Other people’s recipes: Joanne Chang’s Classic Carrot Cake

I made this cake over Labor Day weekend; the first of two carrot cakes I expect to make this year, it comes from Joanne Chang’s first cookbook, Flour (with Christie Matheson; Chronicle Books, 2010; pp. 159ff). The published recipe includes the cake itself, a cream-cheese frosting, and candied carrot strips; I did all three, but I’m only going to talk about the cake proper in this post. It was one of the most-requested recipes from my original list of possible summer baking, although some of my colleagues were ambiguous as to which carrot cake they wanted (which is why I’m doing both). It’s actually one of the less-involved layer cakes I’ve done for this project — cream-cheese frosting is much simpler than buttercream! — so I needn’t have waited for a long weekend to do it, and it turned out that Reg Day (the first day of the term, which for the fall term is always the day after Labor Day) meant that there were a lot of other unhealthy foods being given out in our building, but having told a bunch of people to expect carrot cake that day, I wanted to make sure they got it.

Mise en place
Carrot cake is assembled in a modified version of the muffin method. The dry team consists of 160 g of all-purpose flour; half a teaspoon each of baking powder, baking soda, kosher salt, and cinnamon; and a quarter teaspoon of ginger. The wet team starts with two large eggs and 220 g of light brown sugar (which, for convenience, I’ll be measuring in the mixing bowl); 150 g of oil (Chang says canola but I used grapeseed because it’s neutrally flavored and I already had it on hand) and 3 tablespoons (45 ml) of cultured nonfat buttermilk are whisked together to form a temporary emulsion, along with a mere half-teaspoon of vanilla extract. Finally, the shredded carrots (260 g), seedless raisins (80 g), and toasted, chopped walnuts (50 g) are folded in after most of the dry works has been stirred into the wet.

Eggs and brown sugar
Sometimes it’s easier to just measure ingredients directly into the mixing bowl. That’s particularly the case with brown sugar, which can clump up if exposed to air while the other ingredients are measured and prepared. So long as I can be certain that I have enough, this method works reasonably well. (Measuring by weight is of course the only reasonable way to do brown sugar, and avoids the tedious “firmly packing” business which just creates clumps that then have to be broken up again in the mixing process!)

Eggs, sugar, buttermilk, and oil
After beating the eggs and sugar together nearly to the ribbon stage, the temporarily emulsified oil and buttermilk are added in and beaten to form a proper emulsion with the aid of the egg yolks. This forms the entirety of the wet phase of the cake batter.

Completed cake batter
After mixing in the flour, raisins, walnuts, and carrots, the batter has taken on a pronounced orange tint. I thought briefly about buying some heirloom carrots, in colors that weren’t selectively bred to honor the Dutch royal family, to see how that would turn out, but in the end decided to stick with the usual color for this cake.

Cake cooling on rack
Unlike most of the other layer cakes I’ve done over the course of the summer, Chang’s recipes generally call for baking in a single pan and then creating layers by slicing the single cake afterwards. (This recipe also has a cupcake variation.) This is an eight-inch pan, which I lubricated with baking spray and lined with a parchment circle before adding the batter; I also used one of my new insulating cake strips during baking. When I first took the cake out of the oven, the top had crowned the pan by about a quarter of an inch; in short order, it had sunk to a quarter-inch below the rim. The recipe calls for baking the cake at 350°F (175°C) for 80 minutes, but that seemed far too long, and it was completely done after only an hour; then it took a good two hours of cooling before it was ready to depan, split, and frost.

Cake after splitting into two layers
Since this cake is split into two layers, you get a nice view of the interior structure, which is excellent, with the nuts and raisins well distributed through the crumb and no obvious voids. Chang’s recipe for cream-cheese frosting yielded rather less than claimed, so I followed my own recent experience filling and frosting this cake rather than paying much attention to the recipe at this stage.

Cake minus one slice
As I’ve mentioned before, I’m terrible at applying frosting evenly, and I could have used a nice bowlful of chopped nuts here to cover up the mess! Chang gives a yield of 8 to 10 servings; I felt that 12 slices was more appropriate. (I bet if you go to Flour Bakery, you’ll get a bigger slice!) Twelve is also the yield for cupcakes, which makes sense since a standard muffin tin has six or twelve wells. The orange curls on top are nothing more than candied carrot strips, made by shaving a carrot down with a vegetable peeler and then boiling the shavings briefly in a sugar syrup. Even though the frosting was less in volume than the recipe claimed, it was still sufficient to fill and cover the whole cake.

Single slice of cake
Here’s an individual slice. I thought the sweetness and moisture level were just about perfect, although I wouldn’t have minded a bit more spice flavor, and the cream-cheese frosting was plenty sugary for my taste. Some other tasters disliked the frosting (which was expected) but I don’t think anyone complained about the cake — except for Sue Felshin, who would have liked more vegetable flavor. (I considered that a feature, since I don’t actually like the taste of carrots.) It’s a pity there was no cake left after I distributed it all — I would have liked to save a slice for comparison with the next carrot cake I do, which will use whole grains. I do think this recipe should be eminently practical to scale up, although I’m not sure what the limit would be in terms of pan size.

Nutrition

Another reason for cutting the cake into twelve slices is that it’s frankly frighteningly high-calorie even at that size, and if you imagine the slices 50% larger — oof! Only for athletes and other people with 3000-calorie diets!

Nutrition Facts
Serving size: 1/12 of 2-layer, 8″ cake or 1 cupcake, with frosting
Servings per recipe: 12
Amount per serving
Calories 539 Calories from fat 297
% Daily Value
Total Fat 33g 51%
 Saturated Fat 20g 100%
Trans Fat 0g
Cholesterol 81mg 27%
Sodium 338mg 14%
Potassium 151mg 4%
Total Carbohydrate 58g 19%
 Dietary fiber 2g 7%
 Sugars 42g
Proteins 6g 12%
Vitamin A 83%
Vitamin C 3%
Calcium 4%
Iron 4%
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One Response to Other people’s recipes: Joanne Chang’s Classic Carrot Cake

  1. Oh my oh my, that cream cheese frosting looks absolutely sinful. Five stars!

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