I can only plead ignorance. No one told me carrot cake was this good. True, I knew it included some of my favorite things–spices, nuts, and cream cheese frosting–but somehow every time I’ve encountered it, it’s just tasted of mass produced bleh that didn’t even seem worth trying to redeem. And so I didn’t.
I was wrong. So, so wrong.
My few run-ins with carrot cake usually went like this: a half-eaten, generic, leftover grocery store cake appears by the communal coffee pot at work and I, who should know better by now, help myself to a slice. It doesn’t taste anything like carrot, only vaguely of spices, and the frosting (which tastes nothing like cream cheese and inevitably includes tiny frosted carrots, because how else would you know what flavor this cake is supposed to be?) peels off like putty. If there are nuts at all, they are sad little crumb-sized pieces not worthy of the warning label “This product may contain nuts.”
The cake isn’t offensive, I still eat my slice, but I won’t even remember it ten minutes later, the only evidence a wadded up paper napkin and a few rouge crumbs on my desk.
And this is why mediocre food is really terrible; it’s not that the cake actually tastes bad, it’s that it’s uninspiring. It’s easy for great food to be inspirational, and bad food at least inspires me to never ever combine those ingredients again. But mediocre food? It just makes me think I wasted calories eating it. And I really hate thinking about calories.
I’m not saying all food should be drop-your-fork-and-drop-to-your-knees amazing. Shoot, for every post here I probably made a dozen average dishes or meals that weren’t worth the effort to type up, but if I’m going to eat cake, it had better be some damn good cake.
Back to the carrot cake. Last weekend I tried a sample of grocery store carrot cake mix, which was just good enough for me to say “Oh. Hey. I could make this.” (Sometimes I feel bad for grocery stores and their samples. I’m sure it’s not their intention that I taste and forgo the box in favor of making it from scratch.)
Flipping through a few cookbooks and combining bits and pieces of recipes from two of my baking bibles, I think I came up with something that is definitely better than mediocre. I may have, in fact, taken a bite of slightly warm, gooey-frosted muffin/cupcake hybrids and actually mumbled through a mouthful of delicious, “Why didn’t anyone tell me carrot cake was this good?”
This carrot cake is packed with everything I think it should be. Carrot, of course, makes its presence known in no uncertain terms; crunchy chunks of walnut will not be ignored (sorry Alton Brown, you were wrong on this count); raisins plump up to better, juicier versions of themselves. And the spices? Let me put it this way: these cupcakes were under a heavy glass cake dome and I could still smell them every time I walked past.
And last but not least, though these are delicious without any frosting at all (dare I suggest they’re almost breakfast-worthy?), I would actually suggest doubling the frosting recipe to make sure you get a good ratio of frosting to cake–this coming from someone who generally scrapes off frosting like a picky six-year-old.
Now, of course, this discovery makes me question what other mediocre dishes I’ve eaten that could be spectacular. I think I have some more tasting to do.
Carrot Cupcakes with Cream Cheese Frosting
In the spectrum from cupcake to muffin, these lean just a bit more towards cupcake in terms of sweetness but the method, add-ins, and consistency lean more on the side of the muffin. While I like the nuttiness that whole grain flour adds to the cake, you can use all white flour. Also, I had a soon-to-expire container of marscapone cheese in my fridge, hence it’s delicious appearance in the frosting, but you can use an 8 ounce block of cream cheese instead. Adapted from The Joy of Cooking and I’m Just Here for More Food.
1 cup very firmly packed carrots, shredded on the small side of a box grater
1 cup chopped walnuts
1/2 cup golden raisins
1 3/4 cup flour (up to 1/2 cup can be whole wheat or mixed whole grain flours)
1 teaspoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon mace or freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup whole yogurt, plain
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup sugar
Preheat oven to 350 degrees and butter and flour a 12-cup cupcake pan (or prepare pan with paper liners).
Whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and spices in a large mixing bowl. Add shredded carrots and stir together. In a separate bowl, whisk together eggs, yogurt, vanilla, and sugar until thoroughly combined. Add wet ingredients to dry and fold together 3 to 4 times, then add walnuts and raisins. Continue to fold together just until combined, it’s ok if there are still a few spots of flour or small clumps of carrots.
Portion batter into the muffin tin (a heaping 1/3 cup should be about right). Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until a tester inserted in the center of a muffin comes out clean. Remove from oven and cool completely on a rack.
7 ounces cold cream cheese
3 tablespoons marscapone cheese
4 tablespoons butter, cut into chunks and set out at room temperature for 10 minutes
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
3/4 cup powdered sugar
Beat together cream cheese, marscapone, and butter at half speed with a mixer until smooth. Add vanilla, beat until combined. With the mixer on low, add the powdered sugar in stages, 1/4 cup at a time, beating thoroughly after each addition until fluffy. Refrigerate for 10 minutes before frosting cupcakes.