Carrot Layer Cake
You have probably seen on that Pinterest thing, or on that Instagram thing, or maybe even on a website, blog, or Buzzfeed thing, recipes that are made in a cup or mug. These are things that you can make with just a few ingredients and usually using nothing more than your microwave. They range from brownies, to cakes, to eggs, to muffins. It seems like if you can make it in pan or a pot then someone has figured how to make it in a cup. I run across these things often and when I do I am always tempted to make them. If you look at some of the pictures people take of their mug creations you can't help wanting to try it. They always look so tasty.
Several years back, just when the whole "make it in a mug" thing was coming out, a friend and I attempted to make a cake in a mug. All that was needed was a boxed cake mix, some soda water, and a microwave. As it happened we were able to secure those ingredients pretty easily so we grabbed a couple of mugs and headed for the breakroom (yes, we were at work at the time). In just a few minutes we were eating a cake like substance. Now, if you're in desperate need of a piece of cake in the middle of the day and you're unable to get to a bakery, a Starbucks or even a drugstore to purchase a package of Hostess cupcakes, then these cakes will probably help satisfy those cravings, but overall I was not impressed. Don't get me wrong: I had a great time making a cake in a mug, (and goofing off at work), but overall I was disappointed in the end result. Since then, I have seen more and more of these recipes pop up and while it seems like they have been tweaked to get better results, I just can't bring myself to make one again. Perhaps it's because I don't have a microwave? Maybe, but I am sure I could come up with a few other reasons as well.
Cake is one of those things I can get pretty particular about. I will eat almost any piece of cake that is put in front of me. But if it's dry, I'll complain. If the icing to cake ratio isn't right I'll complain. If the icing is too sweet for the cake, I'll complain. It should be said in all of those situations I would seriously think twice about having a third piece, but ultimately I probably would. But that’s where I draw the line… usually. Another thing I am particular about is if the cake is served with ice cream. The separation of the cake and ice cream is crucial to me unless it's one of those frozen ice cream cakes. If you put a scoop of ice cream on the same plate as the cake... not only will I complain but I'll also ask for a different piece of cake. I don't even like gathering the dishes if there is a pool of melted ice cream and soggy cake crumbs on them. I am sure there are many folks that disagree with me and would say that ice cream on the cake is awesomely wonderful and all I can say to you is… nope: you are all wrong. After all, cake is just bread in the long run, and soggy bread is a terrible, terrible thing. Now I have to admit that this rule does not apply to brownies, but not just any brownie. It has to be a perfect brownie, one that doesn't soak up any liquid. Other than that, do me favor, serve the ice cream in a separate bowl and we'll get along fine.
For the most part I do pretty well baking cakes. I do best however, when I'm not rushed and when I have everything in order (don't we all?). There have been times when I would get home from work and decide to bake a cake to take to the office the next day for someone's birthday. Trying to start a cake late at night and have it ready to go first thing in the morning is never a good idea, I just get too rushed and things start to suffer. I remember a time I was baking a cake, I think it was for my mother’s birthday, and I was a bit rushed. It was a triple layer yellow cake with a basic buttercream icing. I started a bit late in the evening but got the cakes baked and allowed them to cool for a while. I quickly made the icing and started putting it together. I placed the first layer on the plate and put about a cup of icing on top and spread it to the edges. Everything was going great up to that point. I picked up the second layer and as I held it in my hands it started to crack. It was also one of those cakes where the top was a little sticky and as I held it I could tell I wouldn't be able to remove my hand when I put it down without doing a modicum of damage. Despite the stickiness problem I knew I needed to get it down quickly or the whole thing was going to crumble. I did get it on to the first layer but it was definitely cracked in half by the time I set it down. No worries, right? The icing will cover that, right? So on goes another layer of icing.
As I am spreading icing towards the edges I start to realize that the cakes might still be just a touch warm and the second layer is starting to wiggle a bit, especially as it's broken. I quickly get the third layer and place it on top of the other two. However, now icing is starting to flow out from between the first and second layers and the second layer is actually starting to slide even worse than before. And since layer two is broken in half, the cake is sliding in two different directions. I am gripping the cake trying to hold it together, trying to keep it upright, trying to plaster icing on the sides of the cake but as I get one side in line the other side starts to slide off. The crack in the second layer is so big at this point that the top layer starts to break as well, since the support below it is giving way. My hands are doing everything they can to mitigate the oncoming disaster, but it is clearly a hopeless cause. So it's late, I'm tired. I've spent a fair amount of time getting this cake together and I am watching an epic fail in progress and this just infuriates me. So with one hand I pick up the cake plate (balancing as best I could the sliding, broken pieces of cake and oozing icing) and with the other hand, in one swooping motion I open the cabinet under the sink, pull out the garbage pail, tipping the cake plate and dumping everything right into the trash, David, watching this whole disaster unfold from the dining room table was speechless. Failures like these make me very, very upset. It just kills me when I spend a good amount of time on something that I hope will look and taste good and then it fails... oh well, I'll have to talk to a therapist about that someday.
Carrot cake is one of those things that is a hit or miss (taste wise) for me. It’s easy to decide: It’s a hit if there are no raisins and it’s a miss if there are raisins. Simple as that. Having a good carrot cake recipe in your playbook means… your friends will always be asking you to make carrot cake! Honestly though you won’t mind, you’ll want to make it over and over again. Plus, carrot cake is good for just about any occasion, and it’s good for absolutely no reason at all.
