I woke up yesterday with a little more lightness in my heart than had been there earlier this week. And when I’m feeling lighthearted, my first instinct is to bake.
There are so many things I might have posted on this Easter Sunday. Hot cross buns, which I’ve been wanting to make (and make well—my last batch was a total fail) for a while. Pie. A brunch dish, like French toast. Chocolate eggs. Any number of different cakes.
But all I’ve been able to think about is carrot cake. Maybe not surprising, since carrot cake is my favorite cake. And since cake is my favorite dessert, that puts carrot cake at the top of my treats hierarchy.
This isn’t my first carrot cake recipe. A couple years back, I posted a vegan pumpkin carrot cake that’s a hybrid of pumpkin bread and carrot cake, and therefore perfect for fall. Because pumpkin bread is half of its inspiration, that cake is hearty and dense. The carrot and raisins are predominant, so the interior of the cake is heavily textured, more heft and substance than lightness.
It’s exactly how that particular cake should be. And that’s how a lot of carrot cakes are: very dense, studded with dried fruits and nuts, unmistakably carrot-y. I love that kind of carrot cake, which is the type of carrot cake I’ve most often found in vegan bakeries here in NYC. Lately, though, I’ve been craving a carrot cake recipe that’s a little more traditionally cake-like: light and airy. I want this cake to be carrot cake, for sure—carrots, raisins, and walnuts included—but I want it to be a little fluffier than usual.
You can imagine how excited I was when I saw that Coral Lee had posted a carrot cake on Food52 that features a genius trick: grating the carrots on a microplane, rather than shredding them. So smart. In Coral’s words, “fine-grating with a microplane yields carrot shreds—even wisps!—that better meld with the batter, and make for a more ubiquitous carrot flavor, without the salad-y texture.”
I had a laugh when I read “salad-y,” because that’s how so many of my carrot cakes and muffins have been.
This carrot cake, which is inspired by Coral’s recipe, is my new favorite cake. I say that semi-regularly about new cakes, so take it with a grain of salt, but I think it’ll at least be true of carrot cake. It’s my dream carrot cake: as hearty and spiced and orange as it should be, but tender and light enough on the inside to meet my cake lover’s expectations of a nice crumb. And, true to classic carrot cake form, it features a whipped and creamy, yet rich cream cheese frosting.
You could get fancy with the decoration here. Chopped nuts, frosting carrots, flowers: they’d all look pretty. But part of what I love so much about carrot cake is its slightly rustic, homey feel. This may be a classy carrot cake, but it’s still carrot cake. I frosted the cake and was happy enough with its swirled exterior to call it a day.
In her recipe, Coral offers nuts and raisins as being optional, in keeping with the aim of a cake that hints at elegance and austerity. I added them, but I stuck to her quantities of a half cup of each and the guidance to chop the nuts finely. I was so glad I did this, and it’s how I’ll make carrot cake from now on. The nuts and raisins are there, but they don’t weigh the cake down.
I have a microplane grater, but I suspected it might be slightly faster to use the fine shred setting on my box grater. It worked perfectly; you can see the wisps Coral mentions below:
If you’d rather use a microplane grater, that’s fine. If you have a box grater with a fine setting, good. And if you only have a regular grater, don’t worry! Your carrot cake will taste delicious, only it’ll have the more traditional texture.
