Dessert is an extra mile. Carrot cake is an extra 2 miles. This particular recipe development process felt like an extra 26 miles, but hey - I’ve always wanted to run a marathon, and if there’s a cupcake at the finish line… even better.
After one long month of moving, I could not - could NOT - wait to get back in a kitchen that belonged to me, one in which I knew the place of each utensil and ingredient, how to handle the quirks of the oven, and all the other joyful complications of baking. I pulled out all the stops for these carrot cake cupcakes. I tested a whole-wheat version and a grain-free version because 1) I have a plethora of Bob’s Red Mill flours in my pantry and 2) I will stop at nothing less than (my definition of) perfect for these cupcakes. If testing three different versions was what it took to achieve (my definition of) perfection, then so be it. Plus, I’d been peeing my pants to experience the mouth-watering aroma of a baked good in the oven. Plus plus, two very important people in my life adore carrot cake, almost as much as - if not potentially more than - they adore me.
Absolutely necessary. Absolutely stoked.
Batch number 1, the whole-wheat version, came together without much of a fuss. Despite the harmonious combination of flavors and the ease of preparation, these whole-wheat carrot cake cupcakes not only bored me, but the next day, felt like cardboard in my mouth, probably due to an unbalanced ratio of dry:wet ingredients. I can create more of a challenge - an approachable, appealing, and satisfying (and moist) challenge.
Batch number 2, the grain-free version, took inspiration from the one and only Bon Appetit’s Gluten-Free Carrot Cake. Chris Morocco is a genius, and I just want to listen to him describe food all day. I don’t… but if I could, I might. Anyway, I slid this batch into the oven and wanted to call up Chris to invite him over for a taste, until I realized that I forgot two of the most essential ingredients. No, not the carrots. Not the cinnamon or the ginger or the nutmeg. I forgot baking powder and baking soda. In fact, I realized they had never even made it onto the counter along with all the other ingredients. Twenty minutes later, I pulled small lumpy lumps of flat “carrot cake” out of the oven. They were such a disappointment that I can’t even call them carrot cake.
Batch number 3, the grain-free version with the vital leavening agents, is everything I wanted for these carrot cake cupcakes - tender, but hearty; moist, but with a crumb; sweet, but tamed with subtle spice; healthy, but not too healthy. Third time’s the charm? Not quite. This batch was an inch away from perfect.
Batch number FOUR goshdangit. I didn’t change much here, other than swapping coconut oil for avocado oil, purely because I felt too lazy (too comfortable in my pajamas) to drive all the way over to the store for an $8 jar of coconut oil when I’ve got a full bottle of avocado oil in my pantry. In that moment, I remembered a piece of advice from the wise and talented Claire Saffitz - cakes benefit from liquid vegetable oils better than from solid ones like butter or coconut oil because the tenderness is maintained, even after a couple days have passed.
It’s like this was all meant to be or something. Like, all four of these incredibly, embarassingly challenging trials have led me to this moment. Twenty more moments later, I pulled the batch out of the oven and stared, googly-eyed and satisfied, at the perfect batch of grain-free carrot cake cupcakes.
Do not let more than a week or two pass without refining my baking skills, or at the very least whipping up a batch of cookies or something. Come on, Haley.
Do not forget the French rule of mis en place (which means to organize all necessary baking tools and ingredients before beginning a recipe to ensure nothing is forgotten).
Do not underestimate grain-free desserts, especially those inspired by the magnificent masters at Bon Appetit.
Makes 12 cupcakes
For the cupcakes:
3/4 cup almond meal
3/4 cup cassava flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. cinnamon
3/4 tsp. ground ginger
1/2 tsp. ground nutmeg
1/2 tsp. sea salt
1/3 cup roughly chopped pecans, plus more for garnish
4 large Medjool dates, pitted and roughly chopped*
1/2 cup grated and squeezed carrot
1/2 cup coconut sugar
1/2 low-fat kefir, at room temperature
1/4 cup agave nectar or maple syrup
1/4 cup avocado oil, plus more for greasing the muffin tin
2 pasture-raised eggs, at room temperature
1 tsp. vanilla extract
For the frosting:
1 8-oz. block cream cheese
1/4 cup full-fat Greek yogurt
2-3 tbsp. agave nectar/maple syrup
Preheat the oven to 350F and lightly grease a muffin tin with avocado oil (or use parchment lining cups). Set aside.
Begin by creaming the eggs, coconut sugar, and agave nectar/maple syrup using a hand-mixer or stand-mixer set to a medium-high speed. This process takes about 5-7 minutes - you want to whip air into the eggs, and to make sure the eggs and sugar are well-incorporated. Turn the speed to low and stream in the melted and cooled avocado oil and vanilla extract until combined. Stop mixing and set aside.
Combine the flours in a medium size bowl, and stir in the baking powder and baking soda, spices, and sea salt. Add the grated and squeezed carrot, pecans, and chopped dates and mix again to combine. You want all the larger add-ins to be coated in flour to prevent them from sinking to the bottom or sticking together in clumps in the cupcakes while baking.
Add half the dry ingredient mixture to the wet ingredient mixture. Next, add half the low-fat kefir and mix on low. Add the remaining dry ingredients and the remaining kefir, and mix again until completely combined.
Transfer the batter to the muffin tin and fill each cup to the rim. These cupcakes will not rise much due to the lack of gluten, so you want them as tall as possible and won’t need to worry about them spilling over the tops. Bake for 17-18 minutes, or until a toothpick poked into the center of the cupcakes comes out clean.
Let them cool for 15-20 minutes before removing them from the tin. While they cool, prepare the frosting by whipping the cream cheese, Greek yogurt, and agave nectar/maple syrup until as light and fluffy as desired.
Frost each cupcake by spreading 2-3 tbsp. of the frosting onto each. You can also transfer the frosting from the bowl to a ziploc bag with the tip cut off and squeeze the frosting out onto the cupcake for a more classic frosted look. Garnish with a sprinkle of crushed pecans.