Ultimate Carrot Cake

Photos by  Zachary Cross

Photos by Zachary Cross

Carrot cakes have been around a long time, possibly originating from Medieval carrot pudding. Carrots would have been used in place of other sweeteners. I grew up thinking of carrot cake as healthy, despite having added sugars, and not a lot of carrots, really. About 20 years ago I came across a carrot cake recipe that would change at least the quantity of carrots in the typical cake.


I’m not going to call this healthy, but it does have a lot of carrots: two pounds for a two-layer cake! Most carrot cakes have much less than that, as little as a half pound. Although it is a dense cake, it is not heavy or overly moist. The secret is in sugaring the carrots. If you have ever salted zucchini or other wet veggies, and let them drain to reduce excess water, you’ve done pretty much the same thing.


The recipe comes from Cooks Illustrated’s January/February 1998 issue. My mother-in-law (hi Nan!) had a subscription and I would read her old copies. This recipe is by two sisters and is accompanied by a fun article about their recipe development. They made a lot of cakes! Unfortunately I do not have all the article, just a fax of the page with the recipe. I checked on Cooks Illustrated’s website and, although they have that issue listed with recipes, this one is not included.


Be warned: this recipe is not difficult, but it is not a quick one. This is a birthday cake only in our house, partly because of the time involved, also because it’s so good I’d eat way too much if I made it any more often!


I recommend using a food processor to grate the carrots, even if your shredder blade is not a fine one. I’ve made it many times grating the carrots by hand, and it was a labor of love. Do take the time to brown the butter. I’ve found on a low heat, and in a non-stick pan, I do not have to watch it too carefully. I do make ghee pretty regularly, so I have had a lot of practice browning butter (plus making this recipe over the years).


The recipe states to “Serve the cake the same day you make it.” Although it’s quite tasty this way, most, if not all, of my family members prefer it cold.


The frosting recipe has led me to always add sour cream to any cream-cheese-based frosting. The tang is just right. This recipe makes a very generous amount of frosting, as you may have guessed, based on the pound of cream cheese. It works well with the two layer cake, but if you want to bake it in a single, rectangular pan (I made some shaped cakes for birthdays - rockets and Legos, at least, and in a plain rectangle this year for Zachary's birthday) cut the recipe in half.


For the past couple of years I’ve been making this cake with cassava flour. If you’re unfamiliar with cassava, it’s basically the unrefined version of tapioca flour. It’s gluten-free and grain-free. It’s pretty much a 1:1 substitute for all-purpose white flour. It *can* get a little dense so I’ve used ⅓ cup less in this recipe (about 15% less is what Otto’s Naturals recommends). However, like other cakes that are a lot of veggie and a little batter (such as Green Tomato Cake), they are forgiving of mistakes. For instance, this weekend I made this recipe for Millie’s birthday and forgot the baking powder. I thought I had added too much flour; it was pretty dense! I did add the baking soda, so it wasn’t a brick, and no one else seemed to notice (or probably they assumed it was the cassava flour - that did not make a difference).


One thing I have not done with this recipe is use honey or maple syrup as sweetener. Carrots can be “sugared” with liquid sweeteners; it’s done in this recipe. If you try it I’d love to hear about it! At this time I’m not up to the challenge of resisting eating multiple batches of carrot cake in succession.


Ultimate Carrot Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting

By Marie Piraino and Jamie Morris, from Cooks Illustrated, January/February 1998


Carrot Cake


2 ⅔ cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting

4 teaspoons baking powder

½ teaspoon baking soda

2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon salt

2 pounds carrots, grated fine (7 cups)

1 cup plus ⅔ cup granulated sugar

½ pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter

1 cup light brown sugar

5 eggs

1 ½ teaspoons vanilla extract


  1. Adjust oven rack to center position and heat oven to 350. Generously grease and flour bottom and sides of two 9-inch-by-1 ½ inch or 9-inch-by-2-inch round cake pans.

  2. Whisk flour through salt in large bowl; set aside. Toss grated carrots with 1 cup granulated sugar in colander set over large bowl; drain until one cup liquid has collected, 20 to 30 minutes.

  3. Meanwhile, melt butter in large skillet over medium-low heat, stirring frequently; cook until golden brown, 8 to 10 minutes. Transfer to large bowl; cool for 10 minutes, then whisk in remaining granulated sugar and brown sugar. Add eggs one at a time, whisking thoroughly before adding the next; add vanilla. Add flour mixture, stirring until almost combined, then add carrots.

  4. Divide batter evenly between pans; smooth surfaces with rubber spatula. Bake until cake feels firm in center when pressed lightly and toothpick inserted into cake center comes out perfectly clean, 40 to 50 minutes. Transfer pans to wire racks; cool for 10 minutes. Run knife around the perimeter of each pan, invert cake onto racks. Reinvert onto additional racks; cool completely before frosting.


Tangy Cream Cheese Frosting


1 pound cream cheese, softened

10 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened

2 ½ cups confectioners’ sugar

2 ½ tablespoons sour cream


Beat cream cheese and butter in medium bowl with hand-held mixer on low speed until homogenous, 3 to 4 minutes. Add confectioners’ sugar and sour cream; beat until well blended, 1 to 2 minutes longer.


Printable recipe here

Photo by Zachary Cross, graciously taken in the middle of his birthday party. 

Photo by Zachary Cross, graciously taken in the middle of his birthday party.