My Favorite Carrot Cake Recipe
Apple pie is my favorite dessert. This you already know. Coming in a very close second are other classic non-chocolate desserts like pineapple upside-down cake, oatmeal raisin cookies, key lime pie, and carrot cake. But in reality, they’re all my fave. I can have 10 favorites right? I know you understand the difficulty choosing a favorite dessert. Fellow bakeaholics, you just get me.
Today’s focus is carrot cake. I’ve been making this super-moist carrot cake for a couple years and it wasn’t until this weekend that I decided to turn it into an even taller, even greater layer cake. Today’s layered carrot cake cake is, you guessed it, just as moist as my original. It’s loaded with that comforting spice flavor we all know and love. It’s soft, yet dense. Tender, yet mighty. Bursting with shredded carrots, toasted pecans, and luscious cream cheese frosting. It’s a total classic and spring isn’t complete without it.
There are two greats when it comes to carrot cake: (1) Flavor and (2) Moisture. Let me go over each with you so you know what makes this carrot cake my favorite. Time for…
Food Science // Nerd Alert !
This carrot cake is soft and dense whose flavor comes from brown sugar, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and carrots. Brown sugar is key. I’ve come across a lot of carrot cake recipes that are sweetened with mostly granulated sugar. To me, that doesn’t do much for the cake at all besides sweeten it. Brown sugar not only sweetens the cake– it gives so much flavor and moisture. More bang for your buck, right? Ginger is a recent addition to my carrot cakes. I enjoyed a carrot cake a year or two ago that had a hint of ginger flavor and ever since then, I’ve loved the little ginger “zing!” in my homemade carrot cakes.
I add a little applesauce to enhance the warm flavors of brown sugar and cinnamon. Fresh and flavorful Diamond of California pecans round the whole cake out, making every bite of this sensational classic bursting with not only flavor, but texture as well. Plus, they’re the perfect decor on top or around the cake! For a little extra jazz, I recommend toasting them. Soft cake, toasted pecans, smooooooth cream cheese frosting. Sometimes I add raisins to the cake– I’ll note that in the recipe below. Also in the notes is my suggestion for adding pineapple. I know many love that!
As far as moisture goes? This cake has a lot of it! I couldn’t eat carrot cake any other way. I prefer to use oil. When preparing cakes without other strong flavors such as yellow cake or vanilla cake, I like to use butter. But for cakes like chocolate and carrot cake that have so much flavor from other ingredients, I find flavorless oil is the right choice when it comes to fat. To prevent the cake from being too moist and tasting oily, I add some applesauce (also for flavor!). Additionally, make sure you’re using freshly grated carrots, not the pre-grated carrots from the store. Those are usually very dry in comparison. You’ll need about 4 large carrots for this recipe. And when you grate them, you’ll notice how wet they are. That is PRIME moisture for your baked carrot cake!
The frosting? Well, that’s easy. It’s the same cream cheese frosting recipe I use for just about everything from red velvet cake to lemon cake. It’s like smooth, silky spreadable cheesecake. I decorated the pictured cake to be a naked-style cake, so I had a little extra frosting on my hands. You can use all the frosting or if you decide you don’t need it all, you can freeze and thaw it for another time.
One of the BEST parts about carrot cake is that it gets better and better over the hours, even after a day or two. The flavors have a chance to mingle, the moisture prevails, and the cream cheese frosting sets into the layers. This is the kind of moist cake crumb that sticks to the bottom of your fork as you take each bite. A bite that you never ever want to end!
Update: You can also make this carrot cake into 2 layers, just like I did when I first posted the recipe in 2015. The cake layers will be thicker. I noted the baking times for each in the recipe below.
- 3 cups (390g) Diamond of California chopped pecans or pecan pieces (1 cup for cake, 2 cups for garnish)
- 1 and 1/2 cups (300g) packed light or dark brown sugar (I prefer dark)
- 1/2 cup (100g) granulated sugar
- 1 cup (240ml) vegetable or canola oil
- 4 large eggs
- 3/4 cup (133g) smooth unsweetened applesauce1
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 2 and 1/2 cups (312g) all-purpose flour (spoon & leveled)
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 and 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon ground ginger
- 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
- 2 cups (260g) grated carrots (about 4 large)
Cream Cheese Frosting
- 16 ounces (450g) full-fat cream cheese, softened to room temperature2
- 1/2 cup (115g) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
- 4 cups (480g) confectioners' sugar
- 2-3 Tablespoons (30-45ml) heavy cream
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- pinch salt
- Preheat oven to 300°F (149°C) degrees. Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone baking mat. Spread the chopped pecans on the sheet and toast for 8 minutes. Remove from the oven and allow to cool.
- Turn the oven up to 350°F (177°C). Spray two or three 9-inch cake pans with nonstick spray. Set aside.
- In a large bowl, whisk the brown sugar, granulated sugar, oil, eggs, applesauce, and vanilla together until combined and no brown sugar lumps remain. Set aside. In another large bowl, whisk the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and cloves together until combined. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients and, using a rubber spatula or wooden spoon, fold the ingredients together until just combined. Then, fold in the carrots and 1 cup of the toasted pecans. The rest of the pecans are used in step 6.
- Pour/spoon the batter evenly into the cake pans. If using 3 cake pans, bake for 22-24 minutes. If using 2 cake pans, bake for for 30-35 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the centers comes out clean. Allow the cakes to cool completely in the pans set on a wire rack.
- Make the frosting: In a large bowl using a handheld or stand mixer fitted with a whisk or paddle attachment, beat the cream cheese and butter together on medium speed until smooth, about 2 minutes. Add the confectioners’ sugar and 2 Tablespoons of cream. Beat for 2 minutes. Add the vanilla and 1 more Tablespoon cream if needed to thin out. Beat on high for 2 full minutes. Taste the frosting and add a pinch of salt if it is too sweet.
- Assemble and frost: First, using a large serrated knife, slice a thin layer off the tops of the cakes to create a flat surface. Discard (or crumble over ice cream!). Place 1 cake layer on your cake stand or serving plate. Evenly cover the top with frosting. Top with other layer(s) and frosting. If you have leftover frosting, you can freeze it for up to 3 months and thaw in the refrigerator to use again.
- Decorate the sides or the top of cake with the remaining toasted pecans.
- Refrigerate the cake for at least an hour before slicing and serving. The time in the refrigerator ensures a neater cut.
- Cover and store leftover cake at room temperature for 1-2 days or in the refrigerator for up to 1 week.
Make ahead tip: The cake layers can be baked, cooled, and covered tightly at room temperature overnight. Likewise, the frosting can be prepared then covered and refrigerated overnight. Assemble and frost the cake the next day when you are ready to serve. Frosted cake can be frozen up to 2-3 months. Thaw overnight in the refrigerator and bring to room temperature before serving. It tastes much better fresh though!
- Instead of applesauce, you can use 3/4 cup crushed pineapple.
- Use brick-style cream cheese. Not cream cheese spread.
If you'd like to add raisins or coconut, reduce the pecans to 1/2 cup or leave them out. Then, add 1 cup of raisins or shredded coconut. Or you can leave the cake plain without any add-ins. Stick to around 1 - 1.5 cups total add-ins.
Try this recipe as cupcakes! You'll get around 2 dozen cupcakes. 20 minutes bake time at 350°F (177°C). Or you can make coconut carrot cake cupcakes with essentially the same recipe, only halved.
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I’m working with Diamond of California to bring you this recipe.