Carrot Layer Cake

I’ve never loved carrot cake, which is why this is my last recipe from the May / June issue of Cook’s Illustrated. Carrot Cake always seemed dense and unbalanced,  that the heavy carrot always meant a heavy and squat cake. Fortunately, today’s recipe is perfectly balanced with the just right amount of carrot. The cake uses a layering technique to support the weight of the moist carrot, it’s as if it defies gravity. Finally, a carrot cake truly worth of being loved. Plus it looks like a work of art. 4-stars.

Not quite level, but otherwise the best carrot cake I’ve ever eaten.

But the cake is not without its problems. The thin cake ripped as I took it out of the pan, and the parchment paper made thinner rounded corners that prevented me from orienting the pieces to even as I pleased.

Comments / Issues:

  1. I’m glad that all 4 layers cook together as a single large piece. It’s so much easier than trying to make 4 separate layers.
  2. There was a problem flipping the carrot cake. The cake ripped because it was thin (and therefore fragile) and I don’t have a cooling rack that is as large as my sheet pan. I was able to reassemble the broken parts and use them as the middle layers. It came out fine.
  3. The thick batter will not spread evenly, so you are guaranteed to have an uneven cake. Chris Kimball’s suggestion to just arrange the layers to even out the final cake would only work if you have a perfect rectangle. But the parchment paper means you’ll have thin, rounded corners. My cake only fit together one specific way; unevenly.
  4. I’d suggest chopping the pecans smaller than my pieces. It will make for a slightly more refined appearance.
  5. Chris Kimball warns against substitute liquid buttermilk for the buttermilk powder in the frosting. Obviously one is liquid and the other is powder.

Rating: 4-stars.
Cost: $11. ($5 of which was the pecans)
How much work? Medium.
How big of a mess?  Medium.
Start time 3:00 PM. Ready at 5:00 PM.

Chris Kimball’s original recipe is here.  My descriptions of how I prepare it today are given below:

Cake ingredients:
1-3/4 cups all-purpose flour (8-3/4 ounces)
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1-1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
3/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1-1/4 cups light brown sugar (8-3/4 ounces)
3/4 cup vegetable oil
3 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2-2/3 cups shredded carrots (4 carrots; about 10 ounces)
2/3 cups dried currants (about 3 ounces)

  1. Set a rack to the middle of your oven and preheat to 350-degrees. Grease an 18”x 13” rimmed baking sheet, line it with parchment paper, and then grease the parchment paper too.  Remove two sticks of unsalted butter from refrigerator so that it will have softened when you are ready to make the frosting.
  2. Shred four carrots on the large holes of a box grater or using the shedding disk and your food processor. Be sure to use the small round feeding tube (the small hole within your full-sized oval tube).
  3. In a medium bowl, add together flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg, salt, and cloves. Whisk together until combined.
  4. In another large bowl add sugar, oil, eggs, and vanilla. Use a whisk to combine until smooth. Gently stir in carrots and currants with a rubber spatula until evenly distributed. Finally, add in flour mixture and fold in with your rubber spatula, but only until it is just combined.
  5. Empty batter onto baking sheet. Use an offset spatula to smooth surface and ensure the batter is an even depth. Bake for about 15 minutes, rotating half-way through baking, until the center is firm when touched.
  6. Allow cake to cool for 5 minutes in pan set on a wire rack. Flip the cake onto a wire rack then immediately re-flip back onto a second wire rack. The cake should be resting with the parchment side down. Allow the cake to cool for another 30 minutes.

Frosting ingredients:
16 tablespoons unsalted butter (2 sticks)
3 cups confectioners’ sugar (12 ounces)
1/3 cup buttermilk powder
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon salt
12 ounces cream cheese (1-1/2 packages)
2 cups pecans (8 ounces)

  1. While the cake is cooking, toast your pecans and chop them coarsely. Cut your cream cheese into 12 equal-size pieces, but keep it refrigerated until you are ready to use in step 3.
  2. Add the butter, sugar, buttermilk powder, vanilla extract and salt to the bowl of a standing mixer. Mix using the paddle attachment on low-speed for 2 minutes; scrape down the bowl as necessary.
  3. Increase mixer speed to medium-low, then add cream cheese one piece at a time. Mix for 2 minutes until the frosting is smooth.

To Finish:

  1. Put cooled cake on a cutting board and cut into equal halves cross-wise. Cut length-wise so that you have 4 equal pieces, measuring about 6″x8″ each.
  2. Cut out a 6″x8″ rectangle out of stiff cardboard. Put the first of the cake piece on the cardboard. Use a spatula to spread 2/3-cup of frosting over layer. Repeat with two more layers.
  3. Place the final cake layer on top. Remove any crumbs from your spatula and frost the top with a 1-cup of frosting.
  4. Frost the sides of the cake with your remaining frosting. You just need enough frosting to hold the chopped pecans, not completely hide all the crumbs.
  5. Holding the cake with one hand, use your other hand to gently press the chopped pecans onto the side of your cake. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour before serving.

