This is truly a celebration carrot cake, with a moist crumb and spiced flavor. We love it for Easter and most family birthdays. Filled and frosted with cream cheese, both the cake layers and the frosting can be made ahead. Whether you bake it in round pans, cupcakes, a tube, or a loaf pan, it's a certain crowd-pleaser. A variation with nuts and maple syrup is added at the end of this post.
About this recipe
This recipe today is a favorite cake for birthdays and Easter around here that gets made often.
- Very moist: it has an apple in the batter that adds moisture as well as some sharpness and sweetness.
- Make it any shape you want: in a tube pan, round layers, sheet cake, cupcakes, or loaves – it’s very adaptable.
- Fresh and moist: When you bake a carrot cake from scratch, you can control the quality and freshness of the ingredients you use. Freshly grated carrots and high-quality flour, sugar, and spices can make a big difference in the taste and texture of the cake.
- Ingredients: baking a carrot cake from scratch can be cost-effective because you can buy ingredients in bulk and use them for multiple recipes. And also know the quality of ingredients you use, fresher with no preservatives.
- Carrots: you can peel them or not. I recommend grating them with a large-holed grater and at the last moment. That way they retain the moisture better and don't become soggy. Beware of using a small-holed microplane grater as the carrot tends to clump and not integrate well in the batter.
- Apple: Granny Smith (green ones) is my first choice because it adds acidity, but any baking apple works well. Use it finely chopped by hand or grated with a large-holed grater.
- Spices: they're used ground. Make sure they haven't expired so they have more flavor.
- Vanilla: I use pure vanilla extract or pure vanilla paste when available, but a good vanilla essence (artificially flavored) also works and is infinitely cheaper.
- Sugar: both granulated white sugar and brown sugar (light or dark) are used for this recipe.
- Unsalted butter.
- Eggs: large, fresh.
- Milk: it's a small amount so you can use whole milk, reduced-fat, or even almond milk.
- Flour: all-purpose flour and cake flour, both work.
- Salt: I like to use kosher salt when baking. But regular table salt works just fine.
- Baking soda and baking powder: both act as leaveners to make the cake rise in the oven, so make sure they're not expired.
Variations & substitutions
- Spices: my favorite combination is cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and allspice, but I know a lot of people like cloves. You can also use just one or two. Any combination that you already love is fine. So adjust to your preference or to what you have available.
- Nuts: add some chopped pecans or walnuts to the batter, about ½ cup, or sprinkle on top of the batter before baking.
- Pan sizes: for years (when I had a Cafe) I made this cake in a tube pan or individual loaves (2 large ones per recipe). You can also make cupcakes.
How to make carrot cake
This cake seems much more laborious than it is.
- Mixing: the best way is to use a stand mixer with the paddle attachment or an electric mixer with a large bowl because it's a dense cake and a pretty large amount of cake batter.
- Sifted dry ingredients: don't skip this step, especially when you use baking soda which might sometimes clump together during storage, and will not dissolve during baking.
Creaming: beat the butter with the sugar until light and airy. Then add the eggs. The batter will be quite smooth and thick before you add the spices.
Baking the cake: the best way to make layer cakes is baking each layer in a separate pan. They will bake faster and more evenly. See how many pans your oven holds and stick to that. Mine for example holds two 8-inch round pans or three 7-inch pans.
When is the cake done? When a cake tester or toothpick comes out clean, remove the cake from the oven. Place on a wire rack and let cool completely.
Vintage Kitchen tip: this is a moist batter with lots of add-ins, so I don't recommend baking just one layer and then splitting it as it might not bake well in the middle.
Cream cheese frosting
It's the perfect one for carrot cake. Period. Who would dare think of carrot cake without that heavenly cream cheese frosting, right?!
So that's what we filled and frosted it with, the same way we do with our fabulous hummingbird cake.
Easy to make, it keeps for weeks in the fridge, and I've yet to meet someone that doesn't love it.
Offset spatula: I find this little utensil the best for spreading fillings, frostings, and batters. I use this offset spatula from Ateco and highly recommend it.
Each cake layer is filled and frosted with some rusticity in the decoration, of course, because it's me after all, and you know I am all for simple cakes with amazing flavor.
- Keep the layers refrigerated for up to a week, or frozen for a month, well wrapped of course. I use plastic wrap first and then aluminum foil if using the freezer.
- It's always a good idea to fill and frost layers that are cold. It's easier and there's less chance of the cake falling or breaking.
- Assembled cake: keep it in the refrigerator, well covered to prevent dryness. This is important because the apple in the batter will start to ferment if left at room temperature for a few days. Trust me on this one.
- Organization: read the recipe first and ensure you have ingredients at the correct temperatures, equipment, and enough workspace. This will make the process so much easier!
- Baking time: keep in mind that all ovens and pans are different, even if they look the same or very similar. The baking time in my recipes is as accurate as it can be, but it might take you more or less time. You can use a thermometer that is placed inside the oven (like the OXO oven thermometer) to check that your oven is at the right temperature. I recommend you keep track of how your oven works and what tiny details you might need to adjust.
- Apple - I use Granny Smith (green ones) usually, but any baking apple works well. I like it finely chopped by hand or grated with a large-holed grater. Apples start to turn brown pretty quickly after you peel and grate them, so you can drizzle a little lemon juice over them to prevent this. I don't generally.
- Make ahead: the cake layers can be made a day ahead and kept refrigerated (well wrapped in plastic) or frozen for a month.
- Cream cheese frosting: how much to use is up to you. For me, the amount given below in the recipe card is enough to fill and frost a two-layer cake as you see in the photos. Make a recipe and a half if you like extra frosting in your carrot cake, or double it if making a 4-layer cake where you'll cut each layer in half.
