I think perhaps I have a slightly romanticised idea of carrot cakes. When I was very small I, like most children, had a book I was obsessed with. I loved that book to the exclusion of all others for maybe an entire year. My parents must have loathed it. That book was Dudley Bakes a Cake. It tells the story of a small, sleepy dormouse called Dudley who enters a baking competition in order to win a bicycle. Lacking carrots for his intended carrot cake entry, he is undeterred. He makes up the deficit with baking powder, which causes the cake to balloon, and the oven to explode. Carried in a wheelbarrow and covered in strawberry icing, it wins the cake contest, and Dudley gets his bike. It’s telling that, some 27 years later, with a little more culinary knowledge up my sleeve, and a lot of carrot cakes under my belt, I am not put off by the realities of the cake: i don’t mind that baking powder wouldn’t work in this way, or that it would leave the most almighty taste of soap. I am won over by even a glimpse of that cake; nostalgia’s hold is tight.
So I have a real soft spot for carrot cakes. Though they may not be the most beautiful cake you can make, getting the balance of ingredients right can make them one of the most delicious: spiced and nubbly, sweet but not too sweet, and – crucially – packed with carrot. This one is the product of many twists and tweaks but is, I think, the sweet spot. The combination of plain and wholemeal flour gives the cake depth without becoming worthy; the light brown sugar gives a rounded caramel sweetness, and a generous handful of nuts finish the whole thing off. I think carrot cake benefits from a little orange zested into it, but if you’re not an orange lover, feel free to omit. Just don’t replace any of the ingredients with extra baking powder…
Makes: 1 8 inch cake
Takes: 15 minutes, plus cooling
Bakes: 1 hour 15 minutes
For the cake
100g plain self-raising flour
100g wholemeal self-raising flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon mixed spice
200g light brown sugar
1 orange, zested
150ml vegetable oil
4 medium carrots, peeled and grated
100g pecans or walnuts, chopped
For the icing
150g cream cheese
150g icing sugar
1. Preheat an oven to 180°C, and line an eight inch cake tin with baking paper.
2. Stir together both flours, the baking powder, all the spices and the light brown sugar.
3. In a jug, whisk together the eggs and vegetable oil until combined and then stir these through the dry ingredients.
4. Add the orange zest and the grated carrots, stirring to evenly distribute and, finally, mix in the pecans or walnuts.
5. Place in the oven, and check the cake after an hour: it is ready if, when pressed gently with a finger, the sponge springs back. It may need another 15 minutes, depending on how wet your carrots were when added.
6. Leave to cool for 10 minutes before removing from the cake tin and cooling completely.
7. Make the icing by creaming the butter until very soft, and then beating in the cream cheese slowly, until just combined. Add the icing sugar and beat until smooth. When the cake is completely cool, spread the icing across the top of the cake using a spatula or palette knife and decorate, if you like, with any leftover nuts or orange zest.