My Favorite Vegan Carrot Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting
- 1 tablespoon ground flax seed
- 2 2/3 cups (320 grams) unbleached, all-purpose flour
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
- 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 3/4 cup (6 ounces) neutral vegetable oil, like safflower or grapeseed, or olive oil
- 1 cup (213 grams) lightly packed light or dark brown sugar (substitute coconut sugar)
- 1/2 cup (100 grams) cane sugar
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 1 cup (250 grams) applesauce
- 4 medium/large carrots, peeled and finely shredded with a microplane grater or on the fine shred side of a box grater (about 211 grams after preparation)
- 1/2 cup (65 grams) finely chopped walnuts or pecans (optional)
- 1/2 cup (80 grams) raisins (optional)
For the vegan cream cheese frosting
- 1/2 cup (4 ounces/113 grams) vegan cream cheese of choice, at room temperature
- 2 sticks (8 ounces/226 grams) vegan butter of choice
- 4 cups (454 grams) confectioners’ sugar
- 1 teaspoon white vinegar (if you don’t have this at home, you can omit)
Preheat your oven to 350F. Lightly grease two 8 or 9 inch round cake pans with removable bottoms. Line the bottoms of the cake pans with a round piece of parchment, then dust the pans lightly with flour.
Combine the ground flax seed with 3 tablespoons of water and set them aside.
Whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, cardamom, cloves, nutmeg, and salt in a large mixing bowl.
In another roomy mixing bowl, combine the oil, brown and cane sugars, vanilla, applesauce, and the flax/water mixture. Whisk these wet ingredients well, then add them to your dry ingredients. Use a spatula to fold the batter together. When the batter is almost mixed (a few streaks of flour are OK at this point), add the grated carrot and nuts/raisins if using to the batter. Continue folding it until it’s just entirely combined and the carrots are distributed evenly. Try not to over-mix the batter.
Divide the batter into your two prepared cake pans. Bake for 45-50 minutes, rotating the pans once halfway through baking. When a toothpick inserted into the cakes emerges clean and the tops are firm, they’re ready. They’ll be a deep golden brown. Remove the cakes from their pans and set them on a cooling rack to cool for at least 2 hours, so that they’re completely cool before frosting.
To prepare the frosting, place the butter and cream cheese in a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Mix on medium speed for 5 minutes, or until the butter and cream cheese are very fluffy. Stop the mixer, then add the sugar. Cover the mixer with a tea towel. Mix the frosting on low speed for 2 minutes. Then, remove the tea towel and beat on medium speed for another 4-5 minutes, or until the frosting is very, very fluffy again. Beat in the white vinegar, then stop the mixer.
Frost your cake! You can trim the tops and sides of the cakes to make them even for frosting if you wish. (If you do this, save the scraps for crumbling onto fruit, vegan yogurt, or ice cream, or just for snacking.) Place one layer of cake onto a cake stand and cover the top with frosting. Place the other layer on top, then proceed to frost the tops and sides with straight and offset spatulas (or a butter knife), maintaining a thin layer of frosting to start with (according to Coral Lee’s carrot cake recipe, this is called a “crumb coat”). If you have time, refrigerate the cake after the crumb coat application for 20-30 minutes. Then, use the rest of the frosting to cover the entire cake, making some nice swirls as you go. Make any additional decorations you like, then slice and enjoy your cake.
This Easter isn’t really my holiday; my mom and I didn’t make a big deal of it when I was growing up, as she’s Greek Orthodox. Today I celebrate Greek Easter with her and Passover with some of my chosen family.
Still, I do attach meaning to Easter Sunday. I greet it as a celebration of rebirth, new beginnings, and hope. The promise of life everlasting in the sense that new things are always starting as old ones pass away. I welcome it as a sign of springtime and shifting seasons.
Today, in spite of the darkness and loss that surrounds me here in New York City, I’m finding a tiny way to celebrate. It’s cake, and cake may not seem like the most profound way to celebrate anything.
But for me, food is always profound in that it’s my way of expressing the desire to live, and this is especially true of baking. I love cooking, but it’s a matter of necessity as much as pleasure: I can’t survive without food. There’s no particular need for cake (or pie, or vegan croissants). My baking is an expression of playfulness, joy, and recognizing the sweetness of life. That sweetness is hard to find sometimes, but it’s there, and a slice of cake can bring it to life.
I’m excited for my next slice of this new favorite. And I hope that some of you might celebrate with it at some point, too. Happy Easter Sunday, if you’re observing it, and I’ll be back in a couple days with another recipe.
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