- Naked cake: I like to fill and frost the entire cake with almost naked sides (some of the cake shows), but you can only fill and frost the top, leaving the sides completely naked, with no frosting at all. Make sure you add a thick layer of filling to compensate for the naked sides.
Maple Walnut (or Pecan) Carrot Cake
This is a variation I make sometimes but with pecans more than walnuts. It's a more sophisticated cake, perfect for celebrations.
The layers are filled with a drizzle of maple syrup (flavor and moistness) and chopped nuts (crunch) in addition to the cream cheese frosting. So much flavor and richness!
And served with an extra drizzle of maple syrup. OMG, it's unreal how good it is. It has a smoky undertone that is out of this world.
Related recipes you might like:
I posted a Guide to Freezing Baked Goods & Desserts which might come in handy. We all prep and freeze savory food, but what about our sweet tooth? This post covers that.
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For the carrot cake:
- 2 ½ cups all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- Pinch of salt
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- ½ teaspoon ground ginger
- ¼ teaspoon ground allspice or nutmeg
- Pinch of ground cloves
- 1 ½ cups (330g) unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 1 cup firmly packed brown sugar
- 1 cup of white, granulated sugar
- 3 large eggs, at room temperature
- 1 teaspoons vanilla extract
- ½ cup milk, at room temperature
- 1 ½ cups peeled, grated or shredded carrots, about 6oz (see Notes below)
- 1 apple, peeled, cored, and finely chopped or coarsely grated (see Notes below)
For the cream cheese frosting:
- 1 cup (8oz) cream cheese, softened
- ½ cup (110g) unsalted butter, softened
- 3 cups powdered sugar (or more if needed)
- Whole and chopped pecans and grated orange peel, for decoration
For the carrot cake:
- Preheat oven to 350ºF/180°C.
- Butter and flour (or use baking spray) two 9-inch springform pans (cake pans with removable bottoms). I sometimes use three 7-inch pans. Make certain that the round cake pans fit in your oven and can be baked at the same time.
- Sift flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and spices in a bowl and reserve. Or have everything measured and sift them directly over the butter mixture as you add them.
- Beat the butter for 30 seconds in a large mixing bowl with an electric mixer or in the bowl of a stand mixer with the paddle attachment.
- Gradually add both sugars beating continuously for 3 or 4 minutes, until light and fluffy.
- Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition.
- Add vanilla and mix.
- Add the sifted dry ingredients (flour mixture) in 3 additions, alternating with the milk (the wet ingredients) in 2 additions. Beat on low speed until it's all well incorporated but do not over mix. Use a rubber spatula to scrape down the sides of the bowl a few times so you make sure it's all mixed.
- Add the grated or shredded carrot and apple and mix just until combined. I use a rubber spatula for this step. Make sure there is no flour or other ingredient that has pooled in the bottom of the bowl. The final batter is smooth and almost slippery.
- Pour batter into the prepared cake pans, smooth the top, and bake for about 4o minutes, or until a cake tester or toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean. It might take more or less depending on the pan size you use.
- Let cool completely on a wire rack and then remove.
For the cream cheese frosting:
- Beat cream cheese and butter in a medium bowl until very smooth and no lumps remain.
- Add 3 cups powdered sugar, ½ cup at a time, and beat until smooth. Check after each addition to see if it's as thick as you want. You might end up using more or less than the amount specified.
- Have the 2 cake layers completely cooled down. You can make them a day ahead and keep them refrigerated, well covered in plastic wrap.
- Put the first layer on the cake stand or serving platter, and fill with about a cup of cream cheese frosting. If making the nut maple variation, a handful of coarsely chopped pecans or walnuts, and a big drizzle of maple syrup.
- Place the second layer on top and gently press down. Repeat with the frosting.
- Frost the top of the cake with the remaining cream cheese frosting and also the sides. I use a medium offset spatula. Make a swirl on top and decorate with 8 pecans or walnuts, one for each slice you'll be serving. In the center add chopped pecans or walnuts and some grated orange peel.
- Serve with maple syrup if you want, no matter what variation of cake you make.
Organization: always read the recipe first and make sure you have all the ingredients, at the right temperatures, and also the rest of the equipment and space to make it. This will make the process so much easier!
Baking time: keep in mind that all ovens and pans are different, even if they look the same or very similar. The baking time in my recipes is as accurate as it can be, but it might take you more or less time. You can use a thermometer that is placed inside the oven (like the OXO oven thermometer) to check that your oven is at the right temperature. I recommend you keep track of how your oven works and what tiny details you might need to adjust.
Carrots - you can peel them or not. And I recommend grating them with a large-holed grater and at the last moment. That way they retain the moisture better and don't become soggy.
Apple - I use Granny Smith (green ones) usually, but any baking apple works well. I like it finely chopped by hand or grated with a large-holed grater. Apples start to turn brown pretty quickly after you peel and grate them, so you can drizzle a little lemon juice over them to prevent this. I don't generally.
Spices - my favorite combination is cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and allspice, but I know a lot of people like cloves. So adjust to your preference or to what you have available.
Storing - keep the layers refrigerated for up to a week, or frozen for a month, well wrapped of course. It's always a good idea to fill and frost layers that are cold. It's easier and there's less chance of the cake falling or breaking. Assembled cake: keep in the refrigerator, well covered.
- Prep Time: 20
- Cook Time: 35
- Category: Cakes
- Method: Baking
- Cuisine: American
Keywords: carrot layer cake, carrot birthday cake
Adapted from The Buttercup Bakeshop, by Jennifer Appel