Cardamom-Pistachio Carrot Cake

I’ve been MIA for a long time… I can explain. I kind of, ummm, moved to Italy. I really did it– I’ve been dreaming about it for about a decade in various forms, and some days I still can’t believe I’m here in Florence. Preparing for the move was quite literally all-consuming for months, on top of working and previously scheduled travel. While I certainly miss my favorite croissant at Tartine, the kouign amann at b.patisserie, and countless other San Francisco pastries (and I still forget sometimes that I can’t just run out and get them), it’s been positively delightful to explore quaint pasticcerie (pastry bakeries) and find many of the Italian pastries and desserts that I’ve enjoyed baking for the past several years at home. Plus, the flaky, light, buttery croissant at Melaleuca is rather outstanding in my opinion, so that nearly closes the croissant gap anyway, and THAT is a win.

I could go on and on about the (literally) daily emotional rollercoaster that is living in Italy, but that’s a conversation for another day… Suffice it to say, living here is not like being on vacation, and not for the faint of heart; every day is filled with learning curves and curve balls. I feel like I’m figuring things out a little more day by day, and that has been a joy. Unexpectedly (because who would think this about Italy), the winter weather here was largely gloomy, gray, soggy, and seemingly everlasting; even much of the spring too! Finally in recent weeks it’s been consistently warm, and although I was craving carrot cake at the appropriate point on the calendar (i.e. two months), I wasn’t able to bake for months, what with packing/moving/unpacking/settling, and waiting for my bakeware to arrive from California. I almost feel like I’m starting over, as though my hands have forgotten the feel of flour and sugar; the weight and volume calculations in my brain… so rusty. So I’m discarding the calendar a bit, and as I get my baking legs under me again, today I’m so happy to share this show-stopping Cardamon-Pistachio Carrot Cake from Bon Appétit, which I first made four years ago as Covid lockdown had just descended upon all of us. This cake was such a bright spot in a scary and uncertain time (a bit like right now, if I’m being honest!), and it’s become a perennial spring favorite for me. It is positively saturated in lush orange hues, matched with a landscape of complex and complementary flavors inspired by the Indian dessert carrot halwa. This is definitely not yo mama’s classic American carrot cake, and I am here for it.

I try to look at every new recipe as a lesson; sometimes they go as planned, as is described in the recipe, no glitches. Other times there are, shall we say, unfortunate surprises; the first time I made this was one of those times. When a recipe says, “Mixture will initially bubble and foam vigorously and look like it’s going to boil over, but it won’t!”, I will henceforth make sure to use an extra-large pot, because it definitely WILL boil over. Those are the exact words from the recipe when describing the process for making the heavenly carrot glaze that you’ll drizzle over the cake. I didn’t know carrots could be or do this; this cake is like the best possible outcome that carrots could ever aspire to. But it wasn’t without its challenges, namely scraping burnt carrot-sugar off my stove top… Also, my iPad could not stably hang on to Bon Appétit’s webpage for the cake without repeatedly jumping around, reloading, and crashing. That, coupled with their format of placing procedure videos and flashing ads in-between the steps, was infinitely distracting, and caused me to mis-measure the sugar, which I didn’t even realize until the cake was cooling. I got suuuuper lucky that it was absolutely fine, but wow, I felt fortunate that this one turned out unscathed. Lastly, their instructions for how to line a pan with parchment and how to soak eggs in a bowl of water to warm them up and how to grate carrots seemed unnecessary for this level of baking. So I’ve cleaned all of this up and written what I hope is a clearer version of the recipe. (If you need a refresher on those steps, just check out the link below for the original recipe.)

A few recipe notes:

  • Ingredient list: Some ingredients used in both the cake batter and glaze were listed once as “divided”, and the quantities for the divided steps were embedded in the instructions. Because of the distractions I noted above, I accidentally put the entire ¾ cup sugar into the cake batter, where I was actually just supposed to put in ¼ cup! It was still completely excellent, so no harm, no foul. Not that it’s bad to note ingredients as “divided” (I do that too when needed), but to make this more clear, I listed the ingredients and quantities for the cake batter and glaze separately.
  • Carrots: The original recipe called for 3 medium carrots, but we’re supposed to get 2½ cups (250g) shredded carrots from that… It was more like 7 carrots for me, so I’ve written that into the ingredient list.
  • Glaze: Make sure you use a 3- or 4-quart pot for the glaze, maybe even a saucier if you have one. You will pour in the meager ingredients and think I’m crazy, but you will find that when the mixture bubbles, it will expand at least tenfold (and rapidly), and it WILL boil over if you use a 2-quart pot. Or at least I should say that if you’re working with a glasstop electric range like what I had at the time, it will. And then you’ll have a grand ol’ time scraping burnt sugar off the burner with a bench scraper and you’ll swear a lot. (And ooof, I shudder to think how awful that would be to clean off of a gas range….)
    • The glaze is supposed to thicken in 8-10 minutes, but mine took close to 15 minutes. This could be because I kept having to lift the pot off the direct surface due to its constant threats of boiling over, but point being, set a timer and keep checking for thickness– this outcome is more important than the number of minutes, as a thin glaze will simply slide off the cake.
  • Baking time: The recipe calls for baking the cake for 50-55 minutes. Mine was perfect in 45 minutes, so start checking early.