    The interior layers were not perfectly uniform; but they’re hidden.

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10 Responses to Carrot Layer Cake

  1. Sarah McConnell says:

    Mark,

    It looks beautiful! You should be proud of yourself! The only carrot cake recipe of theirs that I have tried is this one:http://dailyhomemade.wordpress.com/tag/low-fat-carrot-cake/ and it was wonderful. It *is* a lower fat recipe, but it’s yummy and simple to make, so what’s the down side?

    Thanks for sharing another great blog entry!

    Sarah.

  2. tina says:

    It looks great! I searched specifically for the review of this version since there are several carrot cakes by CI. I was debating between a cupcake or this version since the ingredients and amounts are slightly different.

  3. Nicole says:

    I made this back when the issue came out for a co-worker during a “by special request” cooking week. This was the first time I had cooked a carrot cake, and have to say it got rave reviews. Things I did a little differently: Like you suggest here, I chopped the pecans more, and you’re right, it does come out looking more refined. I gave the smaller nuts a short roast in the oven and watched carefully because the smaller chop toasts faster. I don’t recall how long it was, only that it was of less time than the recipe called for. Preparing the pecans this way is definitely a “do again.” I was wary of crunchy carrots, just not convinced shredding would do it, and also I only buy baby carrots and I like to use what I have in regular stock instead of buying things that aren’t on the usual shopping list. I wasn’t about to shred roughly 2 cups worth of baby carrots — it just wasn’t happening. lol So, I boiled 2 cups of baby carrots, which was an idea I got from a different recipe online that called for babyfood carrots. To settle between the two recipes I didn’t puree the carrots fully and left them lumpy to let the hero still show through. Perfect. Now 4 months after the first cake back in June, my co-worker has requested the cake again, only this time for his birthday, which lands on Thanksgiving this year. Now, that’s a compliment to this cake! You’re right, if one has to choose between this recipe and *any* other, this is the one to use! I have never had carrot cake that ever tasted as good as this, and never had I seen one look as elegant. Great post!

    • Hi Nicole,

      Thanks. As I was reading your comment I almost thought you were going to shred nearly 3 cups of baby carrots! lol. Personally, I didn’t even have the patience to shred 4 large carrots, so used my food processor. After all, it never fails that when I shred a large amount of anything I slip up and grate a finger. But I agree about trying to cook with what’s already in my kitchen. I have a small kitchen and a small refrigerator, so have no other choice.

      Mark

  4. rainey says:

    Thanks so much for transcribing this.

    I recorded that show and was just about to transcribe it and then bake it up when I discovered that someone had deleted my recording. =o I panicked and then did a search to see if someone had baked or reviewed it. Thank god you had!

    I got rid of the rounded corners by slicing off about 1/4″ from each narrow end. I left the cake on the parchment and sliced both the cake and paper into 4 sections. The parchment supported the layers when I was handling them and, frankly I found the bottoms easier to frost than the tops so I planted them face down and peeled the paper away when they were in place. The tops may have softened up and pulled against the icing because I froze the layers during the week until I was ready to assemble over the weekend.

    I am thinking of trying to incorporate pineapple juice into the icing as we miss it in the cake batter.

    Here’s mine: http://www.flickr.com/photos/75667634@N00/8525742674/

  5. Anonymous says:

    best carrot cake I’ve ever had. been searching for a good recipe, my seach is over!

  6. RK says:

    This is the 4th or 5th recipe I’ve tried from ATK and it is terrific. I would rate it a tad harder than “medium.” I always follow their instructions precisely, as they experiment some 40 times to get it right. Why take a chance? Anyway, comments on what others have said: 1) I bought fresh carrots because the ones in the fridge were bland (I took the time to grate them, no biggie), 2) yes, cut a 1/4″ off the short sides, which seem to taper, 3) use a ruler when cutting the cake into quarters, as they must be all the same size–even a 1/2″ off causes trouble, 4) I under-mixed the cream cheese a bit (1 minute) so the 2 mins sounds better. The frosting takes patience; invest in a large offset spatula. This, along with the roast chicken and vegetables is a do-again, for sure.

    • Hi RK, You are right, it may be a little more work than medium. What I tried to convey is that it is less work than you would have thought, given the finished cake.

      I’m glad your carrot cake turned out great!

      Mark

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