The Great Pastry Challenge
I met a pastry guy on twitter a couple of weeks ago. One of my fans made my oatmeal beer bread into rolls in her Dutch oven, and I tweeted the photo she sent me. And that’s when I met the pastry guy. He responded that the rolls looked great. Then I said that I love it when folks make my recipes. Then he said that he does too. And then somehow, I found myself accepting a pastry challenge from Ryan Kurr, pastry dude and author in Chicago. He just self-published Sugar Burn: The Not So Hot Side of the Sweet Kitchen, his account of working in acclaimed pastry kitchens in Chicago and what he learned from those experiences. If you want to know what it’s like to work in a professional kitchen–the unvarnished, non Food Network truth–check out his book!
Anyway, that’s how I found myself sending a virtual stranger (now virtual friend!) my post for Pumpkin Caramel Latte Flan and receiving an email with his recipe for carrot cake. This isn’t just any carrot cake either. This is a browned butter-coconut oil carrot cake. One made with a braising liquid. No, you don’t braise the cake. You braise an orange in some spiced simple syrup and then use that liquid in the cake.
Before I share Ryan’s cake with you, let me show you his version of the pumpkin caramel latte flan. Check it out!
I’m not sure if you have read any of my site that is not the blog, but I have a whole section on plating and garnishing. Often, what separates a home-style dessert (my original flan) from a restaurant-style dessert (Ryan’s interpretation of the flan) is the plating and garnishing. See how he paired garnishes of different textures and temperatures that would all enhance the pumpkin-caramel-espresso goodness of the flan? Nice, huh?!
Once I saw “my” flan through Ryan’s eyes, I knew I’d better bring my A game for his carrot cake. Rather than going restauranty with the garnishes though, I went very Martha and decorated the cake so it could do double duty as a table centerpiece and as a dessert, much like a Buche de Noel. Of course, you can use this idea with any kind of cake and any kind of white frosting you can think of. And for a spring-time or summer party, go crazy with green icing.
Ryan really seemed to like what I’d done with the carrot cake. Here’s what he said about it. “That looks beautiful!!! Magical actually, like it came from Narnia! I am wild about your cream cheese eggnog idea, that’s brilliant, I really want to try that! Do you have a recipe for it, or was it just something you made on the fly?” Thanks Ryan! And yes, the eggnog frosting was on the fly, but I’m going to tell you guys how I made it.
Oh, and for all of you all who like very specific instructions, let me just say that I get it now. When I worked in the restaurant industry, my recipes were nothing more than a list of ingredients and amounts. The rest was all in my head. So when Ryan, who has been working in restaurants and bakeries for quite awhile sent me his recipe for carrot cake, I knew that he was using shorthand. So the first thing I did was ask him specific questions to make sure that I made the cake the same way that he made it. I think I came pretty close, so I will write out the instructions explicitly so you hopefully won’t have to ask for any clarification. (But you know you can ask if you need to!)
Holiday Brown Butter Carrot Cake
It looks like a lot, but you can make the braising liquid a day or two in advance. Just heat up the braising liquid once it’s time to bake. You can also make the frosting a couple of days in advance as well. Now, let’s make some cake!
For the Braising Liquid
- 1 whole orange, , peeled (I am very sensitive to bitterness, so I cut the skin and the outer pith off as I would to supreme an orange)
- 1 cup water
- 1/2 cup granulated sugar
- 2 Tablespoons real maple syrup
- 1 Tablespoon Bourbon
- 1 oz shredded coconut
- 1 cinnamon stick, (Ryan says the cinnamon stick is optional, but man did it smell great simmering away)
- 1/2 vanilla bean, (I added a teaspoon of vanilla paste after it was off the heat)
For the Cake
- 10.3 oz all purpose flour, (about 2 1/2 cups if you don't have a scale)
- 2 teaspoons baking soda
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 2 teaspoons cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon ground ginger
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
- 1 pinch allspice
- 6 oz -8oz, (3/4 cup-1 cup) of the braising liquid* (See Note)
- 7 oz light brown sugar, (about a cup, packed)
- 7 oz granulated sugar, (about a cup, packed)
- 4.2 oz vegetable oil or coconut oil, (I used melted coconut oil)
- 6.6 oz browned butter, (brown 2 1/4 sticks of butter and then weigh out 6.6 oz)
- 4 large eggs
- 10.5 oz peeled and grated carrots, (3 cups or 3 large carrots)
For the Frosting
- 1 8 oz block cream cheese, , softened
- 1 Tablespoon corn syrup, (optional, for shine)
- kosher salt, (or to taste, probably about 1/4-1/2 teaspoon)
- 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 1/2 pounds 10x sugar
- 2-4 Tablespoons eggnog, , enough to get the frosting to spreading consistency
- Shredded coconut. If you get the kind with long shreds, , but it in the food processor or blender for a few pulses to make sure it ends up looking like snow and not messy grass.
