I think I made the first version of this carrot cake when I was sous pastry chef at Gilt, the long-closed restaurant inside New York’s Palace Hotel. My pastry chef at the time, David Carmichael, told me it was a killer recipe and I had to stick to it. He also gave me the idea of running the carrots through a juicer, then combining the pulp and juice before adding them to the batter. This allows for a tighter crumb than you get with the usual box grater trick.
I took David’s advice and kept the recipe; it has followed me through the years. At Aureole, my first gig as pastry chef, a pan-fried version of the recipe was on the dessert menu with red grape sorbet – and, knowing me at the time, probably squiggles of cottage cheese and, uh, carrot micro-tops? (Hey, that was 2009!) It was when I was working at Lafayette that I first replaced some of the white flour with whole wheat, and the result stood proud on the bakery counter under the shape of a hearty muffin topped with rolled oats. This whole-wheat ratio accompanied me to Atlanta, where the cake debuted as my own version of the classic hummingbird, all chunky and delicious with roasted pineapples and Georgia pecans folded into the batter. Now, at The Buttery, it lives the way I think it always should: pure and carrot with no spices, layered and topped with its lifelong partner, cream cheese frosting.
If you don’t have a juicer, feel free to run the carrots through a food processor or grate them as normal, then chop the shreds on a board with a chef’s knife – you’re looking for a fine mince.
Carrot Cake Recipe with Cream Cheese Frosting
Makes 1 glorious 8-inch 4-tier cake to serve 12 generously
For the dehydrated carrot filling:
1 medium carrot
For the cake:
2 2/3 cups (525 grams) organic cane sugar
1½ cups (330 grams) neutral vegetable oil
6 (300 grams each) large eggs
2/3 cup (90 grams) whole wheat flour (Anson Mills graham flour preferred)
1 ¾ cups (250 grams) all-purpose flour, preferably unbleached
2 teaspoons (9 grams) baking soda
½ teaspoon (3 grams) fine sea salt
3 ½ cups (380 grams) carrots, finely grated and chopped, from about 6 medium carrots
For the cream cheese frosting:
1 pound (454 grams) cream cheese, softened
¾ cup (91 grams) powdered sugar
Pinch of fine sea salt
¾ cup (170 grams) butter, very soft
1 tablespoon (20 grams) sorghum syrup (or golden syrup or honey)
2 teaspoons (9 grams) vanilla paste (you can substitute with extract if that’s what you have)
Step 1: If you are making the dehydrated carrot filling, peel the carrot and thinly slice it into thin rounds using a mandolin or vegetable peeler. You have a few options for dehydrating them. If you have a microwave, place the carrot slices on a plate lined with parchment paper or paper towel. Cook on medium power for 2 minutes, then continue in 30 second bursts until they have shrunk into small, crinkled pieces. Remove from microwave and let cool completely until crispy.
If you don’t have a microwave, lay out the slices on a dehydrating tray and dry at 150 degrees for about 4 hours or until the edges curl up and are completely dry. Alternatively, you can lay them out on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and place them in an oven set to the lowest possible heat with the door slightly ajar until completely dry, about 6 hours or overnight . These carrot frills can be stored in an airtight container for up to a month and refreshed again in a low oven if needed.
2nd step: Make the cake. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and prepare two 8-inch cake pans by brushing or spraying them with oil and lining the bottom with a circle of parchment paper (the paper is optional, but you absolutely must pre-grease them the mold).
Step 3: In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk, mix sugar, oil and eggs. Whisk the ingredients for about 5-7 minutes on medium-high speed, until the mixture thickens and increases significantly in volume, with a consistency similar to that of mayonnaise.
Step 4: Meanwhile, in another bowl, whisk together the flours, baking soda and salt.
Step 5: Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients in 3 additions, mixing to incorporate and scraping down the bowl with a rubber spatula between additions.
Step 6: Add carrots and mix again until well blended, 30 to 40 seconds.
Step 7: Remove the bowl from the mixer and use the rubber spatula to scrape and fold the dough from the bottom of the bowl to make sure the dough is cohesive.
Step 8: Divide the batter evenly between the two pans.
Step 9: Bake the cakes for 50 to 55 minutes, or until a cake tester comes out clean and the cake springs back when lightly pressed.
Step 10: Let the cakes cool in the pans for about 15 minutes, then unmold them onto a baking sheet. Chill the cakes in the fridge or freezer for about 30 minutes before frosting. This helps when splicing (or twisting) layer cakes for construction. You can even store the cakes in the fridge overnight if you’re not ready to do all the baking/assembling in one go.
Step 11: To make the frosting, first make sure the cream cheese and butter are completely softened at room temperature. Place the softened cream cheese, powdered sugar and salt in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Cream them on low speed to start, then on medium speed, until completely smooth and a bit frothy, about 4 minutes. Add softened butter to cream cheese mixture and continue creaming on medium speed until very foamy and smooth, about 4 minutes. (The glaze will firm up as it goes, so keep beating.) Finally, add the sorghum and vanilla and mix just to incorporate.
Step 12: To assemble the cake, level the domed tops of both cakes with a serrated knife. Divide each cake horizontally into two layers. (This can be done very easily if you have a cake turntable, but it’s definitely not necessary equipment. Do your best to end up with 4 layers of cake of similar thickness.)
Step 13: Place the bottom layer of one of the cakes on a 10-inch round plate or board, cut side up. Spread about 1 cup of cream cheese frosting over the cake and cover with the top layer of this same cake. Spread another 1 cup of frosting, then cover it with the top layer of the second cake. Spread yet another cup of frosting on top, and finally top with the bottom layer of the second cake, cut side down. If icing has oozed from the sides, use an offset spatula or butter knife to smooth it out. For best, orderly results, freeze the assembled cake for about 30 minutes to set the frosting layers.
Step 14: Once the cake is cooled and feels a little more solid, cover it with the remaining frosting, and swirl and swoosh until the cake is completely covered. Garnish the top with the “nuggets” of dehydrated carrots. The cake is best eaten at room temperature, but can be stored covered in the fridge for up to 5 days before serving.
Jen Yee is the executive pastry chef for the Hopkins and Company group of restaurants, including its provisions store, the Butter ATL. She lives in Atlanta.
Dina Avila is a photographer in Portland, Oregon.
Recipe tested by Deena Prichep