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Claire Saffitz’ Carrot Cake—and why oil based cakes reign supreme

This past Christmas I got Claire Saffitz’ book Dessert Person, and I’ve been waiting for the right occasion to make this carrot cake ever since. I riffed off it a little bit so it is not exactly the same as hers, but still quite similar.

Claire Saffitz’ Carrot Cake is an oil-based cake, which means it’s much more moist and tender rather than fluffy and chewy.

Claire Saffitz’ Carrot Cake Recipe

  • 1 cup crushed pecans
  • 1/2 cup crushed almonds
  • 1lb carrots grated (about 3 cups)
  • 1 cup buttermilk
  • 1 tbsp grated fresh ginger
  • 2 tspsvanilla extract
  • 2 ½ cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 tsps baking powder
  • 1 tsps kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 tsp cardamom
  • 1 tsp nutmeg
  • 2 ½ tsps ground cinnamon
  • 4 large eggs, at room temperature
  • ¾ cup granulated sugar
  • ¾ cup packed dark-brown sugar
  • 1 cup safflower oil (variants: vegetable, grapeseed)
  • Spray neutral oil, for the pans
  • Cream Cheese Cardamom Vanilla Frosting (below)


Arrange two oven racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven and preheat oven to 350 degrees. Scatter the pecans on a small rimmed baking sheet and bake on the lower rack, shaking halfway through, until nuts are deep golden brown and very fragrant, 8 to 10 minutes. Remove and set aside to cool.

Prepare two 8-inch cake pans by lightly spraying the bottoms and sides with oil and line bottoms with parchment paper, smoothing to eliminate air bubbles. Set aside.

Mix the wet ingredients in a medium bowl, stirring together the carrots, buttermilk, fresh ginger and vanilla. Set aside.

Place about 2/3 pecans in resealable plastic bag and use rolling pin to crush into smaller pieces. Set aside. Place remaining 1/3 of nuts in same bag and beat thoroughly with rolling pin to finely crush nuts into a coarse meal. Transfer to a medium bowl.

To the medium bowl with nut meal, add flour, cinnamon, baking powder, salt, baking soda, nutmeg, cardamom, and whisk to combine. Set aside.

In a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, combine the eggs and granulated and brown sugars. Beat first on medium-low to break up the eggs, then increase to medium-high and beat until the mixture falls off the whisk and back into the bowl in a slowly dissolving ribbon, about 4 minutes.

With the mixer on medium-high, very slowly stream in the oil until the mixture is smooth and emulsified.

Replace the whisk with the paddle attachment. Add about 1/3 of the flour mixture and mix on low speed until flour has almost disappeared. Scrape in half of the carrot mixture, mixing well until incorporated, then add the remaining flour in 2 additions, alternating with the remaining carrot mixture. When the last traces of flour disappear, stop the mixer and remove the bowl. Use a spatula to scrape down sides and fold the batter several times to make sure it’s evenly mixed. Then fold in the pecan pieces.

Divide the batter among the three prepared cake pans. Transfer pans to the oven, placing two on the upper rack and one on the lower (stagger pans so the pan below doesn’t have another directly above it). Bake until cakes are springy to the touch in the center and a cake tester inserted into the centers comes out clean, 25 to 30 minutes, switching and rotating pans front to back after 20 minutes.

Remove the cakes from the oven and let cool completely in the pans. Use a small offset spatula or paring knife to cut around the sides. Transfer to a wire rack and peel off the parchment paper. Reinvert to another rack, cutting board or plate.

Cut the cakes in half using a serrated knife or dental floss. You now have 4 layers of cake.

Stack and frost the cake. Place a single cake layer upside down on a cake round, serving plate or cake stand. Using a small offset spatula, spread about 1/2 cup of the frosting across the surface. Place another upside-down layer on top, centering it and pressing gently to level, then repeat with another 1/2 cup frosting. Place the third layer upside down on top and press gently, and repeat with another 1/2 cup. The layers of frosting are thin. Add the final layer of cake with another 1/2 cup of frosting. Cover the top and sides of the entire cake with another 1 cups frosting in a very thin, even layer for a crumb coat.

My first ever Crumb Coat!

Refrigerate until frosting has hardened, about 10 to 15 minutes, then cover entire cake with a generous layer of frosting. Refrigerate until frosting is set, 10 to 15 minutes.

Cream Cheese Cardamom Vanilla Frosting

  • 2 sticks unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 1 pound full-fat cream cheese, at room temperature (two packets of 8oz)
  • Generous pinch of kosher salt
  • 1 pound powdered sugar (about 3 ½ cups), sifted if lumpy
  • 1 tbsp vanilla paste
  • 2 tsps cardamom powder


 In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter and cream cheese on medium-high, scraping down the sides of the bowl occasionally, until the mixture is completely smooth. Turn off the mixer, add the salt and all of the powdered sugar, and cover the bowl with a clean kitchen towel (to shield you from powdered sugar). Pulse the mixer on low several times to incorporate the sugar, then remove the towel and beat the frosting on medium-high, scraping down the sides once or twice, until frosting is light, thick, and very smooth, about 1 minute. Beat in the vanilla and cardamom. The frosting is now ready to use. Makes about 4 ½ cups frosting.

The extra cardamom in the cream cheese frosting gives the frosting another delicious layer of spice.
If you can’t handle the word “moist” this is not the place for you my friend! Keep browsing.

So, what makes this cake *so* good?

Nothing wrong with butter based cakes, but oil based cakes are just superior. Haven’t you noticed that whenever you buy a boxed cake that you just have to add oil, that cake is far more lighter in texture rather than dense? Thank the oil!

This is because the oil coats flour proteins an prevents strong gluten networks from forming. Gluten development requires water. The oil deprives the gluten from making any significant/strong formation. So instead of a chewy texture, we get a more tender one. Source: the wonderfully researched, James Beard award winning book: Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat by Samin Nosrat. If you want to learn more about the science of cooking, this book blew my mind.


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