Carrot Cake with Cacao Nibs, Orange, & Brown Butter Cream Cheese Frosting

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Happy New Year! What a year it’s been: Phoebe learned to walk, to run, to jump; Jonji finished his chief year at Stanford and began work as a Pediatrician in Santa Cruz; I embarked on my project to re-shoot all of my old recipes (and I’m almost finished!); Phoebe learned a little sign language, then words like “nowannoo,” (I don’t want to) “ahdidit,” (I did it) “tiddy” (kitty), “chashchuck” (trash truck); I was pregnant, and then I wasn’t. We saw chilly mornings, red leaves pasted to the ground on rainy days, hopeful sprouts emerging from steaming dirt, waves stirring the shoreline as sun baked our skin, tiny toes in sand, the bluest skies, long days, drinks clinked in cheers, meals shared.

This was me and Jonji’s 11th New Year’s Eve together. This year we hosted my parents and Jonji’s mom for dinner. We popped a bottle of champagne, sipped on Aperol spritzes, then whiskey sours. Dinner was pot roast with mashed potatoes and glazed carrots, dessert little pots of vanilla crème brûlée, spoons cracking through sugary shells. “Cake!” Phoebe cried—her catch-all term for anything other than chocolate—carefully taking a spoonful of custard. I put her down at 8pm, then joined the conversation as old stories were rehashed. We were in bed before 11pm, and it was lovely.

We haven’t always been early to bed as old years ended. Our first New Year’s Eve was spent at the clock tower in Downtown Santa Cruz, Jonji in a black felt peacoat that felt appropriate to the cold night air, while revelers passed in fishnet shirts and tiny gold shorts (to each their own). We stood in the middle of the pulsing crowd as everyone shouted, “HAPPY NEW YEAR,” some contraption on top of the clock tower raining confetti and glitter down upon us all. A kiss, a hope for more years together.

Before I even knew Jonji, my family used to celebrate the new year by jumping in the ocean at midnight—definitely my most drastic way to ring in the new year to date. My mom’s friend Yolande hosted a huge party each year, backyard decorated with twinkling lights, hot chocolate simmering in a huge pot for anyone wanting to warm up before the plunge. We changed into swimsuits around 11pm, then caravanned to Cowell’s beach, the sand icy beneath our bare toes. Everyone together in a trepidatious, bedraggled line, holding hands, then “…three, two, ONE!” we ran, hands tearing apart, knees high and breath short as we went far enough to dive into the oncoming black waves. Air squeezed from lungs as cold was made liquid around us, then a great gasp and the run back up the beach. Real eggs, hollowed out, full of confetti, smashed on heads, gasping, laughing, bottles of silly string emptied out in great, twisting lines, everyone’s cheeks red, lips purple, feeling so alive. The sand, shimmering with glitter, felt warm after the ocean’s chill.

Each New Year’s celebration is different, and each year is unique. Maybe you went big and did something as crazy as jump in the freezing ocean at midnight this year, or perhaps you were like us and hosted a quiet dinner. Whatever you did, I hope you enjoyed it, and I hope you ate something delicious.

I did not make this cake for New Year’s this year, but I have made it for two other celebrations (once in tiered form and once in a 9×13-inch pan—it works both ways) and it was a wonderful way to mark a special occasion. The first time I made it was for my sister-in-law’s 50th birthday dinner; she requested a carrot cake, and I decided to try Edd Kimber’s recipe in his book One Tin Bakes. I switched up a couple of elements, and the result was an ultra-moist, tender cake with a little crunch from cacao nibs, all covered with a nutty, salty, addicting brown butter cream cheese frosting. I couldn’t get enough. I made it again for my 30th birthday, baking it in a 9×13-inch pan (as Edd intended it) and hurriedly cutting it into little squares, trying to block errant kid fingers trying to dip into the frosting.

Make this cake for any celebration, or make it on a weekday when you’re craving something sweet, a little sophisticated, and full of flavor. Or if you’re insanely patient, save it for next December 31st.

