Best of the best: how to make the ultimate carrot cake

No shortcuts. No cheat ingredients. Our best of the best series takes the view that if something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right. We take a deep-dive into a classic, delving into the processes and analysing why it tastes so good, then we give you our ultimate recipe. This time: Pollyanna Coupland perfects a perennial favourite bake, the carrot cake…

Best of the best: how to make the ultimate carrot cake

Confession: I’m not a huge cake fan. I don’t actively dislike sweet things, but I’d always choose a sausage roll or something savoury over a cake. Carrot cake is the exception. The symphony of warming spices, a sponge spiked with crunchy, earthy nuts and plump, juicy raisins with a zesty cream cheese frosting provides a perfect balance that isn’t cloyingly sweet, unlike some of the buttercream-heavy bakes out there. And because it’s the only cake I tend to bake, I’ve made it countless times for friends and special occasions – which is why I’m fully confident in my ultimate carrot cake recipe. Here’s what makes it a 10/10…

Prep your carrots right

Being relatively high in natural sugars, carrots are an ideal candidate for sweet dishes (the Indian/Pakistani dessert gajar ka halwa, in which carrots are stewed down slowly in milk with sultanas, cinnamon and nuts, is a good example). Not only does the vegetable provide sweetness but it also contributes to the famously moist, dense texture of the cake.

The key is to grate the carrots finely rather than coarsely, as this means they’ll release more moisture and provide a more even texture to the sponge. It takes a bit longer, but it’s worth it.

Sugar, spice and everything nice

Playing with flavour combos is one of the best things about cooking, and carrot cake provides ample opportunity to experiment. The two main flavours of carrots are sweetness and earthiness, so including other ingredients with these properties will enhance and complement their taste. Sweetness is easy: cinnamon, orange, sultanas and brown sugar. When it comes to earthiness, though, you can have a bit more fun. Ginger and nutmeg have both earthy and sweet tones, which is why you tend to find them in carrot cake, but I add ground coriander too (it works, trust me!). I’ve also added wholemeal flour to the mix to contribute a malty, nutty flavour. This ties in with the nuts, which have earthy, woody properties. Finally, that nuttiness is amplified in the cream cheese frosting by way of brown butter, offering wonderful nutty, caramel flavours.

Don’t be shy with the spices, either – there’s a total of six in this cake, all playing a big part. As well as the usual cinnamon, ginger and allspice, I’ve added ground cloves to pair with the orange and ground coriander to pair with the carrot. I’ve put nutmeg in the frosting, as it works so well with dairy.

A large carrot cake on a purple background with a slice removed

Get nutty about the nuts

Walnuts and pecans (my nuts of choice for carrot cake) are often described as bitter. This is because of their skins (other nuts used in baking, such as hazelnuts and almonds, have often had their skins removed). But bitterness is exactly what you want in a cake to avoid cloying sickliness.

It’s essential to roast the nuts first, as this brings out their flavour and adds a toasty quality to complement the brown butter frosting. Be sure to chop the nuts quite finely before they go in the batter, too, to ensure even distribution of crunch. It also makes the cake easier to slice neatly (larger pieces put the cake at risk of tearing when cut).

Let the citrus shine

The first carrot cake I ever made was a Jamie Oliver version with a lime and mascarpone icing. I loved the addition of lime zest but orange and carrot is such a classic combo… The solution, of course, is to add both, along with pink grapefruit zest for good measure (and to temper the sweetness of the frosting).

Grating the zest directly on top of the iced cake not only results in a great look but it also ensures the essential oils in the zest don’t get lost, so do it at the last minute for the zingiest flavour.

Ready to bake? Here’s our best of the best carrot cake recipe.

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