Over the years I have made a few carrot cakes, each one topped with the slightly tangy cream cheese frosting that has been the standard probably since time began (or slightly after give or take a few eons) and I don’t think I have ever had a complaint. In the past I have always made them in two round cake pans just like any other layer cake, but then I ran across this recipe from America’s Test Kitchen and decided to give it a try. I liked the look of it, the fact that it’s square instead of round and the fact that they figured out how to make a four layer carrot cake, which if you have ever tried to make one out of two round cakes you’ll know it’s pretty much impossible without making a mess reminiscent of the triple layer yellow cake I mentioned above.
So let’s see how well I can do recreating the carrot cake from Americas Test Kitchen. The original recipe is included in their cookbook and you can get that here if you so desire. I will tell you right off that I did make one change and that was to eliminate the currants from the recipe and instead I added chopped pecans. In order to make this cake, in this fashion, there are a few special things you need to have. You know that normally I frown on things that call for specialized equipment or ingredients, but for carrot cake I am willing to bend my rule just a little bit. Equipment-wise the first thing you need (and you may likely already have) is a 13 x 18 inch rimmed baking sheet (standard half sheet pan). That’s what we’re baking the cake in. You’ll need some parchment paper to line that pan too, but I’ll bet you have some of that already, right? You also need a box grater to grate the carrots, (a food processor with the shredding disk works too), a stand mixer with the paddle attachment, two wire racks (to cool and invert the cake on), and almost lastly, if you have a cardboard cake round, cut into a 6 by 8 inch rectangle it will make pressing the pecans into the icing on the sides of the cake a whole lot easier. That’s not too bad, right? The one thing you may not have is the only truly special ingredient needed for this cake, and that’s Buttermilk powder (you’ll use it in the icing). I know it’s not something that’s in everybody’s kitchen (all you serious bakers out there will have it though, I’ll bet) but it’s also something that you can use up pretty readily once you have it. You can find it in most supermarkets in the baking section.
So in the words of Marvin Gaye… let’s get it on…
For the Cake:
Non-stick spray (for greasing the pan).
1¾ cups (8.75 ounces) all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1½ teaspoons ground cinnamon
¾ teaspoon ground nutmeg
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
1¼ cups (8.75 ounces) light brown sugar
¾ cup vegetable oil
3 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2⅔ cups shredded carrots (shredded on the large holes of a box grater), about 4 carrots
⅔ cup chopped pecans
For the Frosting:
16 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature
3 cups (12 ounces) confectioners’ sugar
⅓ cup buttermilk powder (do not substitute)
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
¼ teaspoon salt
12 ounces cream cheese, chilled and cut into 12 equal pieces
2 cups (8 ounces) pecans, toasted and chopped coarsely
For the cake:
Start by preheating your oven to 350°F with the rack in the center position.
Take a 13 by 18-inch rimmed baking sheet, and grease it with the non-stick spray. Then line the pan with parchment paper and lightly spray the parchment as well.
In a large bowl whisk together the flour, the baking powder, the baking soda, the cinnamon, the nutmeg, the salt, and the cloves until well combined and set that aside for a bit.
In another bowl whisk the sugar, the oil, the eggs, and the vanilla together until the mixture is nice and smooth, making sure there are no big lumps of brown sugar.
Use a rubber spatula to stir in the carrots and the ⅔ cup of pecans until it’s well combined.
Dump the flour mixture into the bowl, and still using the rubber spatula, fold the batter together until it is just nicely incorporated.
Scrape the batter out of the bowl onto your prepared sheet pan and spread it into an even layer smoothing the top with an offset spatula.
Bake the cake until the center is firm to the touch, about 15 to 18 minutes is all it should take.
Let the cake cool in the pan, on a wire rack, for 5 minutes then Invert the cake onto a second wire rack (do not remove parchment) and then re-invert the cake back onto the first wire rack.
Let the cake cool completely, about 30 – 45 minutes.
For the frosting:
Using a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter, the sugar, the buttermilk powder, the vanilla, and the salt on low speed until smooth, just about 2 minutes, scraping down bowl as needed.
Now, increase the speed to medium-low and add the cold cream cheese, 1 piece at a time, and mix until the icing is smooth which takes just about 2 minutes.
Transfer the cooled cake to a cutting board with the parchment side down and using a sharp knife, cut the cake (and parchment) in half crosswise and then lengthwise so you have 4 equal rectangles, which will be about 6 by 8 inches each.
Place your 6 by 8-inch cardboard rectangle on a cake turntable (or a flat plate) and place 1 cake piece (parchment side up), onto the cardboard, then carefully remove parchment.
Grab an offset spatula and spread ⅔ cup of the frosting evenly over the cake layer.
Place another layer of cake, parchment side up, onto the frosted layer, pressing gently to level the cake and frost as before using ⅔ cup of frosting.
Repeat with the third layer.
Place the forth layer on top as before, remove the parchment and frost with 1 cup of frosting, smoothing the top before you use the remaining frosting to evenly coat the sides of the cake.
Now the fun part…
If you are using the cardboard cake rectangle simply hold the cake with 1 hand over a sheet pan (or set it on a large can or container, like I did) and gently press the chopped pecans onto the sides of the cake with other hand, until it is well covered. If you didn’t use a cake board then just press the pecans onto the sides as best you can, removing excess pecans from the plate as they fall.
The last thing you need to do is chill the completed cake for at least 1 hour before you can serve it. That helps everything set up a bit.
Note: You can make this cake and keep it refrigerated for up to 24 hours before serving.
I know this reads like a long set of instructions but they are really quite easy to go through and after you do, you have a great cake to eat. Invite a group of your friends over one night to your house, put on a heart pounding, adrenalin rushing, super thrilling action movie, like… P.S. I Love You or The Notebook (or my personal favorite: Forever Young), and serve everyone a piece of this cake. Don’t forget to pass around a box of tissues in case you cry… over the deliciousness of the cake that is.