This easy carrot cake recipe came down to me from my mother, who passed away just over two years ago. She didn’t teach me any easy pie recipes or even how to make homemade biscuits, but man did she make a good carrot cake.
My mother made this same easy carrot cake recipe for almost every birthday in our family — four times a year at least — for almost 30 years. It all started for me in the summer of 1985, with my first cake topped with rock candy, rainbow candles, and a small Cabbage Patch figurine. My mom would use that same little figurine on my cakes for years; my brother had a similar one on his cakes of a baseball-playing Cabbage Patch boy.
Though mom made the cake for us when we were little, she also taught each of us to make it as we grew older. Eventually, I took on the role as the family cake-baker; many times we baked and decorated together in preparation for a family celebration.
Someday I hope to pass this easy carrot cake recipe on to my stepsons, nieces, and nephews. For now, I make this cake at least every year — to commemorate my mother’s birthday in May and the anniversary of her death in October. It seems like a fitting memorial and going through the motions of something we did together so many times helps me feel connected to her in a visceral way, like almost nothing else.
Now, my mother is gone, but when it comes time for a cake, I get out her faithful old Cuisinart and sturdy cake pans. As I grate the carrots, chop the nuts, mix the ingredients, and pour the batter into mom’s pans, I recall fond memories in the kitchen together. Year after year, we made this same cake and somehow it never got old. As the cakes bake, they fill the house with the most wonderful aroma. The scent of the warm cake enhances my sweet memories. After they come out and cool, I recall that mom also taught me how to make cream cheese frosting with her old hand mixer, now gone. Today I use a stand mixer, a tool she never owned. Years from now, when the next generation makes this cake for their families, their memories will be slightly different from mine as some tools and settings change, but the core of it will be the same.
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Whether yours is this easy carrot cake recipe, a pear crumble recipe, a special cookie or whatever else, I hope you too will find a special family recipe to treasure and pass on. Food is such a powerful vehicle of memory. Start your tradition now; your children will hold it dear their whole lives. I know I have.
Easy Carrot Cake Recipe
For the Cake:
- Vegetable shortening & flour for greasing the pans
- 2 cups flour
- 2 cups sugar
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 2 teaspoons baking soda
- 2 teaspoons cinnamon
- 1-1/2 cup vegetable oil (or applesauce)
- 4 eggs
- 3 cups carrots, grated
- 1/3 cup nuts, chopped
For the Frosting:
- 1 package cream cheese, softened
- 1 stick butter, softened
- 1 package powdered sugar
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- Food coloring
- Set out frosting ingredients to soften. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Put a dab of vegetable shortening on your fingers and use it to fully grease the sides and bottoms of two 8- to 9-inch cake pans. Then add a tablespoon of flour to the pans and tap it around until it covers the shortening. Dump out any excess flour. Set your pans aside.
- Coarsely grate carrots and chop nuts using a food processor. Dump these into a large bowl or into your stand mixer’s bowl.
- Add in the remaining cake ingredients. Stir until well mixed. NOTE: One change I made to my mother’s original recipe to make it a bit healthier is to substitute applesauce for the oil. If you do this, use the same amount of applesauce as you would vegetable oil.
- Divide the cake batter evenly between your two prepared cake pans. Bake for 35 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean.
- When finished baking, set your cake pans aside until they cool enough to be handled easily. Then carefully flip your cakes out onto wire racks to cool completely. Gently run a knife along the edges if necessary to loosen the cake from the pan, but if you grease and flour your pans well, you won’t need to do this!
- Once your cakes are completely cool, set the first layer on your cake stand or serving dish.
- Make your frosting: the sweetest part! Use a hand or stand mixer to whip the butter, cream cheese, and vanilla until smooth. Add the powdered sugar about a cup at a time, letting it mix in before you add more. You will probably use close to the whole bag, but stop when you reach the consistency you like. If you’re coloring your frosting, add the food coloring a couple drops at a time once your frosting is completely mixed.
- Generously frost the top of the first layer then gently set the second layer on top of it. Finish frosting the whole cake. I like to do the sides by putting a glob of frosting near the edge of the top of the cake then spreading down toward the bottom.
Store your cake in the fridge. It tastes good cold and lets the frosting set up some. Enjoy!
Originally published in Countryside May / June 2017. Subscribe for more great recipes like this one!