The Never Ending Birthday
December 4, 2007
Many of the milestones of my childhood were marked with a dense, rich, delicious carrot cake with cream cheese frosting, baked by a woman known simply as “the cake lady.” A couple things about the cake lady were a little questionable (aside from her namelessness): (1) she did not set prices, but rather let her customers name their own prices and asked that payments be made in cash only; (2) she baked her cakes not in a commercial bakery, but rather out of her home; and (3) customers had to pick up the cakes from her suburban St. Paul rambler, which was often unlocked and unattended. On one occasion, my aunt and I were tasked with picking up one of her heavenly creations. Our only barrier to entry was an unlocked screen door. Once we went in, there was no sign that anyone was home, but there were certainly signs of life. The place was a bit of a disaster. Not dirty, by any means … it was more cluttered with the rubble of life–childrens’ toys, shoes, bags, etc littered the floor, but abrubtly disappeared as we entered the kitchen, which was eerily pristine. There, we found upwards of a dozen cakes awaiting pick-up. We identified our cake by reading the icing inscription bearing our guest of honor’s name. We left our cash on the counter and hightailed it out of there.
Even though carrot cake was such a staple of my upbringing, I’ve only tried making it once. Maybe that’s because I knew it would never match or much less surpass the cake lady cake. Or perhaps something about her decidely weird bakery operation made me steer clear. I finally decided to give carrot cake a go a few years ago, only on the specific birthday request of my now-husband (then-boyfriend). But even then, I opted for cupcakes, thinking they would be “easier.” Wellll, that was mistake. Failing to search for any resources about converting cake recipes into cupcakes, I simply followed the recipe and instead of pouring the batter into cake pans, I poured it into a muffin tin, eyeballing the amount of batter used for each cupcake. Instead of 12 perfect cakes, I ended up with an overflowing muffin tin and a reason to buy several cans of oven cleaner. And a lot of cream cheese frosting with no where to go (except on graham crackers, apple wedges and pretty much any other remotely suitable vehicle).
After this disaster, I went on a little carrot cake hiatus. That all ended last week when I was researching various dessert recipes for our annual holiday/birthday cocktail party. In the end, I decided I really wanted to bake a cake. For myself. A birthday cake for myself. And for some reason, carrot cake kept popping into my mind, despite my better judgment. Maybe it’s because, this year, my birthday started in mid-November and ended last Saturday (December 1) and involved no fewer than five celebrations. Needless to say, this all had me feeling a little childish, and–as I mentioned earlier–carrot cake was a cake of my childhood.
After I found this Bon Appetit recipe for Triple-Layer Carrot Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting on Epicurious, I was sold. I made a bunch of substitutions, based on the Epicurious reviews (see below). The result was a moist (thank you, crushed pineapple), spicy cake (boosting the spices was definitely the right move), perfectly studded with walnuts and whisps of carrot, and ensconced in a rich (but not too rich) and tangy cream cheese frosting. With sides wrapped in crushed walnuts, the cake also looked quite pretty (if I do say so myself).
Despite my protestations (and attempts to clandestinely pull the cake from the fridge and cut it before anyone noticed), the cake prompted a chorus of “Happy Birthday” from the party guests, which of course made me feel all the more ridiculous for baking myself a birthday cake. But everyone enjoyed the cake. And now, we all (but especially my husband) can rest assured that my birthday is finally over. For real.
Triple-Layer Carrot Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting
2 cups sugar*
1 1/2 cups vegetable oil*
4 large eggs
2 cups all purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon*
3/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg*
3 cups finely grated peeled carrots (about 1 pound)
1/2 cup chopped pecans (about 1/2 ounce)*
1/2 cup raisins* Frosting
4 cups powdered sugar**
2 8-ounce packages cream cheese, room temperature
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
4 teaspoons vanilla extract
Preheat oven to 325°F. Lightly grease three 9-inch-diameter cake pans with 1 1/2-inch-high sides. Line bottom of pans with waxed paper. Lightly grease waxed paper. Using electric mixer, beat sugar and vegetable oil in bowl until combined. Add eggs 1 at a time, beating well after each addition. Sift flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon and nutmeg into sugar and oil mixture. Stir in carrots, chopped pecans and raisins.
Pour batter into prepared pans, dividing equally. Bake until toothpick inserted into center comes out clean and cakes begin to pull away from sides of pans, about 45 minutes. Cool in pans on racks 15 minutes. Turn out cakes onto racks and cool completely. (Can be made 1 day ahead. Wrap tightly in plastic and store at room temperature.)
Using electric mixer, beat all ingredients in medium bowl until smooth and creamy.
Place 1 cake layer on platter. Spread with 3/4 cup frosting. Top with another cake layer. Spread with 3/4 cup frosting. Top with remaining cake layer. Using icing spatula, spread remaining frosting in decorative swirls over sides and top of cake. (Can be prepared 2 days ahead. Cover with cake dome and refrigerate.) Serve cake cold or at room temperature.
* Per the commenters on Epicurious, I made the following changes to the cake recipe: (1) in place of the 1.5 cups of oil, I used1 cup of oil plus a ½ cup of natural/unsweetened apple sauce; (2) I reduced the amount of sugar to 1.5 c; (3) I increased the amount of carrots to 4 cups; (4) I increased the amount of vanilla to 1.5 tsp; (5) I substituted chopped walnuts; (6) I substituted the raisins with ¾ cup of crushed pineapple; and (7) I increased the cinnamon to 1.25 tsp and added ¾ tsp ground ginger.
** Per the commenters, I made the following changes to the frosting: (1) I reduced the amount of powdered sugar to two cups; (2) I decreased the amount of vanilla to three teaspoons; and (3) I added 1.5 tsp of lemon juice.