layers that count ::::
This carrot cake is the real deal, people. The inimitable Stella Parks, a.k.a. BraveTart, pastry chef extraordinaire, developed this recipe. What could go wrong with browned butter, cream cheese frosting, and tiny candied carrot roses?
Almost nothing. Except how to carry the lovely beast to the birthday party.
Even without the cake pedestal, the cake was too tall to fit into my cake carrying container. There was no way to cover the cake or stabilize it in my car solo (how do professionals do this on a regular basis without completely getting stressed out, even with stabilizing contraptions?!). I enlisted my BFF to sit in the passenger seat and hold said cake in hand as I drove slowly avoiding potholes and quick turns. In the dark. In the rain. She admitted she was a bit stressed with the responsibility of cake-holder. At that point, because our trio of ladies for the birthday celebration is a forgiving troupe, I didn’t care if the cake ended up damaged — we’d still eat it. I had proof of its existence before any potential mar: I had photos.
It was not without some scrambling, however. My trusty DSL camera I’ve been using for this blog’s photography since 2011 died last week. Ack! No resurrection possible with charging the battery. No change with flicking the SD card out and back in. No flicker with my panicked clicking of buttons. When realizing this death just before the cake was complete and knowing that I did indeed need to have photographic proof of the cake (and some unrelated random journal artwork I needed to submit the next day), I sent a group text to neighborhood friends: Does anyone have a fancy camera I can use? My camera completely died and battery won’t charge! My artist friend suggested using my iPhone camera. Her artwork is beautiful and her iPhone photos capture the essence (and fleshiness) of it well. (See this link to be wowed by Kerry.) These days, our pocket-computers-pseudo-connections-to-the-world have better cameras than many DSL cameras and are sufficient for my hobbiest blog aspirations. Whenever I’ve traveled, iPhone photos are my go-to for documentation — yet I didn’t want to start a new routine for all blog posts. Well, here I am, forced to.
Besides the photographic documentation changes, my only major changes with this recipe are these:
- I used a 7-inch (2-inch height) pan instead of an 8-inch for each layer. My 8-inch pans were not tall enough to use. With my oven, it still took 45 minutes for each layer to bake. (Check your own bake time carefully though! Every oven is different so don’t base your future bake time on my results.) I only had ONE 7-inch diameter pan and had to bake the layers separately. The leftover batter (and leftover buttercream) made a thin 6-inch cake perfect for my kids for a pre-birthday tasting;
- I used walnuts instead of pecans because they were less expensive and easier to find;
- Though recommended to hand grate the carrots to make them juicier and meld better into the cake, I used a food processor to shred. Some food processors shred in long shreds and those larger pieces affect the texture of carrot cake. My processor makes smaller shreds; the consistency of my cake was fine.
Also, I did not make the cake, buttercream, and roses all on the same day. Stella’s recipe explains how to break up the steps if you don’t have an extended period to do it all contiguously. I made the custard for the buttercream and browned the butter for the cake early in the week. I shredded the carrots the next day and stored in the fridge. The mise en place was done days in advance.
Well, the cake made it to the birthday dinner without a bit of buttercream out of place. It was well-worth making it for the lovely company it was shared with and one of the best carrot cakes I’ve tasted. Everything takes time: building cakes and friendships are processes. Happy Birthday, Caitlin!
Recipe from the fabulous cookbook Bravetart: Iconic American Desserts by Stella Parks (my copy is now heavily floured and greased) — link for same recipe also found at Serious Eats. Links for the cream cheese buttercream and the twisted, candied carrot roses are embedded in the recipe there too. Here are the separate links: cream cheese buttercream frosting and candied carrot roses.
One year ago: marbled pound cake
Two years ago: chimichurri sauce
Three years ago: salmon salad with roasted beets
Five years ago: crockpot spinach dip
- FOR THE CAKE: 14 ounces pecan or walnut pieces (3½ cups; 395g) - I use walnuts
- 2 pounds whole, unpeeled carrots (from one 2-pound bag; 910g) - you will need 24 ounces shredded for the cake. Save the other carrots for carrot roses later or use multicolored carrots.
- 16 ounces unsalted butter (4 sticks; 450g)
- 14 ounces white sugar (2 cups; 395g)
- 8 ounces light brown sugar (1 cup, gently packed; 225g)
- 4 teaspoons ground cinnamon
- 4 teaspoons ground ginger
- 1 tablespoon baking powder
- 1¾ teaspoons (7g) kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 teaspoon grated nutmeg
- ¾ teaspoon ground cloves
- ½ ounce vanilla extract (1 tablespoon; 15g)
- 6 large cold eggs
- 11 ounces all-purpose flour, such as Gold Medal (2½ cups, spooned; 310g) - Stella recommends this brand and it's all I use for baking now.
