Every year, weeks before my birthday, mum and I work like house elves busying ourselves with a cake that must out-do last year’s. Blueprints are drawn and cake elements are discussed — sponge, soak, frosting, drizzle, add-ins, if any — it’s a lot of work, and we grab it by the horns and really get into it. In 2016, we made a Momofuku carrot cake for my birthday, which if you’re aware, has many elements to it. A lighter carrot cake sponge, liquid cheesecake filling, baked carrot cake crumbs, and a soak is all layered using sturdy OHP sheets. Topping that was going to be tough.
Now to say that I’m a bit of a nerd when it comes to carrot cake would be an understatement. My obsession with this rustic spice cake goes back many years to when I first started baking. It was a Rachel Allen recipe for carrot cake that I’d make religiously because it was made with brown sugar and carrots that weren’t finely grated. I have since perfected this recipe and it’s still my go-to teatime loaf because the molasses in the brown sugar and warm wintry spices are a perfect match. While I never wished to replace this recipe with a new one, I do feel that when updating a recipe to a layer cake, this kind of carrot cake falls short.
When I set out to look for variations of carrot cake that would be worthy of an indulgent tiered beauty, I learned a surprising number of things about the cake itself. For one, like Nigella points out, it’s a cake made by Venetian Jews and the medieval recipe is gluten and lactose-free. The cake is rather flat when baked and uses ground almonds, dried fruit, carrots and rum. It’s a delicious cake no doubt, with that magical almond crumb I have come to adore, but it doesn’t taste like the carrot cake we so conventionally know and love.
Some things are sacrosanct to a carrot cake, like the use of oil instead of butter. Oil gives the cakes a fluffy texture, whereas with butter, these cakes end up more rich and heavy. Since you can’t really cream ingredients in a carrot cake, my tip is to emulsify the wet ingredients first with a hand-mixer before you add the carrots and other dry ingredients. This produces a superior final product.
At a friend’s birthday recently, when a carrot cake was cut instead of the boring chocolate option, I tasted exactly what I was looking for. Here was a carrot cake, which on cutting, couldn’t hold its crumbs together. Each soft, brown, ultra-moist crumb tumbled when sliced and tasted of good quality cinnamon and walnuts. The absence of the finely grated carrot you spot when you cut into a carrot cake came as a surprise, but going by taste, the carrots were very much there. I set out to replicate everything I had loved about this particular spice cake.
When I was zeroing in on recipes, three stood out as good contenders. Dorie Greenspan’s version which added coconut to keep the cake moist, Grandma Barb’s carrot cake recipe which used carrots grated in three different textures, which are then macerated in brown sugar and finished with buttermilk, and the last, a classic carrot cake recipe from The Silver Palate, which uses cooked carrots and pineapple. The last one piqued my interest because it claimed that cooking the carrots down before adding it to the cake made the batter super moist. Add to this coconut as well as pineapple, I started to see how this could be a worthy contender.
When I baked each of these, Grandma Barb’s version was a revelation. The use of buttermilk and bicarb made this the lightest carrot cake I had tasted. Similar to my banana bread recipe, it was moist, but while it was a winner as a teatime loaf, it failed as a layer cake. Dorie Greenspan’s cake had coconut which made this cake more delicious than my standard loaves of carrot cake, but it was still somewhat lacking in the moist department. I needed less chew, more velvet per bite, and the last recipe was just that. It’s surprising how one of the oldest recipes can be such a winner. Its indulgent ingredient list can be quite daunting at first, but it’s phenomenal in terms of taste. First published in 1979, the Silver Palate carrot cake recipe is all set to make a comeback. I can’t ignore its similarity to a hummingbird cake is what makes it so special, and I cant think of a better recipe than this one to go with a zesty cream cheese frosting.
The Silver Palate Carrot Cake With Brown Sugar Meringues and Caramelised White Chocolate Shards
This is no light tea cake, but rather a fluffy masterpiece that packs in cooked carrots, pineapple and coconut to create the ultimate layered carrot cake. I've finished this classic recipe with a cream cheese frosting, brown sugar meringues and caramelised white chocolate shards.
