Though I can’t say there are many good things to come out of spending the better part of three hours at the Department of Motor Vehicles with what always feels like the.most.random.assortment.of.the.population.EVER, I can now firmly say that the best carrot cake I’ve ever eaten is one of them.
And I suppose it’s a little bit naughty to say that the best carrot cake I have ever had – ever – is something that I made with my own hands in my own kitchen, but in this case, it’s true, and that is due in no small part at all to one Mr. Nigel Slater.
You see, I had set off to the dreaded DMV to procure my motorcycle license, and not because I have a penchant for leather chaps or plan to kick start some Badass Baking Betty chapter of the Hell’s Angels, but because we have a brand new mint-green Vespa that I plan on zipping around town on, and in these parts you need a motorcycle license to do so legally (but hey – I’ll be licensed to ride a Harley too – you know, just in case). I spied my copy of Tender just as I was dashing out the door, and tucked it under my arm to help get me through the next few hours of torture in a relatively happy mood.
As the red numbers advanced mind-numbingly slowly towards mine (thirty-four numbers ahead), I settled in to my cheap plastic chair for some good reading. The thing about Nigel is that his cookbooks read like books – and books that you want to teleport yourself straight into. As the minutes crawled by, I found myself not in an over-lit room with scuffed floors in Boulder, but in England, knee-deep in wonderfully musty soil, helping Nigel cut his finicky asparagus while debating the best way to keep greedy slugs at bay.
And so, while I was in England very busy doing all of these wonderful things with my pal Nigel, I happened upon this carrot cake recipe that sounded right up my alley.
I’ve always been attracted to and intrigued by carrot cake. It’s definitely not the sexiest-looking cake on the block – what with its knobbly orange interior and tendency to give forth craggy and rough slices – but it has a certain cheeky understated appeal that has won me over time and time again.
But in carrot-cake-land, like with most things, there is the good, the bad, and the ugly – the easy to ignore pedestrian, and the unforgettable show stoppers. If when you think of carrot cake, you think of the last thing standing on the block-party table (still nestled into the sheet tray it was baked in, slathered in white overly-sugary frosting, and with only one serving excavated out of it’s sad big self), or perhaps even a dry vegetable-hiding-vehicle from your childhood that fooled exactly nobody, then it’s understandable why you’d perhaps pass it over for something more showy, like the vanilla chiffon cake or the chocolate torte.
This carrot cake hits all the ‘musts’ right on the noggin – it’s super moist, it has a perfect dense crumb, and it’s gently spiced with just the right amount of cinnamon. The carrot-to-cake ratio is spot on, with the thin shreds of electric orange nuzzling their way into every nook and cranny. It is studded with nuts – rustic bits of walnuts that make their way here and there – and lacks what some people think is a funny prank to toss on in there – raisins. Please, oh please do not even think about putting raisins into my carrot cake – though I am all for them almost every other time, I firmly believe a good carrot cake should be studded with nuts, carrots, and little else.
The cake itself is fantastic, but the frosting is what really sets this apart from the pack. The addition of mascarpone to what could just be a simple (but really good) cream cheese frosting adds a decadent body and creaminess, and a little tipple of orange blossom water (or orange zest), scents the whole thing gorgeously and adds a natural citrusy-sweetness that is truly otherworldly.
Though Nigel calls for orange zest, I think that the orange blossom water here makes the icing really special. It still lends a nice orange flavor, but gives the whole cake a heady and pretty floral kick that accents the creamy icing and spiced cake really well. I recommend making at least a double batch of this icing, and you’ll know why immediately. Besides wanting to pile as much as humanly possible onto a nine inch cake, you’ll have to put your mixing bowl on lockdown to avoid husbands/boyfriends/children/hangry pugs from stealing swipes of it each time they walk by.
Fact: Pugs LOVE them some mascarpone-cream cheese icing.
This cake is excellent, and I suppose that is unsurprising – leave it to Nigel to make something positive out of a morning spent at a DMV tucked into a sad strip mall at the edge of town.
