For the past few months, I’ve lusted over the glorious concoction called Bill’s Big Carrot Cake from Dorie’s book. With its impressive layers and pillowing cream cheese frosting, it practically demanded attention which made it a perfect choice for when it came time for me to pick the next recipe for Tuesday’s With Dorie. Till now, I’d never baked a carrot cake. GASP! I’ve baked everything else from Coconut cake to Cheesecake but not Carrot cake. Why? Because it seemed like a cake that everyone could make better than I ever could.
That might sound nuts, but think about it. Everyone has recipes that pass on from generation to generation, recipes that have stood the test of time. But sadly, I don’t have that envious pile of recipe cards stained with butter and/or coffee because my mom didn’t grow up in America but in Indonesia. And the natural food resources in Indonesia are quite different than here. So, for the first 15 years of my life, baked goods for me primarily came from Betty Crocker’s boxes.
When I started baking more, I learned not from the traditions passed on to me, but from television shows or books or simple trial and error. Carrot cake was one of those All-American, down-home desserts that every mother/friend/grandmother had in their repertoire and I greedily devoured every bite I could get throughout the years, thinking sadly that this was one cake that I couldn’t possibly make as well as them because they had years and years of tradition behind them.
Don’t fret though, I slowly conquered that ridiculous mind obstacle in time to learn that duh! You make your own traditions, silly girl. And my experience baking this cake is one that will go down in the books. I didn’t bake just one cake. Oh no, that would’ve been too easy. Instead I baked three cakes, accidentally, mind you. Accidentally? Oh yes, folks, I messed up two times before I made one suitable enough to satisfy my perfectionist streak.
My first fatal attempt at this cake should be chalked up to two things: not drinking enough coffee in the morning, and failing to thoroughly read the directions. Instead of filling the cake pans only half way, I filled them to the brim. Needless to say, they exploded. Literally. Cake batter was everywhere. But I was undeterred, and attempted the second one, making note to only fill the pans 2/3 of the way. While the cake was baking away, I eagerly ate the bits and scraps of my disastrous cake. Hey, can’t let it go to waste, right?
I wish I could say the second cake was better. And it was, slightly. But I must’ve over-mixed the cake or something because the center of my cakes sunk, not enough to trash them, but enough o know that making a layer cake out them would be tricky. By this time, I was flustered, frustrated, frightened. With less than 2 hours till the carrot cake needed to make their appearance at a birthday party, I knew I was in a crunch. I gave the recipe a last try, this time converting it to a sheet pan.
Thank god it worked or else I might’ve gotten homicidal in my kitchen. By this time, I was steeped in butter and sugar, my hair a frantic bird’s nest, and smelling faintly of sweat. But I happily danced around my kitchen at the sight of my third cake.
I’m no stranger to the wonders of cream cheese frosting and this one didn’t let me down. It was sweet and tangy, and blended beautifully to make a nice solid frosting. After decorating the sheet cake and adding some chopped walnuts to the top, my adventure was complete.
Being a freak about not-wasting food, I proceeded to assemble the second cake for a dinner party I attended later. The layers were a little shaky and lopsided as expected, but that didn’t stop my friends from groaning with delight as they sunk their teeth into the moist cake speckled with carrots and coconut. The third sheet cake delivered to the birthday girl was greeted in the same way. She loved every bite of it, and sent me a nice thank-you note.
I had enough cake to last me a week, especially since my second round with this cake produced enough batter to make small mini loaves of carrot cake as well. These little babies lasted a week without drying out and I enjoyed nibbling on them every morning with a big cup of coffee. If I could change one thing about this recipe, it would be the sugar content. 2 cups of sugar as well as 1 cup of shredded coconut is enough sugar to sending you soaring high, not to mention the additional cream cheese frosting.
All in all, this experience is one for the books. Traditions are made through your stories and tales, and my tale of three cakes is one to pass on to my future generations. I hope all you Tuesday-bakers enjoyed playing around with this recipe as I much as I had, but minus all the errors.
Bill’s Big Carrot Cake
From Baking: from my home
Yields 10 servings
For the cake:
2 cups all purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
¾ teaspoon salt
3 cups grated carrots (about 9 carrots, you can grate them in food processor fitted w/ a shredding a blade or use a box grater)
1 cup coarsely chopped walnuts or pecans
1 cup shredded coconut (sweetened or unsweetened)
½ cup moist, plump raisins (dark or golden) or dried cranberries
2 cups sugar
1 cup canola oil
4 large eggs
For the frosting:
8 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
1 stick ( 8 tablespoons) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 pound or 3 and ¾ cups confectioners’ sugar, sifted
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice or ½ teaspoon pure lemon extract
½ cup shredded coconut (optional)
Finely chopped toasted nuts and/or toasted shredded coconut (optional)
Position the racks to divide the oven into thirds and preheat the oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. Butter three 9-x-2-inch round cake pans, flour the insides, and tap out the excess. Put the two pans on one baking sheet and one on another.
To make the cake:
Whisk the flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon and salt. In another bowl, stir together the carrots, chopped nuts, coconut, and raisins.
Working with a stand mixer, preferably fitted with a paddle attachment, or with a hand mixer in a large bowl, beat the sugar and oil together on a medium speed until smooth. Add the eggs one by one and continue to beat until the batter is even smoother. Reduce the speed to low and add the flour mixture, mixing only until the dry ingredients disappear. Gently mix the chunky ingredients. Divide the batter among the baking pans.
Bake for 40-50 minutes, rotating the pans from top to bottom and front to back at the midway point, until a thin knife inserted into the centers comes out clean. The cakes will have just started to come away from the sides of the pans. Transfer the cakes to cooling racks and cool for about 5 minutes, then run a knife around the sides of the cakes and unmold them. Invert and cool to room temperature right side up.
The cakes can be wrapped airtight and kept at room temperature overnight or frozen for up to 2 months.
To make the frosting:
Working with a stand mixer, preferably fitted with a paddle attachment or with a hand mixer in a large bowl, beat the cream cheese and butter together until smooth and creamy. Gradually add the sugar and continue to beat until the frosting is velvety smooth. Beat in the lemon juice or extract.
If you’d like coconut in the filling, scoop about half of the frosting and stir the coconut into this position.
To assemble the cake:
Put one layer top side up on a cardboard cake round or a cake plate protected by strips of wax or parchment paper. If you added the coconut to the frosting, use half of the coconut frosting to generously cover the first layer (or generously cover with plain frosting). Use an offset spatula or a spoon to smooth the frosting all the way to the edges of the layer. Top with the second layer, this time placing the cake stop side down, and frost with the remainder of the coconut frosting or plain frosting. Top with the last layer, right side up, and frost the top- and the sides- of the cake. Finish the top with swirls of frosting. If you want to top the cake with toasted nuts or coconut, sprinkle them on now while the frosting is soft. Refrigerate the cake for 30 minutes, just to set the frosting before serving.
This cake can be served as soon as the frosting is set. It can also wait, at room temperature and covered with a cake keeper overnight. The cake is best served in thick slices at room temperature and while it’s good plain, it’s even better with vanilla ice cream or some lemon curd.
The cake will keep at room temperature for 2 to 3 days. It can also be frozen. Freeze it uncovered, then when it’s firm, wrap airtight and freeze for up to 2 months. Defrost, still wrapped, overnight in the refrigerator.