Because the pastel-ed idea, if not the outdoor temperatures, of spring seems to have infected my existence and I’m not even fighting it — my nails are a shade of pink that can only describe as “bunny nose,” I, someone who mostly lives in variations of black and gray, just bought a patterned and brightly colored dress, we’ve had asparagus twice this month, unable to wait any longer for it to emerge from local soil, and my hands are stained orange from all of the carrots I’ve grated into cake week. Around here, these are the harbingers of spring.
This idea of this cake, like a lot of ideas rattling around in my “attic,” stems from a bunch of places that all collided this week on a discount cake stand. The first is the S’More Cake from The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook. As my son approached his 2nd birthday, I became obsessed with making a graham cracker cake for him because he, like most 2 year-olds with tastebuds, had grown fond of them. But why just make a graham cake when you can make the cake embodiment of the greastest things you can pile on graham crackers: a puddle of melted chocolate and tufts of toasted marshmallow? It took me forever to get cake layers that tasted like graham crackers; I tried everything and the only thing that really nailed it was replacing half the flour with graham cracker crumbs itself, which, like most circular definitions, may not have adequately illuminated the concept of graham crackers, but everyone was too busy enjoying cake to take scientific issue with the concept.
I hadn’t thought about graham cake layers again until a year ago, when my family and I went to Blue Hill at Stone Barns for a very long and very fancy lunch to celebrate my mom’s very big birthday. For dessert, they brought her a parsnip, carrot and graham cake with thin layers and open sides and it was all very April-ish yet somehow — maybe the parsnip flavor was too strong for my tastes? — got translated on my cooking wishlist to a carrot-graham layer cake.
Finally, I think this site — and by this site, I mean my belly — has been long overdue for a really great carrot layer cake. Sure, there are carrot cake cupcakes, though I’ve always wished they were more carroty and less cake-y. There’s also this carrot-cider-olive oil hearty breakfast loaf from last fall. But there wasn’t this: an intensely orange, sticky, moist, finely layered quintessential carrot cake with trace flavors of graham crackers stacked with all the cream cheese frosting your heart desires. Needless to say, mine desires a lot.
One year ago: Whole Grain Cinnamon Swirl Bread
Two years ago: Chocolate Hazelnut Macaroon Torte
Three years ago: Raspberry Coconut Macaroons
Four years ago: Spaetzle
Five years ago: Romesco Potatoes
Six years ago: Beef Empanadas
Seven years ago: Chicken with Almonds and Green Olives
Eight years ago: Arugula Ravioli
My favorite part about this cake is that after you’re done with the pesky grating of carrots (I used a food processor, which makes quick work of it), you mix everything by hand so it really comes together in no time and the layers, each a mere 1/2-inch thick, bake in all of 15 minutes and come out flat, requiring no leveling or fancy decorating to make a pretty stacked cake. My next favorite part is the sheer, colossal amount of carrots in it. I thought it would be impossible to bake a full cup of grated carrots into a thin cake layer, but it turned out wonderfully, soft, tender and likely more vegetables than my 5 year-old had ingested in that day, to be honest. My go-to oils for neutral cooking oils these days are sunflower or safflower oil; grape seed would work too (or, of course, any oil you like to cook with).
The frosting amount is generous. You’ll have just shy of a cup more than you’ll need to frost it as I’ve shown it (which can be saved for tinting and decorating, if you wish). That said, I had intended to put a little more between each layer (closer to what you see on the top) but just didn’t plan well. Had I, I think I’d have used it up. Or, if you’d like to cover the sides of the cake, you should have enough.
Finally, do you live somewhere where you can’t get graham crackers? Try digestive biscuits or speculoos, just grind them as finely as you can.
Yield: 1 9-inch 3-layer cake
1 cup (125 grams) all-purpose flour
3/4 cup (95 grams) finely ground graham cracker crumbs, plus extra for decoration if you wish
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
3/4 teaspoon fine sea or table salt
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg or a bunch of gratings of fresh
3/4 teaspoon ground ginger
3/4 cup (150 grams) granulated sugar
3/4 cup (145 grams) dark brown sugar
3/4 cup plus 3 tablespoons (210 grams) neutral oil or melted butter (i.e. 1 tablespoon short of 1 cup)
3 large eggs
3 cups (about 12 3/4 ounces or 360 grams) peeled and grated carrots (2 cups = 8.5 ounces, peeled/grated)
2 (8-ounce) packages cream cheese, softened (455 grams total)
1 cup (2 sticks, 8 ounces or 230 grams) unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 cups (240 grams) powdered sugar, sifted if lumpy
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Make the cake: Heat oven to 350°F (175°C). Line three 9-inch cake pans with a fitted round of parchment paper and coat with a nonstick cooking spray. Don’t have three matching cake pans? Me neither. As soon as you finish baking and unmolding the first cake layer, wipe out the baking pan, put down a new round of parchment and coat the pan with spray before using it again.
In a large bowl, whisk together flour, graham crumbs, baking soda, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger. In a medium-sized bowl, whisk (yes, you can use the same one) together the sugars, oil and eggs until smooth. Stir in grated carrots. Pour wet ingredients into dry and stir until flour just disappears.
Pour batter evenly between three prepared baking pans. Bake each layer for 15 to 18 minutes, until a tester comes out clean. Cake will seem soft and likely still sticky on top. Let rest in cake pans for 5 minutes on a cooling rack, then run a knife around the edges of the first cake layer to ensure no parts are sticking to the sides, flip cake out onto cooling rack, remove parchment paper and flip back right-side-up on another cooling rack. Repeat with remaining layers and let the cake layers cool completely before filling. To hurry the cooling process along, and to make this very soft cake easier to handle, you can place cake layers in your freezer until cool and slightly firm.
Fill the cake With an electric mixer, beat cream cheese and butter together until smooth and fluffy. Beat in powdered sugar, a little at a time. Beat in vanilla until combined.
Arrange first cake layer on a cake plate or stand. Spread top with frosting; repeat twice with remaining layers. If desired, sprinkle top decoratively with extra graham crumbs — I used a cookie cutter to make a loose outline of a flower shape on mine. Let cake chill until serving.
Do ahead: Cake is wonderful on the first day, and even more moist on the second and third and I’ve never met a person who had one last four days. Keep in fridge. To prepare further in advance, you can make the cake layers, wrap them well and freeze them until you’re ready to fill the cake.