Here is the truth: despite vegetables’ recent rise in popularity and uptick in reputation as something people actually like to eat (as opposed to, you know, have to eat), I’ve always been kinda meh on them. If we’re being completely honest, I STILL am. Believe me, I try to be a vegetable person. I *know* it’s better for me. So much that I make sure that at least half of me and Erlend’s meals consist of vegetables. And even if I’m dining out, I’m the lame person in the group who suggests we go “somewhere with vegetables” and force the table to order at least one plate dedicated to the stuff. But push comes to shove, I’ll never be able to scarf down a plate of vegetables in the same way that I can very enthusiastically do a burger or even an entire pan of pepperoni pizza.
I’m not disputing that vegetables aren’t tasty. I pretty much love any deep-fried or roasted vegetable (especially if it’s been doused in lots of butter, oil, and salt), and appreciate the lightness of a salad on a day where I’m feeling bloated and icky (likely from scarfing down too much deep fried stuff, Chinese or not, side eye). But I just don’t get excited about them. And for a long time, I believed in clear boundaries between the food I need to eat (ehem, salads and vegetables) and the food I WANT to eat, like the cookies and cakes you see on Hummingbird High. And that’s why, in my eight or so years of blogging, I have never posted a cake recipe that uses a vegetable like zucchini or carrots. My train of thought was genuinely this: I’m eating cake. Why ruin it with vegetables?
Which leads me to this carrot cake recipe. Now I’m STILL not exactly sure why I decided to make a carrot cake after literally eight years of avoiding it. But I figured I’d start with a tried and tested recipe from one of the baking greats, Stella Parks. This recipe is adapted from her cookbook, BraveTart; according to the recipe’s headnotes, it’s the cake that Stella baked for her own wedding, which is perhaps the biggest endorsement you can give to any recipe. Her recipe uses brown butter to highlight the earthy sweetness of the carrots, along with whole wheat flour to help absorb moisture from the vegetables and keep the cake light and fluffy. It’s absolutely delicious and may even be enough to convert me into using vegetables in my desserts recipes on a regular basis.
To make it Easter themed (Easter is this Sunday, can you believe it?!), I lined the cream cheese frosting with these shimmery Cadbury mini eggs (yes, they are literally shimmery versions of those Cadbury eggs that everybody loves — not the ones with the gooey center, but the ones with the hard candy shell). To be perfectly honest with y’all, the Cadbury egg decor was a low-key disaster — although it looked great and was easier to decorate, than say, something more elaborate like this ruffle cake, cutting the cake was a bit of a nightmare and caused Cadbury eggs to fly violently off the cake and shatter everywhere. Not to mention the fact that after about an hour or so, the dye from the eggs started to run and drip down the cake because of their contact with the frosting! Ew. So although this egg design makes for a great Instagram photo, I’m sad to say I definitely wouldn’t recommend this technique in the future and feel low-key betrayed by this recipe and this blog post that recommends something similar. Sorry to crush everybody’s dreams, HAPPY EASTER.
Some baker’s notes:
- To make this recipe, you’ll need 24 ounces of peeled and shredded carrots. You can either buy them already peeled and shredded, but I noticed that a processed bag was literally three times the price of unprocessed carrots! I ended up following Stella’s recommendation in the book and buying 2 pounds of carrots, trimming and peeling them, and then using the fine shredder disc blade in my food processor to shred them. The whole thing took about 10 minutes (shredding them in the food process took less than a minute — the majority of the work was peeling the damn things) and saved me a decent amount of cash.
- Don’t panic — this cake makes a LOT of batter. Make sure to use pans with at least 3 inch sides for each cake; in a pinch, you can always move up to 9-inch cake pans or use a fourth 8-inch cake pan.
- Stella’s cream cheese frosting is actually based on German buttercream recipes, which instructs the baker to first make a pudding and then beat it with butter (and cream cheese, for this particular recipe) to make a more stable frosting than traditional American cream cheese frosting that still melts in your mouth. Unfortunately, like Swiss meringue buttercream, German buttercream can be unpredictable — if the pudding is added to the butter at too warm of a temperature, the buttercream will end up too loose and gooey. Alternatively, if it’s too cold, the buttercream will feel stiff, dense, and taste oily. If the former, refrigerate the entire bowl for 14 minutes, then whip for 3 minutes on medium-high. If it seems too stiff. scoop out a cup of it into a small bowl and microwave until completely melted, about 30 seconds. Pour the melted buttercream into the rest of the buttercream and whisk on medium-high for 15 seconds.
