Baked Sunday Mornings: Classic Carrot Cake with Cinnamon Cream Cheese Frosting

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I can’t believe I’m saying this, but… I really wanted to make a layer cake. There was a time not so long ago that I dreaded the Baked Sunday Mornings assignments for layer cakes. So much work, so much time, so much potential for things to go wrong… But I’ve come a long way since those simpler days. When I saw that this recipe for Classic Carrot Cake with Cinnamon Cream Cheese Frosting (from the Cinnamon chapter of Baked Elements) was coming up, I got really excited– it’s been a while since we’ve made a complicated cake! I was imagining my thick, hearty, stacked layers smothered in spiced cream cheese, and that gratifying feeling of plunging my big knife through one…two…three layers of cake and filling…. Oh mama. BUT when I actually looked at the recipe, I was surprised to find that it was a simple single-layer, low-fuss cake in a rectangular pan. Oh.

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Not that there’s anything WRONG with that! But I *really* wanted to make a layer cake… so I did. Instead of using the prescribed 9×13 pan, I baked 3 layers in 6-inch round cake pans (540g of batter in each, to be precise), and I doubled the frosting. Because I would never dream of skimping on cream cheese frosting! My other addition, which I LOVE LOVE LOVE, is a candied carrot on top. I had planned to try a fun, whimsical design with unfrosted sides like the “Tomboy” cake at Miette in San Francisco, but this didn’t work out quite as it looked in my imagination due to some complications. Instead, I made a tiny BAKED-style cake with that signature swirl on top, which wasn’t half bad! 🙂

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Now, I usually like my carrot cake pretty plain. I’m not one to load in a bunch of mix-ins, particular pineapple– blech. This cake is brimming with toasted coconut and walnuts; it is a chunky, hearty number. BAKED almost always gets it right when it comes to cakes, so I trusted that they knew what they were doing, and I went with it. (And really, you can’t go wrong with coconut– I can’t believe I spent my entire childhood believing that I didn’t like coconut.) It is wonderfully spiced with freshly grated nutmeg (always use fresh– it makes a huge difference), cloves, ginger, and cinnamon– your kitchen will smell heavenly whilst the cake is baking.

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The mise en place took quite a while, between shredding carrots (finely, por favor), toasting coconut and walnuts (and there’s always one burnt batch in my toaster oven), separating eggs, melting butter, and measuring everything out, but once everything was prepped, mixing up the batter was a snap.

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You will first beat the granulated and dark brown sugars with the eggs and egg yolks in a stand mixer, then add the melted butter and canola oil. I streamed the oil in gradually to help with emulsification, but really it came together very quickly. The recipe instructions were a little vague here– it says to beat until the mixture is “pale in color”. It started out fairly dark, but it did lighten up quite a bit after about 3 minutes of mixing on medium speed, so I went with that.

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Next, add the vanilla extract and stir it up for another few seconds, then remove the bowl from the mixer. The rest is done by hand: fold in the dry ingredients with a spatula, followed by the toasted coconut and walnuts, and the shredded carrots.

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Sadly, after all my grand layer cake visions, things did not go according to plan after this point. The round cakes seemed to be doing just fine in the oven; I predicted that they would bake in about 30 minutes, like BAKED’s other layer cakes. And yet, 30, 40, 50 minutes went by, and the centers were still not cooked through. In fact, they had sunken like craters. I finally took them out and hoped that the outer edges hadn’t dried out by that time.

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I unmolded the cakes after about 10 minutes of cooling and found that the bottoms were extremely greasy! This was very surprising because while the batter does contain a lot of oil, it was fully emulsified and did not seem like an oily batter at all. The only thing I can think of is that maybe I chopped the walnuts too finely, and they released too much oil while baking? Because I had intended to make thinner layers, I pulsed my hand-chopped walnuts in the food processor (for, like, 2 seconds!), thinking that it would be best not to have bigger pieces. Turns out my layers were pretty thick anyway, so that wasn’t necessary, but I do wonder if that was the culprit, since the batter looked gorgeous going into the oven. Not surprising is that the tops of the cakes were pretty crusty after such a long baking time. One bright note: my cake layers usually shrink up around the tops so that the cake sides are not straight; for maybe the first time ever, these cakes had perfectly straight sides!

