An old family recipe, traditional at Spring, topped with less-sugar cream cheese frosting, and made with a twist or two!
As we think ahead to planning Easter and Spring gatherings, carrot cake comes to mind as a perfect dessert. The flavors and textures of this cake appeal to many, so it is often requested at my house for birthday celebrations as well.
When I was a kid, I loved my mother’s carrot cake which she made with cream cheese frosting. I was one of those kids who would rather eat a pickle than a piece of candy, so I loved that I didn’t have to scrape all the frosting off my slice, the frosting was more tangy than sweet.
A special gift
She often made her cake at Christmastime, and gifted them to everyone, so it holds a lot of memories for me. There always seemed to be a carrot cake in the freezer to solve dessert emergencies!
When my kids were little, I made her carrot cake for them, fiddling with the recipe all the way. The original was delicious, but I’ve made a few swaps and additions that I think add to the recipe.
Over years, I tried cutting down on sugar, but the results left the cake absolutely flat on flavor. While carrots have a lot of sweetness, they are also pretty savory, so the cake needed sugar to keep this firmly in the dessert lane.
This isn’t health food, it’s dessert
I also tried using some whole grain flour. Anything more than a half a cup made the cake taste more like a muffin than a cake. I decided dessert is dessert, and as a special treat, especially if it is a holiday cake, the “healthful” option is not always the first consideration. So I stay true to the recipe and use the full amount of sugar and plain old unbleached white flour. However, I did swap out one cup of brown sugar for one of the white because in a cake like this, the background subtle molasses flavor was nice.
Of course, I found myself fiddling around with the spices as well, adding a little ginger and cardamom, and I mixed them with the flour, rather than the oil, to more evenly distribute them; I found the spices tended to clump up in the oil as my mother’s recipe dictated.
A little hint of the tropics, but not too much!
My mom added a can of pineapple to the batter, well drained and all the juice squeezed out, and I loved that texture in the cake. I leaned even more into the tropical feeling of this cake by adding some dark rum. It was a keeper, and enhanced the brown sugar flavor!
My last swap was to increase the nuts a little and use two different kinds – walnuts and pecans. I have to admit, I didn’t have enough of either nut, so I combined them and they measured a little more than the recipe called for, so I threw them all in. However, I loved how it turned out, and decided that more nuts, and a combination of nuts, was better. A happy accident! Also, I toast these before adding them to the cake, just to bring out a little more flavor. The nuts are optional, of course, but recommended.
I also experimented recently with a gluten-free carrot cake, and it was good. I think there’s so much else going on in the cake, the slightly different texture of this flour goes unnoticed. I used a basic gluten-free baking mix that included rice flours, tapioca flour, and potato starch. Quite frankly, I doubt anyone would know it was gluten-free if I didn’t tell them, so I probably won’t!
I am glad this came out so well because now I can make the cake nut- and gluten-free so most of my family can eat this! My next test will be to make this with a squash instead of carrots since my daughter is allergic to carrots!
Most recent version
I recently made this for a birthday celebration and used orange zest and orange liquor version of the cream cheese frosting below. It was a hit, and everyone appreciated the less-sugar cream cheese frosting on this cake. I also spread a thin later of bitter orange marmalade on the first layer before I added the frosting. It was delicious, the slight bitter taste a nice balance to the sugars! However, the next time I make the cake, I’ll probably change it up! Brazil nuts maybe, or dried cherries…
This looks like a lot of ingredients, but it mixes up really fast! I’ve included my mom’s original recipe, with her two whole lines of instructions; the frosting, one sentence. I’m glad I watched her make it a hundred times; so many of the old recipes assumed you knew how to cook or bake and didn’t need instructions – or perhaps, it was an excuse to call that friend up and ask how they actually put it together!
Family Favorite Carrot Cake
1 1/3 cups canola oil
1 tsp. vanilla
4 tbsp. dark rum (I used Meyers)
1 cup white sugar
1 cup brown sugar
1 can crushed pineapple, very well drained
4 large eggs
2 cups unbleached white flour
2 tsp. ground cinnamon
½ tsp. ground ginger
1/2 tsp. ground cardamom
1 tsp. salt
2 tsp. baking soda
3 cups finely grated carrots
1 ½ cup nuts, toasted lightly
1 cup golden raisins
Preheat your oven to 300 degrees. Butter and flour two 8” cake pans, line with parchment, then butter and flour those as well.
Mix together liquids, oil, vanilla, rum, sugars, pineapple, and eggs. Set aside. In a large bowl, combine flour, cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, salt, and baking soda, and mix well with a whisk.
Add liquids to the flour mixture, blending together gently.
Fold in the carrots, nuts, and raisins. Mix just until there is no flour visible and the nuts and fruit are evenly distributed in the batter.
Divide between the two cake pans, and smooth.
Set the timer for 50 minutes, but you will probably need the full hour. The cake will feel springy when touched, and toothpick will come out clean.
Let the cake sit for five minutes, then invert onto a cooling rack. Let cool completely before frosting.
Less-Sugar Cream Cheese Frosting
Although I liked my family’s cream cheese frosting, I needed it to be even less sweet to make me happy, so I increased the cheese a little bit, and lowered the sugar considerably. But taste as you go, this is your frosting after all. Start with the two cups, taste, and if you want it sweeter, add more.
I have also experimented with different extracts and flavorings. You can flavor it with rum, or brandy, and vanilla bean paste is lovely in this as well. You can halve this recipe if making a one-layer cake.
2 bricks cream cheese (16 ounces), softened
2 sticks butter, 1 cup, softened
2 cups 10X confectioners sugar, measured after sifting
2 tsp. vanilla, or vanilla bean paste, OR
Zest of one lemon, 2 tbsp. lemon juice or lemon liquor, OR
Zest of one orange, 2 tbsp. orange juice or orange liquor
I try to remember to take the cream cheese and butter out of the refrigerator the night before. You want them to be really soft so that you don’t get lumps. Also, I try to remember to sift the 10X because it is prone to lumps. Little things, but important.
Place cheese and butter in the bowl of a standing mixer, or deep bowl if you are using a hand mixer.
Beat together well, until blended and starting to fluff up. Add the sugar and flavoring and beat slowing to incorporate the sugar, then on high for a couple of minutes, until the frosting is nice and fluffy.
This makes enough to liberally frost and fill a two-layer cake, with enough left over to offer to the frosting cravers.
And here’s my mom’s original recipe:
Sylvia’s Carrot Cake & Cream Cheese Frosting
One of Mom’s favorite gift-giving recipes. Her original recipe, which is as usual, a recipe of few words!
2 cups sugar
2 tsp. cinnamon
1 cup oil
1 tsp. vanilla
1 can pineapple
2 cups flour
2 tsp. baking soda
3 cups grated carrots
1 cup nuts
1 cup raisins
Mix sugar, eggs, cinnamon, oil, vanilla, and pineapple. Add to flour and baking soda and mix well, then fold in carrots, nuts, and raisins. Bake at 300 degrees for one hour.
Cream Cheese Frosting: 1 brick cream cheese, 1 stick of butter, 1 tsp. vanilla, 3 cups confectioners sugar.
© Copyright 2019 – or current year, Dorothy Grover-Read, The New Vintage Kitchen