Moist, rich, and packed with homey flavor, this carrot cake with cream cheese frosting is perfect for any day of the year.
Carrot cake seems like a popular Easter dessert. I’ve occasionally wondered why – I suppose the Easter bunny likes carrots? – although generally I just eat it with a blissfully blank mind and happy stomach. But truth be told, this carrot cake recipe does not conjure up memories of spring and Easter celebrations in my mind. No, this recipe will always make me think of Thanksgiving.
That’s weird, you say? Carrot cake is not a traditional Thanksgiving dessert, you say? All right, ten points for reading comprehension skills. But the particular Thanksgiving which introduced me to this carrot cake was non-traditional in a number of ways. Carrot cake might be the least of them.
A number of years ago, I had started a shiny new job at the District Attorney’s Office in Manhattan. It was exactly as glamorous as it sounds – that is, if you have any realistic understanding of government agencies. (If you don’t, well then, let’s continue to pretend I was basically Angie Harmon.) Rookie year at the office was full of trial and error. (Pun absolutely intended.) One minor downside was trying to arrange holiday schedules. New York has a rule that everyone arrested for a crime must be arraigned within 24 hours. This means the court system has to run basically all day, every day, including weekends and, yes, holidays. [Insert 30’s-style-radio-announcer voice-over about how crime never rests. If you watch Archer, this is the same voice that tells you to “watch out for that Hitler – he’s a bad egg!”]
So when the schedules were being drafted, us Assistant DA’s got to together and bartered shifts — our Christmas morning for your Thanksgiving dinner — and tried to ensure that everyone was treated, more or less, equal. And my rookie year, I happened to end up getting Thanksgiving off. This was very exciting, but as I still had to work Wednesday and Friday, any real travel was out of the question. Enter: my friend Kate. Her very kind and wonderful family lived in the Hamptons, a bus-ride away, and they welcomed me into their home for the holiday.
You might recall I mentioned that this Thanksgiving was non-traditional. How do I mean? Well, to start, this was my first Thanksgiving dinner on a boat. Kate’s dad is an avid – waterman? I might be making up that term. But sailor doesn’t sound quite right either. He likes boats, is what I’m trying to say. He sails them to various places and enjoys it quite a bit. So Thanksgiving in their family is often spent on the boat.
Thanksgiving in my family is not. It is spent in the dining room, and sometimes the living room when we’re gettin’ wild. In fact, the only boats I can recall boarding previously were ferries. This was not a ferry. We were not commuting anywhere. We were tied up at the dock, eating Thanksgiving dinner, as, I suppose, people do when they like boats.
Don’t get me wrong, I was very happy to be included, and the dinner was delicious. The turkey, the stuffing…all the traditional elements were there, actually. Oh yes, and carrot cake.
So here’s the story on the cake. Personally, I love carrot cake and will eat it any time, but I hesitated when it came to carrot cake on Thanksgiving. Pumpkin pie, pecan pie…those are all so very seasonal, and well, if you miss them at Thanksgiving, you might not see them the rest of the year. The elusive pumpkin pie can only be captured at the peak of the season. Should I gamble my pumpkin for carrot cake, which would, obviously, pop up again in the spring?
Kate assured my I should. And as she explained, this was not JUST carrot cake. This was a carrot cake from Tate’s Bakery. Me, a non-native New Yorker, probably stared back blankly, or gave an non-committal “ahhhh.” But as she went on to elaborate, Tate’s is an incredibly popular bakery in the Hamptons, where people order pies and cakes months in advance. They’re well-known for this carrot cake, and the waiting list is apparently extensive. If you’re smart enough to pre-order a carrot cake for Thanksgiving, well, you pat yourself on the back and feel pretty good about your life choices. And you might offer your guests a pumpkin as well, for tradition’s sake, but really, everyone eats that carrot cake and everyone is very, very happy about it.
And let me tell you, as I tried this fabled carrot cake, I got it. Now this, my friends, is a cake to make you FORGET ABOUT PUMPKIN ON THANKSGIVING. If that doesn’t let you know how good this cake it, I got nothin’ left. But I’ll try anyway. It’s extremely moist without being mushy, and it’s packed full of flavor. It actually contains crushed pineapple, which was a new one for me, but the pineapple flavor isn’t strong. Instead, you get a warm, spicy, homey taste. And for someone away from home on Thanksgiving? I would’ve eaten ten more slices if they had been offered.
