Julia Child said it best when she made the point that a party without a cake is just a meeting. My takeaway from that is you never need a reason or an excuse to have a cake. I think we sometimes worry that a homemade cake will not be perfect, won’t look as professional as a bakery, and will be less delicious than one that was purchased.
I think that’s the point! I want it to look homemade and I want it to show the love, care, and work that went into it. The best part is that cake doesn’t have to be difficult. In fact, growing up, it was one of the first things I baked on my own. Follow this recipe and you will have a perfectly delicious carrot cake!
What is carrot cake?
The beginnings of carrot cake have a lot of folklore and differing opinions, but I like the stories that think it was born from a time when sugar was exotic and expensive and carrots were a cheap, alternate way to sweeten a cake. Sugar may not be exotic today, but carrots do have a high sugar content and more so, the ability to keep a cake moist. I go for a carrot cake that is heavy on the carrots. Why have false advertising? Instead, pile in plenty of carrots and just enough sugar to complement but not overpower the flavor.
At this point, carrot cake is like a cult classic, with a group of followers that absolutely love it. And with good reason. What’s not to love?
What makes a carrot cake?
When writing a recipe, my first step is to look for all the recipes I may have around: church cookbooks and family recipes, among others. Carrot cakes can have a large list of ingredients, some of them unique: pineapple, various nuts, bananas, and more. Pineapple should be reserved for a hummingbird cake, but pecans are essential in a carrot cake.
The most important step to including pecans is to make sure they are toasted first. Raw nuts become soggy. Toasting the nuts before adding them to the cake brings out the flavor and helps them keep their texture once baked.
Spices also create the perfect carrot cake. For me, that means adding cinnamon and nutmeg, which help enhance the flavor of the carrots.
Why use oil in the cake instead of butter?
Oftentimes, cakes are made by creaming soft butter with sugar. This is the standard method, and usually, butter contributes to the flavor of cakes when there is no prominent spice or flavor.
Carrot cake uses oil, which is 100% fat as opposed to 80% in butter. The fat keeps the cake extremely moist, which means it freezes well and tastes fresh when defrosted. Since carrot cake has strong flavors due to the added cinnamon and nutmeg, the butter flavor would be overpowered. Butter is also heavier than oil and with the addition of carrots, the finished cake would be too dense if made with butter. The oil gives the finished cake an amazingly soft and light texture, which is the perfect carrier for cream cheese frosting!
Yes, very important! Since the cream cheese can warm up while the frosting is mixing, it’s important to follow the 20-minute chilling step for the frosting. This way, the frosting will not be too runny while frosting.
Watch how to make this carrot cake:
Classic Carrot Cake
For the cake
- ½ cup brown sugar
- 1 cup white sugar
- 4 large eggs
- 1 ¼ cups neutral oil
- 1 ½ tsp vanilla extract
- 2 ½ cups flour
- 1 tsp baking powder
- 1 tsp baking soda
- 1 ½ tsp cinnamon
- ¼ tsp nutmeg, freshly ground
- 3 cups grated carrots, lightly packed
- 1 cup toasted pecans, chopped
For the cream cheese frosting
- 8 oz cream cheese, room temperature
- 8 tbsp unsalted butter, room temperature
- 2 tbsp sour cream
- 2 tsp vanilla extract
- 2 ½ cups powdered sugar, sifted
- Preheat oven to 350°F.
- Grease two 9-inch round cake pans. Line bottoms with parchment paper and grease the paper. Set aside.
- In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine the brown sugar, white sugar, eggs, oil, and vanilla. Mix on medium speed until combined, 3 minutes.
- Add flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Mix until just combined and only a few streaks of dry ingredients remain. Fold in carrots and prepared pecans.
- Pour into prepared cake pans and bake in preheated oven until a skewer inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean, 35-45 minutes.
- Remove from oven and cool in pans for 10 minutes. Then remove from the pans and cool completely before frosting.
For the frosting
- While the cake is cooling, in the bowl of an electric mixture, mix the cream cheese on medium until smooth. Add in the butter and continue mixing until the cream cheese and butter are smooth and combined with no lumps, 3 minutes. The sides of the bowl may need to be scraped periodically while mixing.
- Add the sour cream and mix to incorporate, 1 minute. Add the vanilla and powdered sugar. Mix on low until the sugar is incorporated and then mix on medium until smooth, 3-4 minutes.
To assemble the cake
- Spread 1 cup of frosting on top of one 9-inch cake. Add the second cake and frost around the sides and top to cover the cakes. Serve immediately or store in the refrigerator to keep the frosting from getting too soft.
- I like to make the frosting while the cake cools and chill in the refrigerator for up to two hours before frosting the cake.