Carrot Cake with Mascarpone-Cream Cheese Orange Frosting
From Nigel Slater’s Tender
Makes 1 double-layer 9″ cake
There are a few things to note about how I made this cake –
First, I had some orange blossom water that I thought would be nice in the frosting, and it was excellent – I used it in lieu of the orange zest, and encourage you to do the same if you have some hanging around (or want an excuse to buy some – it is amazingly wonderful stuff – like an orange mixed with a flower!).
Second, I am baking at a high altitude (over five-thousand feet yo!), so my baking experiences can be different than yours. To compensate for that, I turned my oven up a bit (to 375F vs 350F), and found that my cakes cooked much more quickly than 40-45 minutes – they were done in about 18. Though I usually turn my oven higher for less time, this seemed really quick to me, so regardless of what altitude or temperature you cook yours at, please watch them for doneness after 20 minutes or so. No one likes an overcooked carrot cake.
Third, I almost always find that the prescribed frosting amounts for cakes are never enough. Maybe I just use a heavy hand, but I think every cake should be thickly and evenly coated in frosting, and I always come up short. I one-and-a-halved this frosting recipe, and to be honest, next time I would near double it. I was skimping on the sides a bit – which is OK, since carrot cakes are meant to look rustic and imperfect. Keep that in mind though when making this – I’d always rather have too much than too little.
And one last thing – Nigel calls for sunflower oil, and what Nigel wants, Nigel gets. I bought some specially for this, and will report back on what else I use it for. I bet you could get away with using a really neutral light oil, like vegetable oil, if you can’t find sunflower oil – just make sure it’s very light and neutrally flavored, and I think it would work in a pinch.
2 cups (250g) self-rising flour
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp ground cinnamon
a pinch of salt
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons (200ml) sunflower oil
scant 1 cup (250g) light muscovado sugar
5 ounces (150g) carrots (about 1/3 of a pound)
juice of half a lemon
1 1/4 cups (150g) walnuts, coarsely chopped
9 ounces (250g) mascarpone cheese
7 ounces (200g) cream cheese
1 1/2 cups (150g) unsifted confectioners’ sugar
the grated zest of a medium orange OR 1 tsp orange blossom water (which I used)
a handful of walnut halves
Set the oven at 350°F (180°C) – I cooked my cakes at 375F as I am at high altitude (see note above, and note below about cook time). Lightly butter two 9-inch (22cm) cake pans, then line each with a round of parchment paper.
Separate the eggs, placing the egg whites into a bowl that is large enough to whip them in. Peel and grate the carrots. Sift together the flour, baking soda, baking powder, cinnamon, and salt. Beat the oil and sugar in a stand mixer until well beaten (on medium-high speed, for about 3 minutes), then add the egg yolks one by one. Add the grated carrots into the mixture, then the lemon juice, and finally the coarsely chopped walnuts.
Fold the flour into the mixture with the mixer on low speed until just combined (and no longer than you need to, or your cake will be tough – just till it is well mixed). Beat the egg whites until they are light and stiff, and then fold them gently into the mixture using a large metal spoon (Nigel says that a wooden one will knock the air out – I used a silicon spatula to fold mine very carefully and it worked great).
Divide the mixture between the two prepared cake pans, smooth the top gently, and bake for forty to forty-five minutes (**I’ll note that my cakes took SIGNIFICANTLY less….more like eighteen minutes each – WATCH YOUR CAKES and pull them when they are set in the center [not sticking to toothpicks] but still look moist, but not sticky. This is very important not to overbake, and always go by the look/touch/prick test rather than prescribed cooking times). Test with a skewer for doneness.
Remove from the oven and let rest for a good ten minutes before turning the cakes out of their pans onto a wire cooling rack.
To make the frosting, put the mascarpone, cream cheese, and confectioners’ sugar into an electric mixer and beat until smooth and creamy. It should have no lumps. Mix in the orange zest (or orange blossom water).
When the cake is completely cool, sandwich the halves together with about a third of the frosting. Use the rest to cover the top and sides of the cake. You don’t need to worry about it looking perfect – a rough finish looks nice here. Scatter the top with walnut halves.