberry cake, the cream cheese frosting in my cookbook is a full-fledged buttercream, giving it the sort of stability and structure required for a special occasion layer cake (namely, the ability to hold fine detail for piping decorative borders and a firmer set to aid in transportation). Due to its butter content, this style of cream cheese frosting behaves much like a Swiss buttercream, and can be used the same way for crumb coating and decoration.

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Since I'm almost always making carrot cake for a special occasion, I finish it with an extra special touch: carrot roses. Not the sort made from marzipan or frosting, but actual carrots. Plain supermarket carrots will do just fine, but the roses will be all the more colorful if the carrots are, too.

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The process is super simple. Peel the carrots to remove the rough outer skin, then use firm pressure with the vegetable peeler to carve out as many thick strips of carrot as you can manage.

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I lightly poach the carrot strips in simple syrup to make them pliable and glossy, then drain them and twist them round and round to make a sort of abstract rose. (As a bonus, the leftover simple syrup takes on nothing more than a mild earthiness from the carrots, so it can be saved for use in cocktails and such.)

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While they may not look like much individually, when the carrot roses join forces on the top of a cake, they become much more than the sum of their parts.

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It's a special touch for a celebratory cake, but certainly not a requirement. With loads of brown butter, pecans, and spices, plus an ample dose of cream cheese buttercream, this carrot cake will make any occasion special—with or without a bouquet of roses.

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