Carrot Cake with Cacao Nibs, Orange, & Brown Butter Cream Cheese Frosting

makes one 2- or 4-layer 8-inch cake | adapted from Edd Kimber’s recipe in his book, One Tin Bakes

for the cake:
300g (2 cups + 2 tbsp) all-purpose flour
2 tsp baking powder
½ tsp fine sea salt
2 tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp ground cardamom
½ tsp ground ginger
zest of 2 oranges
300g carrots (roughly 2 ½ cups or 5 large carrots), scrubbed clean and grated
75g cacao nibs

4 large eggs
juice from 1 orange, about 50g
375g (2 cups) brown sugar
240ml light olive oil or other neutral oil (like grapeseed or sunflower)

for the frosting:
112g (1 stick/8 tbsp) unsalted butter
8oz cream cheese, at room temperature
500g powdered sugar, sifted if lumpy
scant ½ tsp fine sea salt
2 ½ tsp vanilla extract

Note: this makes just enough frosting to make a 4-layered cake; if you intend to do 4 layers, make sure you spread a thin layer of frosting between each cake layer, or else you may not have much to cover the cake with. However, it’s so rich that you’ll be glad you didn’t layer it on too thick.

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Grease two 8-inch round cake pans with butter, then cut out two circles of parchment paper to line the bottoms.

In a large bowl, whisk together 300g all-purpose flour, 2 tsp baking powder, ½ tsp fine sea salt, 2 tsp ground cinnamon, ½ tsp ground cardamom, ½ tsp ground ginger, and the zest of 2 oranges. Stir in 300g grated carrots and 75g cacao nibs.

Add the 4 large eggs, juice from 1 orange, 375g brown sugar, 240ml light olive oil or other neutral oil to another bowl and whisk to combine. Pour this wet mixture into the bowl with the flour mixture and stir until just combined and there are no more dry bits of flour.

Divide the cake batter between the two cake pans and smooth the tops. Bake for 30-40 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean (they will still look a little bubbly and very moist, but test with a toothpick and you’ll be able to tell if they’re ready). Let the cakes cool in their pans for about 20 minutes, then carefully turn out onto a wire rack to cool fully. At this point, you can decorate as soon the cakes are fully cooled, or you can wrap each one tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate for up to 3 days before decorating.

Note: these cakes are so delicate due to the high volume of grated carrot, so be careful when handling them. They may crack a bit while you transfer between surfaces, but you can always patch or cover cracks with frosting and the cake will taste just as good.

Make the frosting: cube 112g unsalted butter and place in a small saucepan over medium heat. Cook, swirling the pan occasionally, until the butter is no longer foaming much and dark brown specks cover the bottom of the pan, about 8-10 minutes. Scrape into a bowl and put in the fridge, stirring every 10-15 minutes or so, until the butter is a spreadable consistency, like frosting (approximately 1 hour). Beat the cooled brown butter in a stand mixer fitted with a whisk attachment until soft and smooth. Add 8oz room temperature cream cheese to the butter and beat for another few minutes, until soft and rather fluffy. Add 500g powdered sugar, scant ½ tsp fine sea salt, and 2 ½ tsp vanilla extract and beat to combine, then mix on medium-high speed for about 5 minutes, until the frosting is very light and fluffy.

To assemble the cake: you can make either a two- or four-layer cake. If you want four layers, carefully slice each cake in half horizontally, but be warned: due to the high volume of carrots, this is a very delicate cake that can fall apart quite easily (but it can be done!). Use a rotating cake stand if you have one.

Spread a thin layer of frosting between each cake layer (it cake be a 1/8-inch thick if you’re only doing two layers). Spread a thin, even layer of frosting on the top and sides using a large offset spatula or other large, flat implement. If you’d like, place the whole cake in the fridge for about 30 minutes (this will set the crumb coat and can make the rest of the frosting easier). Finish by spreading the rest of the frosting on the cake evenly across the top and sides, either making artistic, messy swoops or smoothing the whole thing out. Decorate with piping detail, cacao nibs, or anything else that takes your fancy. Enjoy!

This cake keeps well at room temperature for a few hours, or in the fridge in a sealed container for a few days. Take it out 30 minutes or so before consuming so it can lose some of its chill.

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