It wasn’t until I became a foreigner that learning to cook well became urgent. Part of this was selfish – I had no other choice but to cook when I could no longer buy my favorite granola, when there was no Cuban restaurant nearby to satisfy my ropa vieja cravings, when mediocre carrot cake wouldn’t do. These foods may sound trivial, but the familiar flavors provided direct comfort amidst my exciting yet often exhausting first months living in Avignon, France (a new job, new colleagues and friends, a bare-bones apartment that wasn’t yet home, maze-like streets to find my way through…).
Yet as I cooked, I shared, and what began as a means for me to taste home evolved into a way to deepen connections with my new friends in Avignon from France, England, Italy, Germany, Spain and even Mongolia. We shared stories as we cooked and ate our favorite dishes from home together, foods that will always remind me of my now dear friends, like Irene’s gorgonzola gnocchi, Paqui’s ensaladilla rusa and Khosko’s buuz (Mongolian dumplings).
If I am remembered for one food by my foreign friends, it may be “my” carrot cake. I love carrot cake, yet had never attempted to make one myself before I moved abroad in 2006 (first to France and then to Spain, where I have lived for seven years and counting). For ten years prior to the big leap, I lived in Portland, Oregon, where some of the best bakeries in the world turn out the carrot cake that haunts my dreams. Why would I need to make it at home?
Yet in France, despite the equally craving-inducing (and memory-haunting) pastries, I longed to eat a satisfying slice of carrot cake. So I began experimenting with different recipes I found online (many thanks to the generous bloggers and magazine websites that share their content for free, you are lifesavers, and ambassadors, too, as you will see). Some cakes were too dry, some too chunky and distracting. My ideal carrot cake, I decided, has no nuts, raisins, pineapple or coconut, just sweet carrots and spice. After a handful of disappointing results, I finally found The One: Lisa Schoenfein’s carrot cake from the Saveur magazine online archives.
What do I love about this cake? It is packed with carrots so is unfailingly moist, the spices are warming and enticing yet not overpowering, and, best of all, it lives up to my carrot cake dreams.
I say best of all, although even better are the memories this carrot cake has given me. It is by far my most requested recipe here in Spain, and I have made it for countless parties, including my own wedding. Much more than a means to satisfy my own cravings, the cake has become a symbol of friendship across cultures. It starts conversations and makes people happy. This is what cooking well is all about.
Lisa Schoenfein’s Carrot Cake, adapted slightly from Saveur
The most time-consuming part of making this otherwise easy cake is grating the 1½ pounds of carrots called for in the recipe, which is more than I have seen elsewhere. This amount ensures the cake is moist and naturally fragrant. I usually enlist my husband.
The original frosting recipe calls for 3 cups of confectioners’ sugar, which I find way too sweet. I usually start with 1 cup and then add more by the tablespoon until I like the results. Between 1 and 1 ½ cups is enough for me.
This recipe makes one 8” stacked, round cake. For parties, I double the recipe and make a single-layer sheet cake (no need to double the frosting quantities).
For the cake
- 1 ½ cups (170 g) flour
- 1 cup (200 g) sugar
- 1 ½ teaspoons baking soda
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- ½ teaspoon ground cloves
- ½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
- ½ teaspoon ground allspice
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 2/3 cup (160 ml) vegetable oil (such as canola or sunflower)
- 3 eggs, lightly beaten
- 1 ½ pounds (600 g) carrots, peeled, trimmed and grated on the large holes of a box grater (approx. 4 cups)
For the frosting
- 12 oz. (335 g) cream cheese at room temperature
- 7 tablespoons (100 g) unsalted butter, softened
- 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
- 1 cup (110 g) confectioners’ sugar, plus more to taste
To make the cake
Preheat your oven to 350 degrees F and butter and flour two 8-inch round cake pans (or one 11 x 15 inch sheet pan if doubling the recipe).
Whisk together the flour, sugar, baking soda, baking powder, salt and spices in a large bowl. Add the oil and eggs and whisk or stir until you have a smooth batter. Using a rubber spatula, fold in the carrots until just blended. They will release their juices as you stir, easing the process. Divide the batter between the two cake pans. Bake until the surfaces of the cakes are deeply golden and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, around 30-35 minutes (the original recipe calls for 25 minutes, although I have found this to be too short – with so many carrots in it, the cake has never dried out on me). Allow the cakes to cool on racks and then, in the case of the round cakes, remove from the pans. The sheet cake can be frosted directly in the pan once it has cooled completely.
To make the frosting
The original recipe says to use a high speed mixer to beat together the cream cheese, butter and vanilla extract until smooth and then to reduce the speed before adding the sugar. I have not always had a mixer, so have done this process both by hand and using a hand mixer. When mixed by hand, the frosting can be a bit lumpy, but still tastes great. I now use my Thermomix, which is akin to a super-powered blender, on a medium speed and get silky results. Too much speed can turn the frosting into liquid, which I discovered on the day of my wedding party.
To assemble to cake
If you are making a stacked round cake, place one of the rounds on a large plate and top with about one-third of the frosting. Spread the frosting into an even layer. Top with the second cake round and finish icing with the remaining frosting.
If you have doubled the recipe and are using a sheet pan, once the cake has cooled completely, spread the frosting across the top in a smooth, even layer.