A Quick History of Carrot Cake
When you sink your fork into a cream cheese-frosted piece of carrot cake, it’s hard to imagine a time when this dessert menu staple wasn’t a thing. But when compared to its apple pie or chocolate cake rivals, carrot cake is a relative newcomer to the American dessert scene. It took a long and complicated path to get there.
Before you study the cake, you have to understand the carrot. Ancestors of today’s carrots have existed since at least 8th century Babylon. The Babylonians didn’t much care for the carrot’s root, which was spindly, purple or red and not too tasty, so they used its seeds and leaves like we use herbs today.
Fast forward to the late medieval times. By the 1300s, carrot cultivation improved matters. European recipes from the era show that carrots were often used as a sweetener and eventually became the stars of their own recipes.
A few centuries later, “pudding of carrot” was a popular sweet offering in Britain. It was made with bread crumbs, egg custard and topped with puff pastry. The earlier versions did not contain sugar. This dish would be similar in texture and appearance to today’s bread pudding.
During the Second World War, the carrot became an unlikely star. Sugar was rationed to just eight ounces per adult per week per, so creative cooks sweetened their favorite dessert recipes with carrots. The Ministry of Agriculture understood the carrot’s value and encouraged their cultivation. Suddenly, eating carrots was not only healthy and delicious but patriotic. Thus, carrot cakes were a natural result.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the pond, carrot cake recipes were in their infancy. Most versions found in early twentieth century cookbooks contained no eggs, very little fat and cooked carrots. They were often baked in loaf pans, served with sweetened whipped cream and probably resembled a cross between a fruitcake and a quick bread.
In the 1960s, carrot cake as we now know it today finally arrived on the scene, sporting that delicious and distinctive cream cheese icing. Recipes appeared on cream cheese boxes and in church auxiliary cook books.
Later, in the 1970s, carrot cake was deemed extra groovy and natural because of all the nuts and carrots — that makes it a health food, right? Maybe not. In subsequent decades, when people came to their senses, they never lost their affection for that tried and true favorite—the carrot cake.
Carrot Cake Tips
Make it a day ahead
There’s something magical that happens when a freshly baked carrot cake sits unfrosted overnight in the refrigerator. Its flavors meld and deepen, turning a good cake into a sublime cake. Bake your cake a day ahead and you will be rewarded.
Ingredients are key
Don’t use pre-shredded carrots! They will be dry and will lack the sweetness of freshly shredded carrots. Also, make sure your baking powder and baking soda are fresh. If at all possible, use freshly grated nutmeg rather than the pre-ground kind aging in your spice cabinet.
Don’t be afraid to experiment
Carrot cakes aren’t just about carrots. Other favorite add-ins include crushed pineapple, raisins, golden raisins, sultanas, currants, shredded coconut and rum. Just be careful about how many mix-ins you add. Too many will alter the integrity of the cake.
There are many carrot cake recipes out there, but below is an all-purpose, go-to recipe that is easy to make. If you are not a pecan fan, feel free to leave them out.
Carrot Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon ground ginger
½ teaspoon ground allspice
½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
4 large eggs, at room temperature
1 ½ cups granulated sugar
½ cup packed dark brown sugar
1 ¼ cups vegetable oil
1 ½ teaspoons vanilla extract
1 tablespoon grated orange zest
1 teaspoon freshly ground ginger
4 cups raw, freshly grated carrots
1 cup of pecans, roughly chopped, plus a few left whole for garnish
Cream Cheese Frosting Ingredients
12 ounces cream cheese, softened
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 16 ounce pound box powdered sugar
Instructions for the Cake
Preheat oven to 350º F.
Grease and flour two 9-inch round cake pans. Set aside.
In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and spices. Set aside.
Using a stand mixer with the paddle attachment, beat eggs until frothy. Gradually beat in both sugars. While continuing to mix, add vanilla, oil, orange zest and ginger. Scrape the bowl.
Add the flour and spice mixture gradually while the mixer is on low speed. Scrape down the bowl as necessary. When incorporated, remove the bowl from the mixer and stir in the carrots and pecans with a wooden spoon. The mixture will be thick.
Pour into cake pans and bake for 40 minutes or until a toothpick or cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean. Let cakes cool in the pans for 15 minutes and then turn out onto a cooling rack to cool completely.
Instructions for the Frosting
In a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, whip cream cheese and butter together until fluffy. Gradually add powdered sugar and then vanilla. Whip until light and creamy.
Assemble the Cake
If necessary, level cakes with a knife or a cake leveler. Place one of the cakes on a plate or cake stand, anchoring with a dab of frosting. Add a nice, thick layer of frosting on top of the cake. Place the other cake on top of the first layer, making sure they are even. Frost the sides and top of the cake using remaining frosting. Add the remaining whole pecans to decorate the top if desired.