Cardamom-Pistachio Carrot Cake
Adapted from Bon Appétit
Yields 12-16 servings

For the cake batter:

  • 3 large eggs, at room temperature
  • 2½ cups (250g) carrots shredded on the big holes of a box grater (4-7 carrots)
  • 1 cup (2 sticks/225g) unsalted butter, cut into cubes
  • 1 cup (130g) raw shelled pistachios, whole
  • 1 cup (200g) firmly packed dark brown sugar
  • ¼ cup (50g) granulated sugar
  • 1¾ teaspoon baking powder
  • ¼ teaspoon baking soda
  • 1¼ teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1½ teaspoon ground cardamom
  • ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1½ cups (188g) all-purpose flour

For the carrot glaze:

  • ½ cup carrot juice
  • ½ cup heavy cream
  • ½ cup (100g) granulated sugar
  • ¼ teaspoon kosher salt
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter

For the garnish:

  • 2 tablespoons coarsely chopped pistachios, preferably bright green ones

Make the cake:

Preheat an oven to 350°F and position a rack in the center. Spray the bottom and sides of a 9” round cake pan (preferably 3″ deep) with nonstick cooking spray, and line the bottom with a circle of parchment paper. Spray the parchment and flour the entire inside of the pan; knock out the excess flour.

Place a fine-mesh sieve over a heatproof measuring cup and set it next to the stove. Put the butter pieces in a 2-quart saucepan over medium heat and cook them for about 2 minutes (they will be melted and foaming). Stir in the raw pistachios and cook for about 5 minutes, until the butter browns and the pistachios smell warm and nutty.

Keep a close eye on the pan, and when the foam looks golden brown, start checking the pistachios for doneness. Scoop out a few nuts with a wooden spoon– if they’re toasty brown, they’re ready to remove. If not, keep cooking them and check every 10 seconds. When ready, pour the whole mixture through the prepared sieve into the bowl, and don’t leave the browned bits behind! Set the pistachios and butter aside separately to cool.

Place the eggs in a large mixing bowl. Add the dark brown sugar, granulated sugar, baking powder, baking soda, kosher salt, cardamom, and cinnamon. Beat the ingredients for about 3 minutes with an electric mixer on high speed; the mixture should be pale, thickened, and slightly increased in volume. Reduce the mixer speed to medium-high and slowly drizzle in the brown butter with the precious browned bits; keep mixing until the butter is incorporated. (Don’t pour in all the butter at the same time, as it may not emulsify properly and your mixture can end up separated.)

Transfer the cooled pistachios to a cutting board and coarsely chop them, keeping them nearby.

Gently fold the flour into the wet ingredients with a rubber spatula until almost no white streaks remain. Add the toasty pistachios and shredded carrots and continue carefully folding everything together until evenly blended; do not overmix. Scrape the thick batter into the prepared cake pan, smoothing the top with an offset spatula. On a clean work surface, quickly spin the pan around for a second to help push the batter a bit out from the center, which helps minimize doming while the cake bakes.

Bake the cake for about 45-55 minutes, until deeply browned on top and a toothpick poked into the center comes out clean. (Don’t underbake this cake, as it will sink in the middle if not fully cooked.) Set the pan on a metal cooling rack and let the cake cool to room temperature in the pan.

Insert a small offset spatula or butter knife between the cake and the side of the pan and run it around the perimeter of the cake. Carefully place a large plate or serving platter over the cake pan and quickly flip the cake onto the plate, leaving the flat (bottom) side facing up so the glaze will have a perfectly smooth surface to decadently drip from. Peel the parchment circle from the now-top of the cake.

Make the carrot glaze:

Put a small plate in the freezer while you make the carrot glaze. Pour the carrot juice, heavy cream, sugar, and kosher salt in that order into a 3- or 4-quart saucepan (see the note above) and do not stir. Cook the mixture over high heat without stirring. The layer of sugar on the bottom of the pan will protect the cream from burning. Cook the mixture for about 8-15 minutes, until it has reached a thick consistency “similar to lava” (as written in the original recipe), checking it often. Honestly, do not take your eyes off of this pan. The mixture will bubble, foam, and increase in volume rapidly; in a pan with tall sides, it should not boil over. Don’t stir or reduce the heat; the bubbling activity will calm and the carrot caramel glaze will thicken and become somewhat opaque; it should be thick enough to adhere to the cake and have that sexy-drip consistency, but you don’t want the glaze to get browned.

Grab the chilled plate out of the freezer and test the glaze by dabbing a few drops onto the cold surface. Pass a finger through it, and if it’s ready, the glaze will be thick enough that it will not fill in the white trail (the original recipe has a great visual of this). Remove the pan from heat and stir in the butter– it should look smooth and positively luxurious. Let the carrot glaze cool for about 15 minutes in the pan, until it’s cool enough that you can comfortably put your finger in it. If it’s too warm, it will slide off the cake, so you want to give it time to firm up a bit.

Glaze & decorate:

Once cool enough, stir the orange mixture well and slowly pour it over the center of the cake, using a small offset spatula to coax it to the edges so that it drips juuuust right. If you see any air bubbles, gently pop them with a toothpick. Sprinkle the edges all the way around with the chopped pistachios. Let the glaze set for at least 15 minutes before serving the cake.

Make ahead: The unglazed cake can be made 3 days ahead and stored in an airtight container at room temperature. Once you add the glaze, refrigerate the cake for up to 2 days.

© Dafna Adler & Stellina Sweets, 2024.

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