Elevate carrot cake with brown butter frosting

Olga Massov

THE WASHINGTON POST – True story: We never got to cut the cake on our wedding. Instead, we got so carried away dancing with our friends and family, the tradition slipped our – and everyone else’s – minds. The cake in question was a homey, three-layer carrot cake, my husband’s favourite. When we discovered it sitting there untouched, Andrew and I were relieved. Having everyone watch us feed each other cake was never our idea of fun.

It wasn’t until this assignment that I really went down the delicious carrot cake rabbit hole. I didn’t have a go-to recipe, and while the cakes I was making were fine, they weren’t extraordinary enough to be bookmarked. I moved from recipe to recipe, hoping to strike gold with one but not succeeding.

I was looking for more in my cake: It needed to be sufficiently carroty and moist, with a delicate crumb and varied textures. I opted for plump golden raisins, with their sweet honey notes, and toasted pecans, very finely chopped. To bump up the rich, warming flavours, I chose a symphony of spices: cinnamon, cardamom, allspice, nutmeg and ginger, both fresh and powdered. For a bit of tang, I added buttermilk.

The resulting cake layers are everything I wanted them to be and more. Friends and colleagues who tried it said the texture was perfect and the flavours balanced.

With the cake layers done, I moved on to the frosting. Inspired by a few recipes, including those from Jocelyn Delk Adams and Claire Saffitz, brown butter-cream cheese frosting sounded like an excellent idea. Melt and brown the butter then stir it over an ice bath until it is the texture of solid room-temperature butter, a process that takes about 25 minutes. Then, proceed to make the frosting as usual.

To get the most consistent results, I recommend sticking with Philadelphia cream cheese (the full-fat kind). Cream cheese frosting is the best part of carrot cake. In fact, it happens to be our family’s favourite frosting, and I make it so often, I forget its softer, more spreadable texture compared with its buttercream cousin. Keep that in mind when making it: If the frosting seems softer than usual, that’s normal. Too soft? Chill it for 20 minutes
or so.

Carrot cake with brown butter-cream cheese frosting. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST


Here is a classic carrot cake that, with its few fun twists, will astound you with its exceptional crumb and taste. A blend of fragrant warming spices – cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, allspice and nutmeg – delivers an aromatic bouquet, while finely chopped toasted pecans add sweet nuttiness and vary the texture without disrupting it. Golden raisins contribute gentle honey notes and moisture throughout. What takes this cake into a different stratosphere is the brown butter-cream cheese frosting, which is at once familiar and unexpected; you may never go back to regular cream cheese frosting after this.

Make Ahead: The cake may be prepared, tightly wrapped and refrigerated, up to one day in advance. The frosting can be prepared up to five days in advance.

Storage Notes: The assembled cake can be refrigerated, properly covered, for up to five days. The cake layers may be tightly wrapped in plastic wrap, then foil, and frozen for up to three months; defrost overnight in the refrigerator. Leftover frosting may be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to five days or frozen for up to three months.


For the cake

Half cup well-shaken buttermilk

Two teaspoons finely grated fresh ginger

One teaspoon vanilla extract

One cup pecan halves, plus more for decorating the cake (optional)

Three-quarter cup canola oil or another neutral oil, plus more for greasing pans

One-and-a-half cups all-purpose flour

One teaspoon baking powder

One teaspoon baking soda, sifted

One teaspoon kosher salt

One teaspoon ground cinnamon

One teaspoon ground ginger

Half teaspoon ground cardamom

Quarter teaspoon grated nutmeg

Quarter teaspoon ground allspice

Three large eggs

One cup granulated sugar

Quarter cup packed dark brown sugar

11 ounces carrots, scrubbed and trimmed

Three-quarter cup raisins

For the frosting

170 grammes unsalted butter

340 grammes cream cheese, at room temperature

Two teaspoons vanilla extract

Quarter teaspoon kosher salt

454 grammes confectioners’ sugar


Make the cake layers

Position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees.

In a liquid measuring cup, combine the buttermilk, fresh ginger and vanilla.

