Executive pastry chef Jen Yee of the Buttery in Atlanta shares her recipe for a carrot-forward, picture-perfect carrot cake
I think I made the first version of this carrot cake back when I was pastry sous chef at Gilt, the now long-ago shuttered restaurant inside New York’s Palace Hotel. My pastry boss at the time, David Carmichael, said it was a killer recipe and that I should hold onto it. He also gave me the idea of running the carrots through a juice extractor, then combining the pulp and juice back together before adding them to the batter. Doing this allows for a tighter crumb than you get with the usual box grater trick.
I took David’s advice and held on to the recipe; it’s followed me around through the years. At Aureole, my first gig as a pastry chef, a pan-fried version of the recipe was featured on the dessert menu with red grape sorbet — and, knowing me back then, probably some quark cheese squiggles and, er, micro carrot tops? (Hey, it was 2009!) It was when I worked at Lafayette that I first subbed out some of the white flour for whole wheat, and the result stood proud on the bakery counter as a hearty muffin topped with rolled oats. This whole-wheat ratio moved with me down to Atlanta, where the cake debuted as my own version of the classic hummingbird, all chunky and yummy with roasted pineapple and Georgia pecans folded through the batter. Now, at the Buttery, it lives as I believe it always should have: pure and carrot-y with no spices, layered and slathered with its forever partner of cream cheese icing.
If you don’t have a juice extractor, feel free to run the carrots through a food processor or grate them as normal, then chop the shreds on a board with a chef’s knife — you’re looking for a fine mince.
Carrot Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting Recipe
Makes 1 glorious, 4-layer 8-inch cake to serve 12 generously
For the dehydrated carrot garnish:
1 medium carrot
For the cake:
2 2/3 cups (525 grams) organic cane sugar
1½ cups (330 grams) any neutral vegetable oil
6 (300 grams each) large eggs
2/3 cup (90 grams) whole-wheat flour (Anson Mills’ graham flour preferred)
1 ¾ cups (250 grams) all-purpose flour, preferably unbleached
2 teaspoons (9 grams) baking soda
½ teaspoon (3 grams) fine sea salt
3 ½ cups (380 grams) carrots, finely shredded and chopped, from about 6 medium carrots
For the cream cheese icing:
1 pound (454 grams) cream cheese, softened
¾ cup (91 grams) powdered sugar
Pinch fine sea salt
¾ cup (170 grams) butter, super soft
1 tablespoon (20 grams) sorghum syrup (or golden syrup or honey)
2 teaspoons (9 grams) vanilla paste (you can substitute with extract if that’s what you have)
Step 1: If you’re making the dehydrated carrot garnish, peel the carrot and finely slice it into thin coins using a mandoline or vegetable peeler. You have a few options for dehydrating them. If you own a microwave, place the carrot slices on a plate lined with parchment or a paper towel. Cook at half-power for 2 minutes, then continue in 30-second bursts until they’ve shrunk into little ruffled bits. Remove from the microwave, and let cool fully to crisp.
If you don’t have a microwave, lay the slices out on a dehydrator tray and dry at 150 degrees for about 4 hours or until the edges curl up and are completely dry. Alternatively, you can lay them on a parchment-lined sheet pan and place them in an oven set to the lowest possible heat with the door slightly ajar until fully dried, about 6 hours or overnight. These carrot ruffles can be stored in an airtight container for up to a month and refreshed in a low oven again if needed.
Step 2: Make the cake. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and prepare two 8-inch cake pans by rubbing or spraying them with oil and lining the bottom with a parchment paper circle (the paper is optional, but you definitely want to pre-grease the pan).
Step 3: In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, combine the sugar, oil, and eggs. Whip the ingredients for about 5 to 7 minutes on medium-high speed, until the mixture lightens and increases in volume significantly, with a mayonnaise-like consistency.
Step 4: Meanwhile, in a separate bowl, whisk together the flours, baking soda, and salt.
Step 5: Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients in 3 additions, mixing to incorporate and scraping the bowl with a rubber spatula in between additions.
Step 6: Add the carrots and mix again until the mixture is fully homogenous, 30 to 40 seconds.
Step 7: Remove the bowl from the mixer and use the rubber spatula to scrape and fold the batter from the bottom of the bowl to really make sure the batter is cohesive.
Step 8: Divide the batter evenly between the two pans.
Step 9: Bake the cakes for 50 to 55 minutes, or until a cake tester comes out clean and the cake bounces back when gently pressed.
Step 10: Allow the cakes to cool in the pans for about 15 minutes, then unmold them onto a sheet pan. Chill the cakes in the fridge or freezer for about 30 minutes before icing them. This helps when splicing (or torting) the cakes into layers for building. You can even hold the cakes in the fridge overnight if you’re not up to doing the full baking/assemblage in one shot.
Step 11: To make the icing, first make sure both the cream cheese and butter are fully softened to room temperature. Place the softened cream cheese, powdered sugar, and salt in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Cream them on low speed to start, then medium, until completely smooth and a little fluffy, about 4 minutes. Add the softened butter to the cream cheese mixture and continue creaming on medium speed until very fluffy and smooth, about 4 minutes. (The frosting will firm up as this happens, so just keep beating.) Finally, add the sorghum and vanilla and mix just to incorporate.
Step 12: To assemble the cake, level off the domed tops of the two cakes with a serrated knife. Split each cake horizontally into two layers. (This can be very easily done if you have a cake turntable, but it’s definitely not a necessary piece of equipment. Just do your best to end up with 4 similarly thick layers of cake.)
Step 13: Place the bottom layer of one of the cakes on a 10-inch round board or plate, cut side facing up. Spread about 1 cup’s worth of cream cheese frosting over the cake, and top with the top layer of that same cake. Slather on another cup 1 of icing, then top that with the top layer of the second cake. Spread yet another 1 cup of icing over that, and finally top with the bottom layer of the second cake, with the cut side facing down. If any of the icing has oozed out of the sides, use an offset spatula or butter knife to smooth this out. For best and tidiest results, freeze the assembled cake for about 30 minutes to set the layers of icing.
Step 14: Once the cake is chilled and feeling a little more sturdy, top it with the remainder of the icing, and swirl and swoosh until the cake is fully covered. Garnish the top with the dehydrated carrot “sprinkles.” The cake is best enjoyed at room temperature, but it can be kept covered in the fridge for no more than 5 days before serving.
Jen Yee is the executive pastry chef for the Hopkins and Company restaurant group, including its provisions shop, the Buttery ATL. She lives in Atlanta.
Dina Ávila is a photographer in Portland, Oregon.
Recipe tested by Deena Prichep