Saturday, April 23, 2011

(Best) Carrot Cake (Ever)

I was going to try a new Easter dessert this year after a few years of making carrot cake. But when I did a brief survey of the household I discovered (not surprisingly) that others had no interest in entertaining a new dessert. (We are a very consistent kind of household.) So I decided to take a different approach. If I was going to make carrot cake (again) I'd try a new recipe rather than use the same-old-same-old.

The same-old-same-old, it should be noted, produces a very respectable carrot cake. It's the first carrot cake recipe I ever tried and it's from the 1978 Optimist Club Cookbook that was produced as a fundraiser for hockey in my hometown. I would have been four when this particular cookbook was put together. My copy is a photocopy of the original that my mother bought. Whenever I flip through it I imagine the hours of work that must have gone in to its production, back when someone had to type out each recipe and format the pages 'by hand'. While I'm sure it was a labour of love I do have a few complaints. Often the recipes don't specify what size of pan to use, and the directions can be vague or in some cases missing altogether. Given that the recipes note the name of the contributor I assume that in the event someone was confused they would just phone up so and so and ask them 'What size of pans do you use to make your carrot cake Joyce/Ruth/Norma/Carol'? (I grew up in a very small town.)

This year I was very happy to stumble upon (Google style) a carrot cake recipe attributed to Cook's Illustrated, who we all know I adore. I have a number of CI cookbooks but not Baking Illustrated, which is where this recipe is from. The cake itself is perfectly spiced and the icing is wonderfully tangy. I didn't add raisins or nuts and I'm glad I didn't - this cake doesn't need such embellishments. Note that I mixed the batter in a stand mixer and didn't bother with the food processor. I grated my carrots on a regular ol' box grater. I didn't go so far as to double the icing but did make make an additional half recipe to sufficiently ice the cake. I made one 13x9 cake rather than 2-9 inch round layers. A 13x9 effort was much easier to transport and serve to the crowd I was feeding. The sign of a good cake? Not a lot of leftovers came home. All that's left is this teeny, tiny piece which is slightly fuzzed in my photo because miracle of miracles, the sun shone today. Just as I was taking this picture it streamed in through my kitchen window. That's right, it was actually warm outside. I played tennis and rode bikes with my kids and darn if I'm not a bit red in places from the sun's warm rays. An Easter miracle.

Carrot Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting 
Source: Baking Illustrated, by Cooks Illustrated

If you like nuts in your cake, stir 1 1/2 cups toasted chopped pecans or walnuts into the batter along with the carrots. Raisins are also a good addition; 1 cup can be added along with the carrots. If you add both nuts and raisins, the cake will need an additional 10 to 12 minutes in the oven. Below are instructions for using a hand-held or standing mixer.

Carrot Cake
2 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour (12 1/2 ounces)
1 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 1/4 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon table salt
1 pound medium carrots (6 to 7 carrots), peeled
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar (10 1/2 ounces)
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar (3 1/2 ounces)
4 large eggs
1 1/2 cups vegetable oil , safflower oil, or canola oil

Cream Cheese Frosting
8 ounces cream cheese , softened but still cool
5 tablespoons unsalted butter softened, but still cool
1 tablespoon sour cream
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/4 cups confectioners' sugar (4 1/2 ounces)

1. For the cake: Adjust oven rack to middle position; heat oven to 350 degrees. Spray 13 by 9-inch baking pan (or 2, 9" round cake pans) with nonstick cooking spray. Line bottom of pan with parchment and spray parchment.
2. Whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and salt in large bowl; set aside.
3. In food processor fitted with large shredding disk (see below for mixer method), shred carrots (you should have about 3 cups); transfer carrots to bowl and set aside. Wipe out food processor workbowl and fit with metal blade. Process granulated and brown sugars and eggs until frothy and thoroughly combined, about 20 seconds. With machine running, add oil through feed tube in steady stream. Process until mixture is light in color and well emulsified, about 20 seconds longer. Scrape mixture into medium bowl. Stir in carrots and dry ingredients until incorporated and no streaks of flour remain. Pour into prepared pan and bake until toothpick or skewer inserted into center of cake comes out clean, 35 to 40 minutes, rotating pan halfway through baking time. Cool cake to room temperature in pan on wire rack, about 2 hours.
4. For the frosting (See below for mixer method): When cake is cool, process cream cheese, butter, sour cream, and vanilla in clean food processor workbowl until combined, about 5 seconds, scraping down bowl with rubber spatula as needed. Add confectioners' sugar and process until smooth, about 10 seconds.
5. Run paring knife around edge of cake to loosen from pan. Invert cake onto wire rack, peel off parchment, then invert again onto serving platter. Using icing spatula, spread frosting evenly over surface of cake. Cut into squares and serve. (Cover leftovers and refrigerate for up to 3 days.)

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