Spread the pecans out on a small, rimmed baking sheet and toast in the oven for about 10 minutes, shaking midway through, until the nuts are deep golden brown and fragrant. Remove from the oven (leave the oven on) and transfer the nuts to a plate to cool. Once the nuts are cool, transfer to a food processor and pulse until very finely chopped.

While the nuts are toasting, lightly brush the bottom and sides of two (eight-by-two-inch) cake pans with oil. Line the bottom of the pans with parchment paper and brush the paper with oil.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, ground ginger, cardamom, nutmeg and all spice until combined.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, combine the eggs with the granulated and brown sugars and beat on medium-low speed to break up the eggs. Increase the speed to medium-high and beat until the mixture forms thick ribbons as it falls off the whisk, about five minutes.

While the eggs and sugar are being whipped, grate the carrots.

When the egg-sugar mixture is ready, slowly add the oil in a thin stream and beat until the mixture is glossy, plush and emulsified.

Switch to the paddle attachment and add about a third of the flour mixture to the egg mixture. Mix on low speed just to combine. Stop the mixer, add half of the buttermilk mixture and then return the mixer to low speed just to combine.

Add the remaining dry ingredients in two more additions, alternating with the remaining buttermilk mixture. When the last whisper of flour disappears, stop the mixer and use a spatula to scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl, then fold the batter to ensure it is evenly mixed.

Add the carrots and mix on low until just combined. Unlock the mixer bowl and, using a spatula, gently fold in the pecans and raisins.

Evenly divide the batter between the cake pans. If needed, smooth out the tops of the cakes with a small offset spatula.

Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, or until a cake tester inserted into the middle of the cakes comes out clean, and the cakes spring back when lightly pressed on top and start to pull away from the sides of the pan. Transfer the cake pans to a wire rack and let
cool completely.

Run a thin offset spatula or butter knife around the perimeter of each pan, place a plate over each cake layer and gently invert. Discard the parchment paper.

Make the frosting

While the cakes are baking, in a medium bowl, prepare an ice bath.

In a small saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter and cook, stirring and scraping the bottom and sides constantly, until the solids turn brown, eight to 10 minutes. Scrape the butter with the browned bits into a bowl and set the bowl over the prepared ice bath; stir every couple of minutes until the butter returns to solid, 13 to 15 minutes. Do not let it get too hard; you want the consistency of room-temperature butter.

In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the cream cheese and butter on medium-high speed, stopping the mixer and scraping down the sides and bottom of the bowl from time to time, until the mixture is completely smooth, about two minutes. Add the vanilla and salt and mix on medium-high to incorporate.

Turn off the mixer and add about a third of the confectioners’ sugar. Start with the mixer on low to incorporate the sugar, and then add the remaining sugar in two more increments, pausing the mixer between additions and scraping the sides and bottom of the bowl. Once all of the confectioners’ sugar has been incorporated, increase the speed to medium-high and beat until the frosting is smooth, thick and fluffy, one to two minutes.

Check the bottom of the bowl to make sure all of the confectioners’ sugar has been incorporated; if not, briefly beat to recombine.The frosting will be soft and spreadable; if it feels too soft for spreading, refrigerate for about 20 minutes to firm it up.

Assemble the cake

If your cake layers have prominent domes, use a long, serrated knife to trim the tops, so the layers are even and level.

Place a cake layer bottom side down on a cake stand or serving plate, and slide strips of parchment paper partially underneath and all around the cake to keep your work area neat during frosting.

Using a small offset spatula, place about one cup of frosting in the centre and spread it out to the edges. Place the second cake layer, bottom side up, on top of the first and top with another one cup of the frosting in the centre. Using the offset spatula, spread the frosting in a thin layer over the top and sides of the cake to form a crumb coat, adding a little more frosting at a time as needed.

Transfer the cake to the refrigerator and let the coating set up, about 30 minutes.

Remove the cake from the refrigerator and use more frosting to generously cover the top and sides of the cake. To make decorative swirls, move the offset spatula in a figure-eight shape all over the frosting. Refrigerate the cake just until the frosting is set, at least one hour and up to one day in advance, then slice and serve.