Our Best Carrot Cake

February 27, 2020
Photo by Rocky Luten. Prop Stylist: Brooke Deonarine. Food Stylist: Anna Billingskog.
Author Notes

Some say our modern-day carrot cake spawned from the British “carrot pudding” (a boiled carrot stuffed with spices, nuts, and/or fruits), while others think it to be a mid-20th-century, ration-provoked recipe (supposedly, during a time when sugar was scarce, carrots were used as a sweetener instead).

Regardless of its history, carrot cake tastes little of carrots and mostly of its accompanying spices, nuts, and/or fruits. It can be as simple as a moist, spongy cake perfumed with warming spices, or as rabbit-y as a trail mix tenuously bound by cake batter. The recipe below offers up a more austere, elegant version—but if you demand the addition of nuts (whether walnuts or pecans), or raisins, or both, there are some suggestions below. Fine-grating with a microplane yields carrot shreds—even wisps!—that better meld with the batter, and make for a more ubiquitous carrot flavor, without the salad-y texture.

The addition of cream cheese frosting is a wholly contemporary, but delicious, addition to this cake. Two parts butter to one part cream cheese keeps the frosting ultra-fluffy, while the sneaky additions of vinegar and salt keeps it from being too sweet. Adding heavy cream thins the frosting to a spreadable consistency.

For a more in-depth look at how to level and frost a cake, go here. Leveling cake layers, while not totally necessary, does make for a more structurally-sound, sharp-looking layer cake. And for that extra attention and care, the baker gets rewarded with cake scraps snacks. —Coral Lee

  • Prep time 35 minutes
  • Cook time 1 hour 10 minutes
  • Makes 1 (9-inch) double-layered cake
  • Carrot cake layers:
  • 2 2/3 cups (319 grams) all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
  • 3/4 cup (160 grams) extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for greasing
  • 1 1/2 cups (320 grams) lightly packed light brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup (100 grams) sugar
  • 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
  • 4 large eggs, at room temperature
  • 4 medium carrots, unpeeled and finely shredded (about 211 grams shredded)
  • 1/2 cup toasted pecans or walnuts, finely chopped (optional)
  • 1/2 cup golden raisins (optional)
  • Cream cheese frosting:
  • 1/2 cup (4 ounces/113 grams) full-fat cream cheese, at room temperature
  • 2 sticks (8 ounces/226 grams) unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 4 cups (1 pound/454 grams) confectioners’ sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon white vinegar
  • 3 1/2 tablespoons heavy cream
In This Recipe
  1. Heat the oven to 350°F. Grease and line 2 (9-inch) cake pans with 2 rounds of parchment paper. Whisk together all the cake’s dry ingredients.
  2. Beat the oil, sugars, and vanilla in a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment on medium until it looks like wet sand. Reduce the speed to low, add in the eggs one at a time, then increase the speed to medium and beat until slightly thickened and lightened in color, about 3 minutes. Reduce the speed to low and add the flour mixture in 3 installments. Fold in the carrots—and nuts and raisins, if using—with a spatula.
  3. Divide the batter evenly between the prepared pans and bake until a cake tester or thin chopstick emerges clean, 45 to 50 minutes. Let the cakes cool completely in their pans.
  4. While waiting for the cakes to cool, make the cream cheese frosting: In a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, beat the cream cheese and butter on medium-high speed until ethereally fluffy, 5 to 7 minutes. Turn the mixer off, then carefully add the sugar. Cover the stand mixer with a large, dampened tea towel, and turn the mixer back on to low. After 2 minutes remove the towel, crank the speed back up to medium-high, and whip until again very, very fluffy. Reduce the speed to low and add salt, vinegar, and heavy cream. Use the frosting immediately, or store it in the fridge until you’re ready to decorate. (If you end up refrigerating the frosting, just re-whip for a few minutes in the stand mixer on low before using.)
  5. Using a long knife, level the cakes, if desired (and eat the scraps!). Place one cake layer upside down on a large plate or cake stand. Plop on 1 1/2 cups of frosting and spread evenly with an offset spatula or butter knife. Top with the other cake layer, right side up. Cover the entire cake with a thin, see-through layer of frosting (this is called a crumb coat). Chill the cake in the fridge for at least 30 minutes, or until the frosting has hardened. Frost the cake all over with the remaining frosting, and refrigerate for at least an hour before serving.

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Coral Lee is an Associate Editor at Food52. Before this, she cooked food solely for photos. Before that, she cooked food solely for customers. And before that, she shot lasers at frescoes in Herculaneum and taught yoga. When she's not writing about or making food, she's thinking about it. Her Heritage Radio Network show, "Meant to be Eaten," explores cross-cultural exchange as afforded by food. You can follow her on Instagram @meanttobeeaten.