Rich and dense, but not heavy, this twist on a traditional carrot cake introduces a bright pop of flavor with a layer of sweet-tart orange curd.
I love a good carrot cake, especially at the start of spring. Growing up, my mother made a delicious orange-glazed carrot cake from the Southern Sideboards cookbook every Easter. It was always a huge hit. When Easter rolled around a few years ago, I found myself with a quantity of orange curd left over from a tartlet experiment, so we decided to try using it in our annual cake. Long story short: we ended up loving the creamy curd filling even more than the glaze! Several cakes, and a few recipe tweaks later, we had found a new Easter tradition in this Carrot Cake with Orange Curd.
My favorite carrot cakes are lightly-spiced, with a dense, but not heavy, crumb. There should be a good proportion of freshly-shredded carrots (I use a full pound in my cakes). Walnuts or pecans are a welcome addition, but I’ve never been big on cakes with crushed pineapple or raisins. As for the finishing touch (cue dropped jaws), I’m not the hugest fan of loading up carrot cake with cream cheese frosting. Don’t get me wrong: I love the stuff. I’m not averse to eating it with a spoon when there are leftovers in the bottom of the mixing bowl (don’t pretend you haven’t done that!). In the case of carrot cake, though, I often find that having cream cheese frosting everywhere can be too much, especially at the end of a large holiday meal. By introducing a layer of creamy, brightly-flavored orange curd to the party, I find that all you really need is a layer of cream cheese frosting on top to round out the flavors. The combination is rich and satisfying, but at the same time elegant, and very much worthy of a holiday dessert table.
One of the best parts about carrot cake is how easy it is to make. Since the primary fat in the batter is vegetable oil, the entire batter can be mixed by hand with a whisk. (Unless, of course, you really want to use your stand mixer, in which case, by all means!). The carrots can be grated using the fine-shredding disc on a food processor, or with a little more elbow grease, a box grater. I prefer that the carrot pieces be on the smaller side, so when using the food processor, I often give them a rough chop after shredding (just two or three short pulses) to break up any particularly long pieces. The curd filling is similarly straightforward to prepare and, as an added bonus, can be made a day in advance of cake assembly. The more time you can buy yourself as a holiday dinner approaches, the better!
Speaking of the orange curd: much like the orange glaze in the carrot cake that inspired this recipe, the curd will soak into the cake layers a bit the longer it sits. On the day after assembly, you won’t find a terribly thick curd layer when the cake is sliced, but the center of the cake will have developed a lovely, bright orange flavor. In fact, we always make this carrot cake a day in advance, giving the curd and cake enough time to mingle. In my many experimentations with this cake, I tried making a thicker curd filling that would form a discernible layer, and we didn’t really love it. Much like copious cream cheese frosting, we found too much curd to be overpowering, detracting from the carrot cake itself.
As we head into April, here’s to bunches of fresh carrots (and a myriad of other fresh produce coming into the markets; I can’t wait!), warm spring breezes, and sunny skies on the horizon. Wishing you and yours a peaceful and delicious holiday!
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Carrot Cake with Orange Curd
The entire cake can be made and assembled a day in advance and stored in the refrigerator. If making ahead and storing, let the cake sit out at room temperature for about 30 minutes before serving.
Recipe inspired by "Orange-Glazed Carrot Cake," Southern Sideboards
For the Orange Curd
- 4 large egg yolks
- 1/2 cup granulated sugar
- 1/4 cup orange juice, preferably freshly-squeezed
- 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
- 1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
- 1 tablespoon grated orange zest
- pinch of salt
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
For the Cake
- 2 cups all purpose flour
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1-1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 1/2 cup light brown sugar, lightly packed
- 1-1/2 cups granulated sugar
- 4 large eggs
- 1-1/4 cups vegetable oil
- 3 cups finely-shredded carrots (about 1 pound of whole carrots, peeled; use a box grater or the fine-shredding disc of a food processor to shred)
- 1/2 to 3/4 cup chopped pecans (optional)*
For the Cream Cheese Frosting
- 12 ounces block-style cream cheese, room temperature
- 12 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature
- 2 cups sifted confectioner's sugar
Make the Orange Curd
In a small saucepan, whisk together all ingredients except for butter, until combined. Cook over medium-low heat, stirring constantly, until curd is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon, about 8-9 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in butter, until melted and smooth. Transfer curd to a non-reactive bowl, place a piece of plastic wrap directly onto the surface of the curd to prevent a skin from forming, and refrigerate until well-chilled, at least 3 hours, or overnight.
Make the Cake
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F with rack in the middle position. Line the bottoms of two 9-inch cake pans with parchment rounds and lightly spray the papers and sides of the pan with cooking spray.
In a large bowl, sift or whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Set aside. In another large bowl, whisk together eggs and sugars until thick and smooth (you can also use a hand or stand mixer here). Slowly add the oil in a steady stream, while whisking, until fully combined and emulsified. Stir in carrots and pecans (if using). Fold wet ingredients into the dry ingredients until no streaks of flour remain.
Divide cake batter evenly between the two prepared pans. Bake 30-35 minutes, until a cake tester inserted into the center comes out clean. Remove from oven and let cakes cool in the pans for about 15 minutes. Invert cakes from pans onto wire racks to continue cooling, peeling off the parchment rounds. Cool completely.
Make the Cream Cheese Frosting
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, or in a large bowl with a hand mixer, whip together cream cheese and butter until smooth. Add confectioner's sugar in 3 additions, scraping bowl each time. Beat until smooth.**
Assemble the Cake
Place one cake layer on a platter. Spread the cake with the orange curd, leaving a 1/2-inch border. Top with the second cake layer. Decoratively pipe or spread cream cheese frosting onto the top of the cake. Serve, or refrigerate for storage. Cake is better on the second day. Remove from the refrigerator 30 minutes prior to serving to allow frosting to soften a bit.
*My family enjoys a prominent pecan flavor in carrot cakes, so I generally use 3/4 cup chopped nuts. For a lighter density of nuts, use 1/2 cup.
**This recipe makes enough cream cheese frosting to decoratively pipe the top of the cake, as I've done here. To make rosettes, use a Wilton 1M tip, piping swirls in a circular pattern from the center of the cake, outward.