All-purpose flour 3 cups
Demerara sugar 3 cups, blitzed
Salt 1 tsp
Baking soda 1 tsp
Cinnamon 1 tbsp ( I used
Vegetable oil 1 1/2 cup
Vanilla essence 1 tbsp
Walnuts 1 1/2 cup, chopped
Coconut 1 1/2 cup, grated
Cooked carrots 1 1/3 cup (cook the carrots whole in boiling water till it yields easily when a knife is inserted)
Pineapple slices 3/4 cup, chopped
Cream Cheese Frosting
Butter 300g, softened
Cream cheese 400g, at room temperature
Icing sugar 2 cups
Orange 1, zested
Caramelised white chocolate shards
White chocolate 125g, chopped
Brown sugar meringue
Brown sugar 80g, blitzed
Egg whites 2 or 60ml
Caster sugar 50g
Preheat the oven to 180 degrees celsius and grease and flour two 9-inch cake pans, or alternately line them with baking paper.
Beat together the oil, egg and vanilla till everything has emulsified well. You can use an electric hand mixer for this step.
In another bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, salt, baking soda and cinnamon. Set aside.
Add the dry ingredients to the emulsified mix all at once and give it a few good firm stirs until no stray strands of flour remain. Fold in the cooked carrots, walnuts, coconut and pineapple.
Divide the batter between the pans and bake for 45-50 minutes or until a skewer inserted in the centre of the cake comes out clean.
Unmould the cakes and let it cool completely before frosting them.
To make the frosting, beat the butter till it is fluffy and pale. To this add the cream cheese, powdered sugar run through a sieve, and the orange zest. Beat until the cream cheese is just smooth. Cling the bowl of icing and keep in the refrigerator until needed.
To make the caramelised white chocolate shards, in a small heavy bottomed saucepan, add the chopped white chocolate and stir this over a low heat constantly for 20 minutes or until it changes colour. The white chocolate has a tendency to catch at the bottom of the pan, so if this happens, take it off the heat, stir vigorously and return this to the low flame. Continue until the pale white colour of the white chocolate has turned into a light caramel colour. Tip this mixture into a cookie sheet and freeze till firm. Drop the cookie sheet from a height to let the white chocolate naturally shatter and keep the shards aside for decorating later.
For the brown sugar meringues, preheat the oven to 120 degrees celsius and like a baking sheet with baking paper. Using an electric hand-mixer, beat the egg whites until the soft peaks stage. Now working in batches, add the caster sugar in two to three lots, beating until the whites start to look thick and glossy. Sprinkle over the brown sugar and briefly run the hand-mixer again till the sugar is incorporated.
Spoon the meringue mixture into a piping bag fitted with a nozzle of your choice and pipe meringues of different sizes onto the tray leaving space between each meringue. Bake this for 50 minutes or until firm. Turn the oven off and leave the oven door open with a wooden spoon wedged in until the meringues are cold.
To assemble the cake, torte the tops of both cakes and slice each cake into two neat slices. This is quite difficult because the cake is quite crumbly, but once the icing is on, no one will be able to tell even if you did make a mistake. On a turntable, place one of the more neat slices. This will be your base. Slather on a fourth of the cream cheese frosting on top and smoothen it with an offset spatula moving towards the edges to frost the cake evenly. Place the next cake layer on top. Repeat with the frosting until you have used up all the cake. Take some more frosting and smear it on the side of the cake, then using a cake scraper, neatly spread it around the cake’s sides to fasten all the crumbs. This is the crumb layer. Place the cake back in the refrigerator for the frosting to firm up a bit. You could stop at this stage as I have, or choose to finish it by spreading another layer of cream cheese over and around the cake.
Finish the cake by placing the meringues on top and wedging in the caramelised white chocolate shards and some cinnamon sticks.