- rosemary sprigs
- cranberries or other small, , edible berries
- 10 x sugar for dusting
For the Braising Liquid
- Bring all the ingredients to a boil.
- Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook, partially covered, for 20 minutes.
- Strain out the orange, cinnamon stick, vanilla bean (if using) and coconut and measure out 6oz-8oz of liquid (3/4 cup-1 cup, See Note)
For the Cake
- Preheat the oven to 350F and place a rack in the center.
- Prepare 3 8" or 9" cake pans by spraying with pan spray and lining the bottoms with parchment.
- In a bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, salt and spices. Set aside.
- In another bowl, whisk together the hot braising liquid with the sugars, the vegetable or coconut oil and the browned butter.
- Make sure the mixture is not above 150F. If it is, let it cool a bit.
- Once the mixture is cool enough, whisk in the eggs, one at a time.
- Quickly whisk in the dry ingredients and then fold in the grated carrot.
- Batter will be fairly thin.
- Pour equal amounts of batter in each pan, and place in the oven.
- Bake until deep golden brown, nicely risen, firm enough to spring back when pressed, about 30 minutes. The cake should be just beginning to pull away from the sides of the pan. You're looking for an internal temperature of 195F to 200F.
- Let cool on racks for 15 minutes and then turn out to cool completely.
For the Frosting
- Using the whip attachment on your stand mixer, cream the cream cheese until light.
- Add the corn syrup, if using, salt and vanilla and whip to incorporate.
- With the mixer off, add about 1/4 of the 10x sugar. Mix in on low and then whip on high.
- Repeat with the remainder of the sugar in 2 or 3 more additions.
- Taste and adjust salt if necessary.
- Whip in the eggnog a Tablespoon at a time until the frosting is at proper spreading consistency.
To Assemble and Decorate
- When the cakes are cool, level the tops if they are at all domed. Save the domes as snacks.
- Spread about 1/3 cup of frosting on each of two layers and sandwich all three layers together, ending with the layer without frosting. Turn that side bottom-up.
- Being as accurate as possible, cut the cake into two equal halves and then spread a thin layer of frosting on the top of one half. (You can see I could have done better)
- Place one half of the cake on top of the other half, giving you a "half cake" with 6 layers.
- Spread a small amount of frosting in the middle of your serving tray to act as glue, and place the cake on it, cut side down. Now you have a hill.
- Frost the cake with most of the remainder of the frosting, reserving just a bit to spread a thin layer on the serving tray around the cake to act as More Snow.
- Sprinkle some grated coconut over your hill and onto the snow around it.
- Decorate with sprigs of rosemary to look like bushes and/or trees and some berries for color.
- Dust the whole thing with powdered sugar. Store in the fridge. If you don't have a lot of space, don't add the garnish until right before displaying lest your fridge racks knock down your trees.
*Like many restaurant chefs, Ryan knows when the amount of braising liquid seems right. For the rest of us, he says use between 3/4 and 1 cup of liquid. If you like a moister cake or won't be serving it for 2-3 days, use the greater amount. If you'll be serving the same day or want a bit dryer cake (it won't be too dry--there's a lot of delicious fat in it!) use the lesser amount.
This cake would be fantastic with the addition of a cup or so of chopped, toasted pecans or walnuts. Feel free to add some shredded coconut to the mix and/or some golden raisins or even currants.
This cake is made using the muffin method where you add all the dry to all the wet and stir quickly. Muffins generally tend to have a coarser crumb than this cake though. I think this cake has such a lovely, fine texture because of the amount of fat used. Muffins contain much less fat than this cake does. In my opinion, you get the best of both worlds. The ease of the muffin method with the fine crumb of the creaming method or even the two-stage method. It’s a win-win!
Ryan, I had the best time doing this “challenge.” Let’s do it again sometime!
Even if you don’t try this cake (and I hope you do), please try this decorating idea. It’s simple to do, and I think it looks cool. Go ahead, make your own magical Narnia cake!
Thank you all for taking the time to spend some time with me today. Have a lovely day.