Everything's Coming Up Roses: Brown Butter Carrot Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting

Because I bake regularly for my office, my co-workers often tell me about their personal favorite desserts or flavor combinations and whenever they do, I keep track of their preferences in an electronic note I maintain in Outlook. When I was deciding what type of birthday cake to make for my colleague Jenny a few weeks ago, I checked the note and was surprised to see that it listed carrot cake as her favorite. I've been baking for Jenny's birthday since we started working together more than four years ago and for some reason I've never made her a carrot cake. Once I realized this oversight, it made the choice of birthday cake this year an easy decision.

Stella Parks has a recipe for a Brown Butter Carrot Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting in BraveTart that I was eager to try. It's slightly different from previous carrot cakes I've made in that it includes browned butter and some whole wheat flour. To make the cake batter, you whip granulated sugar, brown sugar, cinnamon, ginger, baking powder, salt, baking soda, nutmeg, cloves, vanilla, and cold eggs until thick and fluffy; drizzle in browned butter; add all-purpose flour and whole wheat flour; and fold in shredded carrots and toasted pecans. There are a lot of carrots and pecans in the batter, which made it extremely thick when I divided it between three parchment-lined 8-inch pans. The recipe instructs you to bake the cakes for about 45 minutes, or to an internal temperature of 210 degrees F. I checked the cakes at 45 minutes and they looked done but the internal temperature was only about 195 degrees. In my experience, that's fine for a butter cake, so I didn't bake them any longer.
I started making the cream cheese frosting the day before baking the cake because it requires some downtime. The frosting is essentially homemade vanilla pudding combined with butter and cream cheese. (When I was growing up, the cake my mother always made for my birthday had a similar type of frosting; she made a package of Jell-O cook and serve vanilla pudding and then beat in half a pound of butter.) To make the pudding, I steeped a split vanilla bean in hot milk for about an hour; brought the milk to a simmer; removed the vanilla bean and added the scraped seeds to the milk; added in a tempered mixture of sugar, cornstarch, and whole eggs; brought the mixture to a boil and cooked it for two minutes; and added vanilla extract. I poured the pudding into a glass baking dish, pressed plastic wrap against its surface, and left it in the fridge until the following day.

After my cakes were baked and cooled, I finished the frosting by beating softened cream cheese and butter until fluffy and light and slowly adding in the pudding. My frosting started out a little runny and I had to chill it for about 30 minutes and re-beat it to get it to a consistency that would hold its shape. I filled and frosted the cake, which was very tall because each of the three cake layers had risen almost to the top of my 2-inch tall pans. For garnish, I added twisted carrot roses that I made by slicing strips of rainbow carrots on a mandoline (I tried using a vegetable peeler as instructed in the recipe and it wasn't working out for me), cooking them in simple syrup, and twisting them into flower shapes. 
I loved the dramatic effect of the rainbow carrot roses. This cake was excellent. As you can see in the photo above, it was stuffed with nuts -- but the cake was still tender, with a complex and warm spice flavor. The frosting had a definite cream cheese tang, but I didn't think there was enough of it. Also, the frosting had the silky texture of meringue buttercream and I sort of missed the more full-bodied, creamy texture of traditional cream cheese frosting. Flavor-wise, I don't think this frosting is better than my much easier standard cream cheese frosting (my favorite recipe is the one for from this pumpkin cake, which I freely use on carrot cakes and red velvet cakes). However, Stella says the frosted cake and individual slices can stay at room temperature for three days, which is a big plus -- I always refrigerate cakes with cream cheese frosting.

This is easily the most elegant carrot cake I've ever made. Because the cake is so tall, a thin slice is still a generous serving, and I think you can probably get 20 slices out of it. This cake is a lovely dessert for a special occasion.

Recipe: "Brown-Butter Carrot Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting" from BraveTart by Stella Parks, recipe available here at SeriousEats.

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