For many years I’ve had a carrot cake in my files, and for many years it was perfectly fine: lots of carrot, nuts, raisins, cream cheese icing – the whole works. But on returning to it recently, I discovered I was no-longer such a fan. And that’s OK. Our tastes change over time as our palate develops, or fades. So I set out to see if I could find a version that would get a tick of approval from my tastebuds.
I found a recipe in a 1990s cookbook that was being highly spoken of online and decided to give it a try. It was fine, but oh Lordy, was it sweet – almost a pound of sugar! However, it had potential, so I have been TESTING and TWEAKING and this here recipe is the result.
So why should you try this version of carrot cake? Well, primarily because of a quality that everyone enjoys in a cake, but which no-one in recent years like to admit out loud. So lets get it out in the open up front. It’s the M-word.
Don’t just take my word for it.
I cannot stress this enough…
In fact, I’d even go so far as to say that, upon tasting the fruits of my tweaking, I may even have been heard to exclaim…
But wait, there’s more!
There’s also texture. Yes, from the large quantity of grated carrot, but also from pineapple and coconut! The pineapple lifts the freshness and adds to the moistness. The coconut cannot be tasted, but it plumps up by absorbing the pineapple and carrot juices and ensures the cake does not collapse under it’s own weight of moistness. There’s no dried fruit, as I felt the cake needed neither the different texture nor the additional sweetness. The generous helping of walnuts in the cake provides a different crunch to the walnuts on the top of the cake, and there’s just enough hint of cinnamon for a lingering aftertaste of spice. The overall flavour is deeply rich, complex, lightly spiced, and the contrasting creamy icing is a fantastic contrast.
Speaking of which, the cream cheese icing has also been tweaked. There’s now less than a quarter of the sugar the original recipe called for. I don’t know why cream cheese recipes call for so much sugar – it honestly makes my teeth ache just reading recipes – it really doesn’t need it. In addition, I have changed the method slightly, since adding sugar releases moisture from both the butter and the cream cheese [sidebar: is it just me or does cream cheese seem not as dense and rich as it used to be?], without the following tweak, the whole batch tends to get a bit gloopy. By storing the prepared icing in the fridge overnight, resting on several layers of kitchen towel, this excess moisture is drawn out of the icing and it becomes much firmer and tastes richer and creamier. I also chose to pair the warmth of the cinnamon in the cake with the sharp bitterness of Seville orange zest¹ instead of the usual lemon, and it is a fantastic combination, offsetting both the richness of the icing and the sweetness of the cake.
Yet another great thing about this recipe is that it can be mixed in a single bowl. I baked this as a single large cake, but you can divide the mixture between two layer cake pans if liked and reduce the cooking time slightly. Be sure to grate the carrots finely for best results.
250g plain flour
2tsp bicarbonate of soda
1tsp baking powder
1½tsp ground cinnamon
50g dessicated coconut
330g finely grated carrot
300g dark soft brown sugar/Muscovado
3 large eggs
130g drained crushed pineapple
juice of half a lemon
60ml vegetable oil
1tsp vanilla extract
120g roughly chopped walnuts
250g cream cheese – at room temperature
170g unsalted butter – softened
60g icing sugar, sifted
zest of 1 Seville orange (or other options – see footnote)
- Heat the oven to 170ºC, 150ºC Fan.
- Grease and line your cake tin(s) with baking parchment. Brush/spray a little oil onto the paper. I used a rectangular spring-form tin 18cm x 28cm.
- Sift the flour, powders, cinnamon and salt into a large bowl.
- Stir through the coconut, carrot and sugar.
- Whisk together the eggs, milk, lemon juice, oil, extract and the drained pineapple.
- Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients and mix thoroughly.
- Stir in the chopped walnuts.
- Pour the mixture into your tin(s) and bake in the middle of the oven for 50 minutes (less for layer cake pans), turning the tin(s) around after 30 minutes.
- When the cake is cooked, i.e. the middle is springy to the touch, a skewer or similar comes out clean, the cake is drawing away from the sides of the tin and you can no-longer hear bubbling sounds coming from it, remove from the oven and allow the cake(s) to cool in the tin for 15 minutes.
- Transfer the cake(s) to a wire rack to cool completely.
- When cold, wrap in parchment and foil and set aside until you’re ready to fill/ice.
- To make the icing:
- Tip the cream cheese onto several layers of kitchen towel to absorb surface moisture.
- Whisk the softened butter until light and fluffy. This will take at least 5 minutes.
- Add the room-temperature cream cheese and mix thoroughly. Do not try and mix the cream cheese and butter if either are chilled. You will not get them to blend smoothly and will end up with lumps in your icing.
- Add the icing sugar and zest/flavouring and mix thoroughly until smooth and combined.
- Line a plastic container with 4 layers of kitchen roll and spoon the icing into the box. Leave the box in the fridge overnight to allow the excess moisture to be absorbed.
- When you’re ready to finish your cake, decide where you wish to ice your cake: just on the top, on the top and sides, top and through the middle, or all of the above. I ran a quick Twitter poll, and the most popular answer was ‘all of the above’ – so top, inside and around the sides. By the time it’s drained overnight, this quantity will probably only be able to do 2 of these 3 areas generously. I chose top and middle, and as can be seen from the pictures, it’s a generous amount without being over-the-top. If you’re a fiend for cream cheese icing, I suggest multiplying the recipe by 1.5 to satisfy your needs.
- Cut your cake in half through the middle and spread half of your cream cheese icing evenly. Replace the top layer and smooth over the remaining icing. Sprinkle walnuts to taste.
- Store cake in an airtight container, and if likely to be kept several days, in the fridge.
¹ I know Seville oranges are currently out of season, but every year I zest and juice a couple of nets of Seville oranges and freeze the mixture in ice trays before transferring to a ziplock bag, so I can add the punchy flavour to recipes all year round. Substitute with whatever citrus zest takes your fancy, or experiment with sharp-tasting, freeze-dried fruit powders.