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To make the frosting, cream the butter, then add the cream cheese. Mine looked a little like ricotta cheese at first, so I was a little worried, but it eventually smoothed out. (The house was cold and the butter just wouldn’t soften…) Add the confectioners’ sugar (shhh, I didn’t sift), cinnamon, salt, and vanilla extract all at once and mix it up. Cream cheese frosting is a little finicky in that if you overmix, the structure of the frosting will break, and you’ll have something akin to the consistency of cheesecake batter. When I first started mixing, the glob in the bowl was very brown– not at all like normal cream cheese frosting. Making frosting is not my forté (particularly the tricky BAKED buttercream– see here and here), so I’m always hyper vigilant about overmixing. Fortunately, my fretting was all for naught, as everything came together beautifully into a fluffy, cinnamon-speckled cloud. It is not white like in the book’s photo, but nevertheless luscious and dream-tastic as every cream cheese frosting should be!

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After soaking up more oil, I was ready to frost and stack– the part I had been waiting for so eagerly! I trimmed the top ⅓ of each cake layer, which leveled off the sunken craters for the most part, but the centers were still not quite cooked. I even considered cutting out the middles to make a tube cake and filling the center cavity with ice cream (or just more cream cheese frosting?), but decided against it. I transferred my frosting to a pastry bag and piped a gigantic spiral on each cake layer. However, my cake layers were slightly uneven, so my exposed-sides design did not work out. (The top looked crooked, and the frosting spiral seemed to draw attention to the imperfections.)

I then decided to frost the cake all over, and I discovered with utter delight that the frosting was not only delicious, but also the most “frostable” cream cheese frosting I’ve ever made! I think because the butter wasn’t softened, it held a stiffer structure. Also, I had put the frosting in the fridge for a few hours to firm up further– it spread and smoothed and swirled like never before! I will henceforth use slightly cool butter, mix minimally, and refrigerate! 🙂

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To make the BAKED swirl, gently dip the tip of a small offset spatula into the center of the frosting and slowly turn it in a spiral pattern. It’s easier if you have a cake turntable, as you can turn the cake continuously under the spatula.

My creative addition to this carrot cake is the candied carrot garnish on top. I have made these as cupcake toppers a few times, and I thought it would look awesome to make a single, giant one for this 6-inch cake using a big carrot. However, it would appear that I need some sort of genetically-enhanced carrot monster to produce the one I was imagining! They are quite easy to make, and I think they add a touch of elegance and an abstract artistic quality to the cake.

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Candied Carrots
Adapted from Cupcakes by Shelly Kaldunski
Yields approximately 12 candied carrots

  •  1 wide carrot
  • ½ cup granulated sugar
  • ½ cup water

Peel the carrot. With a smooth-bladed vegetable peeler (i.e. not a serrated blade), shave as many long, wide strips as you can before the carrot becomes too thin to handle.

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Combine the sugar and water in a small saucepan; make sure all the sugar is moistened. Over medium-high heat, stir continuously until the sugar dissolves and small bubbles form around the edges. If any stray sugar crystals build up on the sides of the pan, brush them down with a wet pastry brush. Bring the syrup to a boil, then carefully add the carrot strips.

Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook the carrots for approximately 10 minutes, or until translucent. Let the strips cool completely in the syrup.

Remove the carrot strips from the cooled sugar with tongs; let the excess syrup drip back into the pot. (I usually try to scrape off the thick syrup by gently grasping a carrot between the tong blades and running them down the length of the strip.)

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To form the “carrot” shape, start rolling up a carrot strip from the narrow (bottom) end. At first, roll it fairly tightly, then loosen the coil as you get to the wider end of the strip; it will look like something like a stretched out cone. Carefully place the rolled up carrots on a parchment-lined flat surface to set for a few hours. They will dry out a bit, but will retain a soft texture and keep their shape.

Once the carrots are semi-dry, decorate your cake/cupcakes as desired.

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I couldn’t wait to cut into this little beauty. At least visually, I was quite pleased with how it turned out, even though it was very different than I had planned! The crumb was fluffy and coarse, and loaded with texture from the carrots, walnuts, and coconut. I guess I managed to leech out most of the excess oil, as the cake was surprisingly not oily. It worked nicely in layers, and the spiced frosting was a wonderful complement to the hearty cake. Despite some minor setbacks, this carrot cake is fabulous, and it will be my go-to carrot cake from now on! (Well, once I figure out the oil issue…)

Whether you make the cake as a single-layer rectangle or a small stack, I highly recommend it! It’s a perfect cake for any spring celebration, and it lends well to dressing up or down. Visit Baked Sunday Mornings for the Classic Carrot Cake with Cinnamon Cream Cheese Frosting recipe and see how my fellow BSMers liked this cake! 🙂

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© Dafna Adler & Stellina Sweets, 2014.

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12 Responses

  1. I made cupcakes and they sunk in the middle a bit too. My batter wasn’t oily though, so I can’t help there. Looks so nice though! And I agree, there’s just something about slicing through a layer cake that’s so satisfying!

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