We don’t ask much from our dinner guests. All we request is that they scale the four, steeeep flights up to our apartment (without too much complaining). And if they can possibly manage it, I am thrilled when they have requests (this one is way harder to come by than the stair-climb). And that’s just one of the (many) reasons why I love it when our friends Alex and Gena come for dinner. Gena, you see, can always be counted on to lodge a request (after a bit of gentle prodding, of course).
For our most recent dinner, her request was simple: something, anything, she pleaded, involving cream cheese frosting—a request I happily honored. I decided the frosting would sit atop a carrot cake.
With dessert squared away, the rest of the menu fell magically into place: like pieces of a puzzle I’d put together a zillion times. We’d have a whole chicken, roasted in the Zuni Cafe style, along with a salad studded with chewy-crispy croutons and a potato-celery root gratin. Oh, was I excited.
The carrot cake selection was a no-brainer. The only other contender was a bowl of the frosting, accompanied only by four spoons: one for each of us. But that seemed a bit much, no? Plus, carrot cake and cream cheese frosting are one of the most celebrated marriages in all American cookery—right up there with peanut butter & jelly; grilled cheese & tomato soup; meatloaf & mashed potatoes. But a towering, three-tiered confection also seemed like too much. So, instead, I went for a single round cake, and piled it high with a cloud of maple-infused cream cheese frosting.
I ran a butter knife through the frosting to create little swoops and swirls—not unlike the technique you would use on a meringue pie, just before slipping it in the oven.
Wedges of the cake made a lovely end to the dinner. I had a hard time finishing my piece, but no matter: Gena reached her fork across the table and swept up the remaining frosting on my plate. And that’s just one more reason why she’s a keeper.
Single-Layer Classic Carrot Cake
Adapted from Food & Wine
1/2 cup pecans (2 ounces)
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/4 cup buttermilk
3/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 large eggs
1 cup sugar
1/2 pound carrots, peeled and coarsely shredded
Preheat the oven to 325°. Butter one 9-inch cake pans; line the bottom with parchment. Butter the paper and flour the pan.
Make the cake: Spread the pecans on a baking sheet and toast for 8 minutes, until fragrant. Cool and finely chop the pecans.
In a bowl, whisk the flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon and salt. In a small bowl, whisk the oil, buttermilk and vanilla. In a large bowl, using an electric mixer, beat the eggs and sugar at high speed until pale, 5 minutes. Beat in the liquid ingredients. Beat in the dry ingredients just until moistened. Stir in the carrots and pecans. Pour the batter in the pan and bake the cake for 55 minutes to 1 hour, until springy and golden. Let the cake cool on a rack for 30 minutes, then unmold the cake and let cool completely.
Maple Cream Cheese Frosting
Adapted from Bon Appetit
1 (8-ounce) package cream cheese, softened
1/2 stick (4 tablespoons) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup confectioners’ sugar
2 tablespoons pure maple syrup
Using electric mixer, beat cream cheese and butter in large bowl until light and fluffy. Add powdered sugar and beat at low speed until well blended. Beat in maple syrup. Chill until just firm enough to spread, 30 minutes.
Pile the frosting on the center of the cake. Use a offset spatula or butter knife to spread the frosting evenly atop the cake. Run a butterknife through the frosting to create swoops and swirls.