- 5 ounces whole wheat flour, not stone-ground (1 cup; 140g)
- FOR THE BUTTERCREAM: 12 ounces milk, any percentage will do (about 1½ cups; 340g) -- I used 2%.
- 1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise - or use some extract
- 8 ounces sugar (about 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons; 225g) -- vanilla sugar is nice here
- 1½ ounces cornstarch (about ⅓ cup, spooned; 45g)
- 3 large cold eggs
- ½ ounce vanilla extract (about 1 tablespoon; 15g)
- 16 ounces full-fat cream cheese, softened to about 65°F/18°C (2 eight-ounce packages; 455g)
- 12 ounces unsalted butter, softened to about 65°F/18°C (3 sticks; 340g)
- 1 ounce freshly squeezed lemon juice (about 2 tablespoons; 30g)
- FOR THE CARROT ROSES: About 6 large carrots, at least 1 inch thick and preferably 7 to 8 inches in length (multicolored carrots are pretty to use)
- 8 ounces water (about 1 cup; 225g)
- 7 ounces sugar (about 1 cup; 200g)
- ¼ teaspoon kosher salt
- Preheat to 350°F (180°C) with the oven rack at the middle. Toast the pecans or walnuts on a baking sheet until golden brown, ~10 minutes, and cool completely.
- Measure out just over 24 ounces carrots and shred. You will end up with 6 cups, firmly packed. Shredding can be done 1 week in advance and refrigerated in a zip-top bag.
- In a 2-quart pot, melt the butter over medium-low heat. Increase to medium heat and simmer, stirring while the butter hisses and pops. Continue cooking and stirring, scraping up any brown bits (flavor!) that form along the pan, until the butter is golden-yellow and quiet. Pour browned butter into a heat-safe measuring cup, along with all the toasted brown bits. If you are continuing with the recipe in real-time, set aside. You can refrigerate the butter for up to a week and remelt before proceeding to next step.
- BAKING: Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position and preheat to 350°F (180°C). Lightly grease three 8-inch anodized aluminum cake pans and line with parchment. (I USED 7-INCH DIAMETER.) If you don’t have three pans, it’s okay to bake the cakes in stages; the batter will keep at room temperature until needed. I did this as I only had one 7-inch pan and held the batter at cool room temp and briefly in the fridge. After baking three 7-inch layers, my leftover batter ended up in a 6-inch pan as an extra taster layer.
- In a stand mixer with a whisk attachment, combine white sugar, brown sugar, cinnamon, ginger, baking powder, salt, baking soda, nutmeg, cloves, vanilla, and eggs.
- Mix on low to moisten, then increase to medium and whip until thick and fluffy, about 8 minutes. In another bowl, whisk together all-purpose and whole wheat flours.
- Into the sugar mixture bowl, drizzle in the brown butter in a steady stream (this smells soooo good), then reduce speed to low and add the flours.
- Once smooth, fold in shredded carrots and pecans with a flexible spatula. You may need to transfer to a larger bowl because the carrots and nuts add a lot of bulk and make it hard to fold in a small bowl.
- Divide batter between the prepared cake pans (about 33 ounces each if using 8-inch pans -- I eyeballed for 7-inch and filled each about ¾ full). If you don't have three pans, the remaining batter can be held at room temperature up to 3 hours (or a bit longer if in the fridge).
- Bake until cakes are golden, about 45 minutes. (My 7-inch layers were tall enough that each took 45 minutes to bake, just like the 8-inchers. But check your oven! Everyone's is different!) A toothpick inserted into the center will have a few crumbs still attached, and your fingertip will leave a slight indentation in the puffy crust. If using a thermometer, aim for about 210 deg F. There should be no shine or undercooked batter jiggle in the center.
- Cool cakes directly in their pans for 1 hour. Do not unmold too soon as the warm cake will crumble more easily than when cool.
- Loosen with a knife and invert onto a wire rack. Peel off the parchment, and return cakes right side up. Covered in plastic, the cakes can be left at room temperature for a few hours.
- BUTTERCREAM MAKING (WHEE!): Start with making the custard: In a 3-quart pot, combine the milk and vanilla bean and bring to a simmer over medium heat. When it begins to bubble, shut off the heat, cover, and steep 30 minutes (can refrigerate for 24 hours for deeper flavor too). If not using the bean, pour a little extract into warmed milk and allow to sit for a few minutes.
- Whisk the sugar and cornstarch together in a medium bowl, then add eggs.
- Return milk to a simmer and discard vanilla bean after scraping out the flavorful pulp inside. Ladle ½ cup hot milk into the eggs and whisk to combine -- this is tempering. DO NOT pour all the milk over the eggs at once or you will end up with scrambled eggs. Go slow. Repeat with a second and third ladleful, whisking each time, then pour the warmed eggs into the pot. It should look smooth.
