"My mom's carrot cake is better."
This is a hill I'd die on. I'm not saying I haven't tried other perfectly delicious carrot cakes with standout cream cheese frosting. But are they as sweet, moist and tender (thanks to over a cup of oil and four whole eggs) with just the right hit of spice? Are they excessively frosted with the tangiest, richest cream cheese icing of all time? Are they blissfully free of nuts and raisins or currants, exactly as I think carrot cake should be?
No, I'm sure they are not.
The thing about such superlative statements is that deep down, we know they're flawed because they're so subjective — tinged with our own specific memories through the distorted, sepia-toned lens of simpler times and underdeveloped taste buds. All the same, if you tell me there's a better carrot cake out there, I'll kindly — but firmly — disagree.
This lush cake tastes like Christmas night at my Aunt and Uncle Brown's house in Belmont, Mass., when my tights perpetually bunched at the backs of my five-year-old knees. It tastes like dozens of birthdays at my various childhood homes when we begged Mom to make The Cake. It tastes like Thanksgivings home from college in the Chicago suburbs, and the mornings after, when we'd steal a few forkfuls for breakfast with coffee.
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Maybe that's why I never before attempted to make her carrot cake myself. That — and I'm afraid I don't have the touch.
Mom had only two pieces of advice when I called: Line the bottom of the cake pans with parchment — because that cake likes sticking to everything — and do not, under any circumstances, attempt to frost the cake if it's still warm. Other than that, this cake is almost as simple to make as it is sublimely delicious — aside from the inelegant matter of flopping one cake atop the other. (Mom and I suggest frosting one cake, flat-side up, then plunking the second on top, flat-side down.)
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As I assembled the ingredients, I quickly unriddled why this cake tastes so confoundingly good: sugar and multiple forms of fat administered by the pound and half pound and a generous hand with the cinnamon and vanilla.
"People always say, 'Oh, it's healthy because there are carrots in it," Mom said. "But this cake is like a heart attack."
"For special occasions!" I interjected. And for stealing by the forkful every time you pass through the kitchen, 'til it's gone.
Recipe: Mom's Superlative Carrot Cake
from Uncle J.J. Brown's sister-in-law Nancy
For the cake
- 2 cups sugar
- 2 cups flour, plus more as needed
- 2 tsp cinnamon
- 2 tsp baking soda
- Pinch of salt
- 1 1/4 cups vegetable oil
- 4 whole eggs, beaten
- 3 cups finely shredded carrots
- 2 tsp vanilla extract
- Softened butter, as needed
For the icing
- 8 ounces softened cream cheese
- 1/2 cup (1 stick) softened butter
- 3/4 to 1 pound confectioner's sugar
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 1 tsp orange juice
- 1 cup finely chopped pecans (optional — but you know what I'd say about adding them)
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and arrange a rack in the center. In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the sugar, flour, cinnamon, baking soda and salt. Whisk in the oil, then add the beaten eggs, carrots and vanilla. Mix until well combined.
Grease and flour two 8-inch round (or square!) cake pans and line the bottoms with parchment paper. Divide the batter evenly between each pan. Bake on the same shelf in the oven for 35 minutes, or until the cake pulls away from the sides a toothpick comes out clean when inserted in the center. Remove the cakes from the pans immediately and let them cool on a rack for at least an hour. (In other words, promise me you won't ice the cake until it's completely cold.)
Transfer the first cake, flat side up, to a serving platter also lined with parchment. (This cake enjoys sticking to everything.)
In a large mixing bowl or the bowl of a stand mixer with the paddle attachment, whisk together the cream cheese and butter until well combined. Slowly add the sugar, vanilla and orange juice, mixing until well combined and smooth.
Using an offset spatula or butter knife, ice the first cake all over. Set the second one on top, flat side down, and ice all around the outside. Be generous now. This cake freezes beautifully — "oh for ages — there's so much fat and sugar in it," when I pressed Mom for a timeline. Simply leave it for a few hours on the counter so the frosting can dry before wrapping it in plastic then foil and stick it in the freezer. You can thaw it right on the counter. It's wonderfully forgiving that way.
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