- Because the pudding needs to be cooled to room temperature, I actually ended up making this cake over 2 days. On the first day, I made the cakes and the pudding for the cream cheese frosting; on the second day, I finished making the cream cheese frosting and decorated the cake. If you’re going this route, make sure you let the pudding come to room temperature by taking it out of the fridge at least 1 hour before using. It needs to be rewarmed to 68 (F). If you’re planning on making the cake all in one day, I suggest make the pudding first, then the cakes; let both the pudding and cake come to room temperature before finishing the frosting and decorating the cake.
Get the Recipe: My First Carrot Cake
For the Carrot Cake
- 2 cups (16 ounces) unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch cubes
- 2 1/2 cups (11 ounces) all-purpose flour
- 1 cup (5 ounces) whole wheat flour
- 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
- 1 tablespoon ground ginger
- 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
- 1 tablespoon baking powder
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
- 2 cups (14 ounces) granulated sugar
- 1 cup tightly packed (7.5 ounces) brown sugar
- 6 large eggs
- 1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
- 7 cups tightly packed (24 ounces) peeled and shredded carrots (see baker's notes)
- 3 1/2 cups (14 ounces) roasted and salted pecans, chopped into 1/2 to 1-inch pieces
For the Cream Cheese Frosting
- 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons (8 ounces) granulated sugar
- 1/3 cup (1.5 ounces) cornstarch
- 3 large eggs
- 1 1/2 cups (12 ounces) whole milk
- 1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
- 2 cups (16 ounces) cream cheese, at room temperature
- 1 1/2 cups (12 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
For the Carrot Cake
- Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 350 (F). Spray three 8-inch cake pans with cooking spray and line the bottom of each pan with a parchment paper circle; spray the parchment paper as well.
- Place 2 cups cubed unsalted butter in a heavy bottomed sauce pan and melt over medium-low heat. Increase to medium and simmer, stirring with a heatproof rubber spatula; the butter will hiss and pop. Continue cooking and stirring, scraping up any brown bits that form in the bottom of the pan, until the butter is golden yellow and perfectly silent. Pour into a liquid measuring cup, along with the toasty brown bits, to cool on a wire rack while you work with the other ingredients.
- In a medium bowl, whisk together 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, 1 cup whole wheat flour, 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon, 1 tablespoon ground ginger, 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg, 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves, 1 tablespoon baking powder, 1 teaspoon baking soda, and 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt.
- In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a whisk attachment, combine 2 cups granulated sugar, 1 cup tightly packed brown sugar, 6 large eggs, and 1 tablespoon vanilla extract. Mix on low to moisten, then increase the speed to medium and whisk until fluffy and thick, about 5 minutes. Reduce to medium-low and stream in the brown butter (from the 2nd step), then add the flours. Once smooth, use a rubber spatula to scrape down the bottom and sides of the bowl and fold any stuck ingredients into the batter. Fold in the carrots and the pecans.
- Divide evenly between the prepared cake pans, pouring about 32.5 ounces of batter into each pan. Bake for 45 minutes, or until the cakes are golden and a skewer inserted into the center of the cake comes out with few crumbs attached. Cool the cakes in their pans on a wire rack to room temperature before frosting.
For the Cream Cheese Frosting
- In a medium bowl, whisk together 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar, 1/3 cup cornstarch, and 3 large eggs.
- Pour 1 1/2 cups whole milk into a heavy-bottomed sauce pan over medium heat. Bring to a simmer and ladle 1/2 cup of the hot milk into the eggs, whisking to combine. Repeat with a second and third ladleful, then pour the warmed eggs into the pot and cook over medium heat, whisking constantly until the custard turns thick and lumpy, about 3 minutes. Once it begins to bubble sluggishly, continue cooking and whisking for an additional 2 minutes. Remove from heat and whisk in 1 tablespoon vanilla extract. Pour the custard into a baking dish to speed the cooling process and press plastic wrap directly against the surface. Refrigerate until thick and cool, about 1 hour. Alternatively (see baker’s notes), pour into an airtight container and press plastic wrap directly against the surface. Refrigerate for up to 1 week, then let stand at room temperature for an hour until warmed to 68 (F) before proceeding to the next step.
- In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, beat 2 cups cream cheese and 1 1/2 cups butter until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Use a rubber spatula to scrape down the paddle and the bottom and sides of the bowl, then switch to the whisk attachment. Whipping on medium speed, add pudding a few tablespoons at a time, then drizzle in 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice. Scrape down the sides of the bowl once more and whisk for a few more seconds to ensure that no lumps remain. The buttercream should be light and creamy, but thick enough to hang upside down from a spoon.