What Happens When Carrot Cake Actually Tastes Like Carrots?

September  1, 2015

Teach your taste buds to appreciate less sweet desserts, starting with a carrot cake that actually tastes like carrots. 

When my husband and I are invited to dinner parties we typically don't even ask what we can bring. We just show up with a cake or a pie and a big box of cookies. So far no one has ever been disappointed. 

Shop the Story

Well, except once.

I was testing recipes for my book Baking with Less Sugar and I decided to bring one of the tests to a summer cookout with some close (very close) friends. It was one of the last recipes for the book—a carrot cake made entirely without white sugar and sweetened with just apple juice and pineapple. I had already tested the recipe 3 times and felt like it was ready to be unveiled.

After the hamburgers and barbecue chicken were cleared away, I presented slices of no-sugar carrot cake with a flourish. My husband gamely took a few bites. My friends politely picked at it. The only person who actually seemed to enjoy it was the host, a native German who professed to not having a sweet tooth and who rarely ate desserts. To him, the lack of sugar in the cake was just right. He enthusiastically ate his portion, his wife's, and most of my husband's. It brought me back full circle to the original premise of the book: The more sugar you eat, the more you crave. If you consume less sugar, your taste buds acclimate themselves to enjoying pastries that are simply not as sweet. 

I had been eating pastries with less sugar for almost a year at this point (with all of the recipe testing for the book) and was thrilled with the recipe. To me, the sweetness was spot on. My German friend devoured the cake and declared it one of the best cakes he'd ever eaten. He tried to convince everyone else by explaining that "you can taste the pineapple and the walnuts and it actually tastes of carrots." My husband and those who were used to eating full-sugar pastries, however, were not won over. 

So back to testing. If I was going to make a cake that everyone was going to love, I would need to increase the sweetness to a more familiar level. A bit more pineapple, spices, and raisins amped up the sweetness just enough to make this cake ready to share. I added additional apple juice to the frosting to make it less tangy and more sweet. I redeemed myself by bringing a revamped version a few weeks later back to my friends—and this time, the wife refused to share her slice with her husband. A good sign!

Because there is no white sugar in the cake, you'll see that the cake itself doesn't color like a typical cake does in the oven. For the first several trials of this cake, I baked the layers too long because I kept waiting for the cake to turn a rich golden brown. Since it stays pale, use your fingers to poke at the center of the cake to test doneness. When it springs back when you press it in the middle, it's ready to come out. Sugar adds moisture to cakes, so I expected that this cake might end up a little dry. But the raisins and pineapple in the batter are dual purpose: They add sweetness and they make the cake moist and tender. 

People ask me if I have a favorite recipe in the book. I don't have one single favorite but this one is among the recipes I'm most happy with. As you reduce the amount of sugar in your baking, your palate adjusts and you discover more flavors. This is a carrot-pineapple cake with cream cheese frosting that actually tastes of carrots, pineapple, and cream cheese.

Try it yourself and I think you'll prefer this version to the full sugar version! 

Carrot Pineapple Cake with Cream Cheese Icing

Makes one double-layer 8-inch cake

For the cream cheese frosting:

One 335-gram (12-ounce) can frozen apple juice concentrate
225 grams (8 ounces) cream cheese, at room temperature
480 grams (2 cups) heavy cream
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon kosher salt

For the cake:

75 grams (3/4 cup) walnuts, coarsely chopped
120 grams (3/4 cup) raisins
120 grams (3/4 cup) sultanas (golden raisins)
One 335-gram (12-ounce) can frozen apple juice concentrate, thawed
One 225-gram (8-ounce) can pineapple chunks, in their own juices
4 large eggs
120 grams (1/2 cup) crème fraîche
120 grams (1/2 cup) whole milk
250 grams (1 1/4 cups) vegetable oil
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
315 grams (2 1/2 cups) all-purpose flour
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
130 grams (1 cup) tightly packed peeled and shredded carrots

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

Photos by Joseph De Leo, Eric Moran, and James Ransom

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Laura415
  • labingha
  • Julie Wolman
    Julie Wolman
  • Swee San Lim
    Swee San Lim
  • Megan van der Noord
    Megan van der Noord
I am a pastry chef/restaurateur in Boston passionate about all things sweet and savory. I co-own Flour Bakery+Cafe and co-own Myers+Chang, both in Boston. I love my work, I'm crazy about my husband, my staff keeps me going and is truly the most amazing group of people I've ever known, I am addicted to ice cream and fruit of all kinds. I used to run marathons but have scaled back a bit and am trying to be more well-rounded by attempting yoga. I read voraciously, I plan obsessively, I feel so very lucky to have found a life partner and a life passion both of which make me happy every day.


Laura415 September 24, 2018
I will try this as it is my partner's favorite cake. I'm thinking to sub out some of the apple juice with carrot juice. It's sweet too. That way I'll get a bit less sugar and a bit more carrot flavor. I know that sugar is what makes cakes moist so I won't go far enough that it turns into a frosted hockey puck. One could even reduce the carrot juice for more sweetness if desired. Let you all know how it turns out.
labingha February 16, 2016
I made this over the weekend and my frosting never set-up enough to frost the cake. I ended up drizzling it over the top. Has anyone else had this issue and overcome it?
ryan November 24, 2016
i had this problem did you mix with a spoon or a whisk
Julie W. September 20, 2015
I love all your less sugar recipes . Thank you so much !!!! I guess you could consider adding a variation at the end for all of us with more "European really less sugar" palates .
Swee S. September 3, 2015
I don't think we have frozen apple juice concentrate here, how about using just apple juice ?
Megan V. September 3, 2015
Can you post the original recipe that your German friend liked?
Julie W. September 20, 2015
I am interested too !
Thassia K. September 2, 2015
Or even beter, make it myself?
Thassia K. September 2, 2015
I'd love to try this recipe!! One problem though... in Holland we don't have any apple concentrate juice what could I use as a replacement?
jpriddy September 2, 2015
Sugar. That's all it is.
Laura415 September 24, 2018
Try reducing the apple juice on the stove on medium-low heat, until it is slightly syrupy. That should approximate the apple juice concentrate
Chooch416 September 2, 2015
one problem -- I don't care for raisins in my carrot cake; I usually make it with only walnuts. How will that affect its sweetness. As another poster mentioned, the apple juice concentrate and pineapple are sweet, but are they sufficiently sweet?
mmggrr September 1, 2015
My thoughts exactly Cecilia!!
Cecilia September 1, 2015
Well... To be fair, this cake does have sugar. Apple juice concentrate is almost entirely sugar, and in terms of added sweetness, the canned pineapple and juice still pack quite a punch. I'm sure the cake is delicious, of course. But this recipe makes me want to try making a cake that is truly only sweetened by carrots, while taking into account the physical properties that sugar adds to cake recipes. I foresee some experiments ahead...
jpriddy September 2, 2015
Exactly my thoughts reading the recipe. Twelve ounces of apple juice concentrate?! That is a lot of sweetening. With only a cup of carrots, the dried grapes and pineapple would have more impact on the flavor, it seems to me.
jpriddy September 2, 2015
Apple juice is frequently used to sweeten fruit drink in order to allow the label to state "100% juice with no added sugar", but 12 ounces of apple juice concentrate is about 700 calories, 680 of them from sugar. That is only slightly fewer calories than a cup of plain white sugar (785) and more than a cup of unpacked brown sugar (551). If you are worried about high fructose corn syrup, be aware that the sugar in apple juice is also fructose. We might feel better about the idea of using juice to sweeten our food, but it is still just sugar.