Crisp fall weather has set in for good, and Halloween has passed, which means a fast-paced few weeks until that amazing celebration of all things delicious, Thanksgiving. This year, I am extra excited for Thanksgiving, because not only will I get the chance to see my family for the first time since June, but I will also get to see my boyfriend at the same time because he’s flying out to Massachusetts to spend the holiday weekend us! The past two Thanksgivings that I’ve had since starting medical school have been away from home, so I really miss being home with my family and being able to help make Thanksgiving dinner. Just three more weeks, I can’t wait!
Whenever I think of fall, Thanksgiving, winter and Christmas all rolled into one nook of the year that I simply consider “the holidays”, the warm spicy aroma of cinnamon is the scent that defines it best for me. It is no surprise then, that the end of the year always feels like the right time to make a big bountiful carrot cake from scratch to share with family and friends. I still remember the first time I was introduced to carrot cake, baked by a beloved woman whose name is also Lucy. We fondly call her “old Lucy”, which is “老Lucy” in Chinese, (versus myself as little Lucy/小Lucy) to differentiate the two of us. Although she is my friend’s grandmother, she is just like another grandmother to me, she watched me grow up and always supported me in my endeavors. She was the first Asian woman that I had ever met in my young life who could bake Western style cakes, since she worked as a housekeeper for a Jewish family at the time. Looking back on it, I really was very impressed by her ability to bake, and unconsciously her skill was probably one that I aspired to. I remember being incredulous as a kid, resisting the suggestion to try this carrot cake, and ultimately realizing that it tasted nothing like carrots at all. In fact, I always remembered it being one of the most moist cakes I had ever tried, no doubt owing to the insane amount of oil used in making carrot cake ;)
In any case, last year I was home visiting the family when I decided that it was finally time for me to tackle my own decadent carrot cake. I’ve made some simple recipes that turned out so-so carrot cake. Especially those “light” carrot cakes that end up tasting more like cardboard than anything else. But this time, I really wanted it to be the irresistible kind you see in a big glass cake stand in the cozy neighborhood bakery, the kind of carrot cake where you just have to get a slice because it practically literally has your name on it. You know who I turn to when I want the best, most indulgent recipes? America’s Test Kitchen. Maybe it’s my Massachusetts hometown bias, since they are based in Newton, MA after all, but I just love how meticulous and well-tested their recipes are. The recipes are shared in their Cooks Illustrated magazine on a regular basis. I found the Cook’s Illustrated recipe for carrot cake with cream cheese frosting, as well as one for a lightened version also done by them, and I proceeded to tinker a little with them to find a happy medium between the two, which I call the Ultimate Carrot Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting (Lightened). You see, it tastes exactly like an indulgent slice of full-fat carrot cake, but it actually is lightened to some degree, and that’s why “lightened” is only carried in parentheses :P Needless to say, carrot cake isn’t diet food, no matter how many carrots you stick in there. But if you want to make a beautiful, moist cake that will be perfect for the holidays and is sure to please, you just can’t go wrong. Don’t let the long ingredient list scare you, this is the ultimate carrot cake we’re talking about, remember? All this good stuff in it is what makes the cake so darned amazing. And pretty please, make it as a two-layer round cake, because it looks that much more incredible (especially if your decorating skills are good, unlike mine heh). Also, the picture below was taken using my dad’s DSLR… I asked him to focus on the tip of the pirouette, and realized later that the front of the cake was out of focus, oops. Still learning!
Ultimate Carrot Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting (Lightened) (makes one 2-layered 9″ cake, serves 8-12)
For the cake:
- 2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
- 2 tsp baking powder
- 1 1/2 tsp baking soda
- 1 1/2 tsp salt
- 2 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1/2 tsp ground nutmeg (optional, as I didn’t have any on hand)
- 1 cup granulated white sugar
- 1 cup light brown sugar, packed
- 1 cup vegetable oil
- 3 large eggs
- 2 tsp vanilla extract
- 2 cups carrots (approx 5 medium carrots), peeled and shredded
- 8 oz. crushed pineapple, drained
- 2 handfuls of sweetened flaked coconut
- 1/3 cup golden raisins
- 1/4 cup chopped walnuts
For the frosting: (you may want to make more frosting, as this amt is not enough to cover the entire cake, only top and middle)
- 8 oz. light cream cheese, softened
- 3 tbsp butter, softened
- 1 tsp vanilla
- 1 1/3 cup (6 oz.) confectioner’s sugar
1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease two 9-inch round baking pans (or a single 9×13 pan) with vegetable oil. Line bottom of pan with parchment and brush oil on top.
2. In a bowl, stir together flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, and nutmeg; set aside.
3. In a separate large bowl, beat eggs, vanilla, granulated and brown sugars on medium-high with an electric beater until thoroughly combined, about 45 seconds. Reduce speed to low; with mixer running, add oil in a slow, steady stream. Increase speed to high and mix until mixture is light in color and well emulsified, about 45 to 60 seconds longer.
4. Turn off beaters, and using a spatula, fold in the flour mixture into the wet batter until just combined (do not over-stir). Towards the end, stir in the carrots, pineapple, coconut, raisins, and walnuts until mixed in.
5. Pour into cake pan and bake until toothpick or skewer inserted into center of cake comes out clean, 35 to 40 minutes. On a wire rack, cool cake to room temperature in pan, about 1 hour.
6. For the frosting, mix cream cheese, butter, and vanilla in a large bowl at medium high speed with electric beater until well combined, about 30 seconds, scraping down bowl with rubber spatula as needed. Add confectioners’ sugar and mix until very fluffy, about 1 minute.
7. Run paring knife around edge of cakes to loosen from pan. Invert cakes onto wire rack, peel off parchment, then invert again onto serving platter. Frost cake layers as desired (note the amount of frosting called for above is enough to frost just the top and middle of a 2-layer cake; I would double the frosting recipe if you intend to cover the entire cake).
Enjoy this ultimate carrot cake with a warm mug of spicy tea (or with a tall glass of milk at midnight if that is your style). The cake layers are moist and fluffy, with an abundance of flavor in each bite being contributed by the carrots, coconut, pineapple, raisins, and walnuts (you can see the ingredients right in the cake in the above picture!) And the cream cheese frosting is amazing… lightened up by quite a bit so that it is not cloying, and instead maintains the wonderful tang of cream cheese with a sweetness that complements the cake such that you’ll want some in each forkful. Dust on some cocoa or cinnamon on top and decorate with some whole walnuts for a nice fall look, and you can even throw on a chocolate pirouette for contrast like I did, or a cinnamon stick would work too. Some flaked coconut would be nice too for winter especially if you decide to frost the sides. Yummm…