- Cook over medium heat, whisking constantly, until the custard turns thick and lumpy, about 3 minutes. After it begins to bubble sluggishly, continue cooking and whisking 2 full minutes to neutralize a starch-dissolving protein found in the yolks (VERY IMPORTANT STEP!), and until the custard is smooth.
- Off heat, stir in vanilla extract, then pour custard into a large baking dish to speed the cooling process if you want to be efficient. I transferred to a new cool bowl to cool.
- Press a sheet of plastic against the surface and refrigerate until thick and cool, about 1 hour, or to roughly 68°F (20°C). Alternatively, refrigerate up to 1 week and stand at room temperature until warmed to roughly 68°F.
- START THE (BUTTER)CREAMING: Using a paddle attachment on a stand mixer, beat the softened cream cheese and butter on medium speed until fluffy and light, about 5 minutes.
- Stir the thick custard in its dish to create a thick, dough-like mass. It will be somewhat lumpy when cool but loosen when stirred.
- Scrape the cream cheese-butter bowl and beater with a flexible spatula, then switch to whisk attachment and whip on medium speed. Add custard a few tablespoons at a time, then drizzle in the lemon juice. Add a pinch of salt.
- Scrape the bowl once more and whip a few seconds to abate lumps. The buttercream should be light and creamy, but thick enough to hang upside down from a spoon.
- Use buttercream immediately, or transfer to a large zip-lock bag, press out the air, and seal. It keeps in the fridge for 2 weeks well wrapped too, but rewhip before using.
- Buttercream can also be frozen for several months. (The main issue with longer storage in the freezer is odor absorption, not spoilage, so make sure it is well-wrapped in plastic/glass and foil.) Rewarm to approximately 72°F (22°C) with thawing on countertop for a few hours and re-whip before using.
- Stella recommends: "If the buttercream seems stiff or dense (feeling greasy rather than melting on your tongue), scoop a cup into a small bowl and microwave until completely melted, about 30 seconds. Return melted buttercream to the bowl and whip 15 seconds on medium-high. Conversely, if it seems loose or gooey, refrigerate the entire bowl 15 minutes, then whip 3 minutes on medium-high."
- FOR THE CANDIED CARROT ROSES: Stella gives very helpful instructions on how to make these: Peel the carrots, then place on a cutting board.
- Using a vegetable peeler pressed firmly against the root end, drag the blade down its length. Discard the first few irregular strips, and continue peeling to create a pile of wide ribbons.
- Combine water, sugar, and salt in a 2-quart pot over medium heat, and bring to a boil. Drop carrot ribbons into the bubbling syrup, simmer 30 seconds, then shut off the heat. When cool enough to handle (I waited about 10 minutes), fish out a ribbon and let the excess syrup drip off.
- Holding the skinny end with your dominant hand, twist and wrap a carrot ribbon around itself to form a "bud." I found it was easier to fold the ribbon lengthwise a bit, to give the variations in the petalfolds rather than just look like a tightly rolled piece of paper.
- Continue twisting and wrapping to create the remaining petals. More strips can be added to create a larger rose. I made some small and some large for visual variation. Stella also recommends using multicolored carrots for pretty colors. The bright orange alone is still visually stunning.
- Set carrot roses aside in covered container (can last for days). They can be placed on a frosted cake right away and not affect the frosting with discoloration or gooeyness.
- FILLING AND CRUMB COATING: Level cakes with a serrated knife or an Agbay cake leveler. Set the scraps aside (I ate most of them).
- Place one layer on a cake plate and stabilize on a cake turntable.
- Top with exactly 1 cup buttercream (a little less for my 7-inch diameter layers), using an offset spatula to spread it evenly from edge to edge. Repeat with the second and third layers, then cover the sides of the cake with another cup of buttercream, spreading very smooth. I recommend having a different bowl to scrape the crumb coat buttercream into, separate from the "clean" buttercream. It's fine to use as an undercoat, but don't mix it back into "clean" buttercream or you'll be picking crumb bits from the final cake (irritating). Refrigerate cake until the buttercream hardens, about 30 minutes.
- FINAL ASSEMBLY: Re-whip remaining "clean" buttercream to restore its creamy consistency, then use to apply the final coat and decorate the chilled cake as desired.
- Finish with twisted carrot roses. Allow the cake return to cool room temperature before serving. Under a cake dome or an inverted pot (if you can find one tall enough -- not me!), the frosted cake and carrot roses will keep 24 hours at cool room temperature. After cutting, wrap leftover slices individually (or in a large chunk) and store at cool room temperature up to 2 days more or longer in the fridge.