Why It Works
- Time-consuming prep can be done several days in advance to speed assembly.
- Brown butter has the same richness as oil, but with a toasty flavor that complements earthy carrots.
- Whole wheat flour helps the cake bake up fluffy and light, despite its high moisture content.
Of all the cakes I make, none are requested as often as carrot cakes. 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 events 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.
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.
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 party, so the cake can be baked and assembled with minimal fuss.
Due to the density of the ingredients involved, my carrot cake uses 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, then whip it on a stand mixer until the mixture is thick and pale. On a KitchenAid 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.
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 they're incorporated, shut off the mixer to gently fold in the shredded carrots and toasted pecans by hand.
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).
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, BraveTart: Iconic American Desserts, is a full-fledged buttercream, giving it the sort of stability and structure required for a celebratory 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.
Since I'm almost always making carrot cake for a festive event, I finish it with an extra-festive 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.
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.
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.)
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.
It's a unique 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.
How to Make Cream Cheese Buttercream
Reprinted from BraveTart: Iconic American Desserts with permission from W. W. Norton.
For the Cake:
14 ounces pecan pieces (3 1/2 cups; 395g)
2 pounds whole, unpeeled carrots (from one 2-pound bag; 910g)
16 ounces unsalted butter (4 sticks; 450g)
14 ounces white sugar (2 cups; 395g)
8 ounces light brown sugar (1 cup, gently packed; 225g)
4 teaspoons ground cinnamon
4 teaspoons ground ginger
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 3/4 teaspoons (7g) Diamond Crystal kosher salt; for table salt, use about half as much by volume or the same weight
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon grated nutmeg
3/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 ounce vanilla extract (1 tablespoon; 15g)
6 large eggs, straight from the fridge
11 ounces all-purpose flour, such as Gold Medal (2 1/2 cups spooned; 310g)
5 ounces whole wheat flour, not stone-ground (1 cup; 140g)
Getting Ready: To better synchronize the downtime in both recipes, prepare the cream cheese buttercream before the cake. Adjust oven rack to the middle position and preheat to 350°F (180°C). Toast the pecans on a baking sheet until golden brown, about 10 minutes, and cool completely. Meanwhile, peel, trim, and shred the carrots, then measure out 24 ounces (6 cups, firmly packed). This can be refrigerated up to 1 week in a zip-top bag.
In a 2-quart stainless steel saucier, completely melt the butter over medium-low heat. Increase to medium and simmer, stirring with a heat-resistant spatula while the butter hisses and pops. Continue cooking and stirring, scraping up any brown bits that form along the pan, until the butter is golden-yellow and perfectly silent. Pour into a heat-safe measuring cup, along with all the toasty brown bits, and proceed as directed, or cover and refrigerate up to 1 week; melt before using.
For the Cake: Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position and preheat to 350°F (180°C). Lightly grease three 8-inch anodized aluminum cake pans and line with parchment (explanation and tutorial here). If you don’t have 3 pans, it’s okay to bake the cakes in stages; the batter will keep at room temperature until needed.
Combine white sugar, brown sugar, cinnamon, ginger, baking powder, salt, baking soda, nutmeg, cloves, vanilla, and eggs in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Mix on low to moisten, then increase to medium and whip until thick and fluffy, about 8 minutes. Meanwhile, whisk together all-purpose and whole wheat flours. Drizzle in the brown butter in a steady stream, then reduce speed to low and add the flours. Once smooth, fold in shredded carrots and pecans with a flexible spatula.
Divide batter between the prepared cake pans, about 33 ounces each. If you don't have 3 pans, the remaining batter can be held at room temperature up to 3 hours (see notes). Bake until cakes are golden, about 45 minutes. A toothpick inserted into the center will have a few crumbs still attached, and your fingertip will leave a slight indentation in the puffy crust.
Cool cakes directly in their pans for 1 hour, then run a butter knife around the edges to loosen. Invert onto a wire rack, peel off the parchment, and return cakes right side up (covered in plastic, the cakes can be left at room temperature for a few hours). Prepare the buttercream.
For the Crumb Coat: Level cakes with a serrated knife (full directions here) and set the scraps aside for snacking. Place one layer on a heavy cast iron turntable. If you like, a waxed cardboard cake round can first be placed underneath, secured to the turntable with a scrap of damp paper towel. Top with exactly 1 cup buttercream, using an offset spatula to spread it evenly from edge to edge. Repeat with the second and third layers, then cover the sides of the cake with another cup of buttercream, spreading it as smoothly as you can (tutorial here). Refrigerate cake until the buttercream hardens, about 30 minutes.
Re-whip remaining buttercream to restore its creamy consistency, then use to decorate the chilled cake as desired; finish with twisted carrot roses (optional). Let the cake return to cool room temperature before serving. Under a cake dome or an inverted pot, the frosted cake and carrot roses will keep 24 hours at cool room temperature. After cutting, wrap leftover slices individually and store at cool room temperature up to 2 days more.
When allowed to cool below 80°F (27°C), the brown butter may thicken the batter. While strange to see, this will not change how the batter is handled or baked. Brown butter hotter than 110°F (43°C) will, conversely, thin the batter, yet produce an otherwise identical cake.
Make-Ahead and Storage
Under a cake dome or an inverted pot, the frosted cake and carrot roses will keep 24 hours at cool room temperature. After cutting, wrap leftover slices individually and store at cool room temperature up to two days more.
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 59g||76%|
|Saturated Fat 21g||104%|
|Total Carbohydrate 132g||48%|
|Dietary Fiber 6g||22%|
|Total Sugars 101g|
|Vitamin C 2mg||12%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|