For years I thought fondly of that cake and wistfully wished for one more taste. Alas, additional Hamptons vacations were not forthcoming. But then a few years later when I moved into a new apartment, Kate gave me the Tate’s bakery cookbook as a housewarming gift. And finally, FINALLY, I was able to replicate the carrot cake. I feared it wouldn’t live up to the memory, but to my everlasting delight, it was every bit as moist and delicious as I remembered. The “carrot cake” page in the cookbook has since become dirty and worn until the book falls open to it naturally – the sign of a very good recipe.
Even better, I fed it to Ross, who doesn’t normally care for carrot cake. Not only did he love it, but just this week, as I was planning to bake it again for Easter, he actually said it might be his favorite cake. Ever. (I had to take a moment to wipe away a tear of joy.)
So whatever the reason you serve carrot cake at Easter, or Thanksgiving, or any other day of the year: this is the cake to serve. Eat it on a boat. Eat it on your couch. Eat it in bed. To heck with traditions. Just eat it.
Recipe adapted from Tate’s Bake Shop Cookbook by Kathleen King.
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1½ teaspoons baking soda
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 tablespoon cinnamon
- 1¾ cups granulated sugar
- 1½ cups vegetable oil
- ½ teaspoon vanilla
- 4 large eggs
- 2 cups grated carrot
- ½ cup chopped pecans or walnuts (optional)
- 1 cup crushed, drained pineapple (not optional! - this is important for the best cake consistency)
- 24 ounces cream cheese at room temperature
- ½ cup salted butter at room temperature
- 2 teaspoons vanilla
- 2½ to 3 cups confectioners sugar
- 3 tablespoons pineapple juice (optional)
- Preheat the oven to 350. If using a convection oven, preheat to 325.
- Prepare two 8 inch cake pans by spraying with nonstick cooking spray, and lining the bottom of each pan with a circle of parchment paper. Spray the parchment paper with nonstick spray as well.
- In a medium mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and cinnamon.
- In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the sugar, oil, and vanilla. Add the eggs and beat with an electric mixer, or in the bowl of a stand mixer with the whisk attachment, until well blended. By hand, stir in the carrot, nuts, and pineapple.
- Pour the flour mixture into the wet mixture and stir just until combined.
- Divide the batter between the two cake pans. I use a digital kitchen scale to make sure they're roughly equal.
- The cakes will cook for about 35-45 minutes in a standard oven, or about 25 minutes in a convection oven. Be careful not to overbake. Rotate the pans about halfway through baking. They are done when a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean.
- When the cakes are done cooking, cool the pans on a wire rack for about 15 minutes. Then remove the cakes from the pans and continue cooling to room temperature. (Under no circumstances should you ever try to frost a warm cake!)
- Beat together the cream cheese and butter with an electric mixer, or the paddle attachment in a stand mixture, until light and creamy.
- Add the vanilla and beat until combined.
- Add 2½ cups confectioners sugar and beat well, occasionally scraping down the sides of the bowl. Pour in pineapple juice and beat another 30 seconds. If this frosting is too thin for your liking, keep adding confectioners sugar a little at a time until you're happy.
- Spread the frosting on top of one of the cake layers. Put the other layer on top of the frosting. Spread the remaining frosting on the top of the cake and sides, if desired. You can garnish with chopped nuts or keep it simple.
You can freeze the cake layers up to a month in advance. After the cake has cooled, wrap well in plastic wrap or foil, then seal in a ziplock freezer bag. In a pinch, you can seal a frosted cake whole, by wrapping the entire cake thoroughly in plastic wrap. Of course, the frosting might need some touching up before serving, and I don't recommend freezing for more than a week if frosted. To defrost, move the cake to the refrigerator for 24 hours, then bring to room temperature before frosting or serving.
Recipe adapted from Tate's Bake Shop Cookbook by Kathleen King.
Looking for a spring dessert with chocolate instead of veggies? How about some colorful chocolate cups filled with light and fluffy white chocolate mousse?