carrot cake with hawaij and tahini caramel frosting

It’s my birthday! Yay! More importantly, however, my pops is turning 60 tomorrow. Sixty! His hair is still heavier on the pepper than the salt, and he wears a Bernie Sanders t-shirt every day. And the other day he told me with a spring in his step that he plans to work for at least like 20 more years, which made me really happy because one downside about living in Winterfell is that I can’t go to his concerts whenever I please. So I’m feeling pretty good that he has 20 years of that klezmer section in Mahler one left in him. 

His true superhero power though is that he’s like a human garbage disposal in that he eats everything, in monstrous quantities (even if it’s years past the expiration date), and he loves all of  the food. With the exception of goat cheese. One thing in particular that he couldn’t shut up about recently was a carrot cake from the Blue Door Farm Stand, near where he lives. The cake is huge and filled with nuts and my dad just foams at the mouth about it. So this year for my birthday, but more importantly his, I’ve gained an understanding of carrot cake.

When I worked at the town bakery, I dreaded making carrot cake because it required using the food processor, the stand mixer, piping bags to make the little carrots, and (ugh) the can opener to open up the can of pineapple. H8 can openers. But carrot cake is good, and the process of making it is pretty unique, so it was time I got to know it. 

The first thing that aided my understanding of it was the idea that “carrot cake is ultimately a spice cake.” The carrots aren’t meant to be front and center, and Allison confirms this in her non-negotiables of carrot cake, which you all should read right now. It sets the world straight on pineapple, coconut, and raisins. Which I agree with, because a raisin’s place in my kitchen is *exclusively* on ants on a log, and also because I like the idea of achieving the best possible cake with the least amount of ingredients. Pineapple and coconut are for another time and another cake, for now we’re sticking with carrots, spices, cream cheese frosting, and cake. 

I began my testing process with my go-to vanilla cake:

1 3/4 c sugar

2 1/2 c flour

1 1/2 tsp each: salt, baking powder, baking soda

2 large eggs

1 c buttermilk

1/2 c oil

1 tb vanilla

3/4 c water

Combine dry, combine wet, combine em all, bake. 

Then I added spices: a few teaspoons of cinnamon and hawaij for coffee, the yemeni spice mix that’s a blend of all of my favorite sweeter spices, like nutmeg and cardamom, which I thought would go perfectly with carrots and...

Brown sugar: I subbed 1 c of the sugar for brown sugar because a defining feature of carrot cake is that darker, molasses-y flavor. 

And of course carrots: when carrots are added, you’re essentially adding a ton of water, so the water and milk in my recipe went goodbye. The new recipe looked like this:

1 c brown sugar

3/4 c sugar

2 1/2 c flour

1 1/2 tsp each: salt, baking powder, baking soda

2 tsp cinnamon

1 tsp hawaij

2 large eggs

1/2 c oil

1 tb vanilla

2 c shredded carrots

Before I went ahead and tested this, I read about a thousand more carrot cake recipes, and found that, a) most of them had at least double the eggs and oil as my recipe, and b) a lot of them required a method where you cream the eggs and sugar first until they’re fluffy and then drizzle in the fat. In other words, one more step and another dirty stand mixer bowl. Allison’s recipe however required beating together the carrots and sugar first. And then a few of the recipes required oil and sugar first, and then adding the eggs one at a time. I wanted to know what the difference was between each of these methods. 

So I started an internet thread about it and got some great answers from Stella, Allison, Ali, and a whole bunch of other kind people. Here was a selection of the findings:

-Beating eggs + sugar first helps aerate the cake, giving slightly more lift and offsetting the denseness of the sugar 

-Beating carrots + sugar first helps release all of the moisture from the carrots

-More eggs are required for the structure and to help the leavening work, and more oil is required to keep it moist and not eggy (I think I still have some questions about this…)

So here were the new measurements:

1 c brown sugar

3/4 c sugar

2 1/2 c flour

1 1/2 tsp each: salt, baking powder, baking soda

2 tsp cinnamon

1 tsp hawaij

4 large eggs

1 1/2 c oil

1 tb vanilla

2 c shredded carrots

I went ahead and tested the four different methods that I was wondering about and did side-by-side comparisons. Here they are along with their notes:

A: mixing dry, mixing wet, folding in the carrots [the laziest way]

-batter is thick, dark, and chunky and not well combined, kind of oily, almost like a brownie batter

-cake is dense and good! has a great caramelized crust. center is slightly oily.

-baked for about 33 minutes

B: whisking sugar and oil first by hand, whisking in eggs on at a time, folding in dry ingredients and carrots [slightly less lazy, but still doesn't use a stand mixer]

-nice batter that held its shit together. smooth and dark.

-cake is dense and GOOD

-baked for about 33 minutes

C: beating sugar and eggs until pale and fluffy in a stand mixer with a whisk attachment, then drizzling in fat, adding dry, folding in carrots [The Stella Method]

-batter is very light, more yellow, and fluffy, so satisfying to beat the eggs

-it rose WAY more, layer is about 1/2” taller than A and B, smooth on top

-needed about 38 minutes in the oven, longer than A and B

-cake was fluffy, less moist than A and B

D: beating carrots, sugar, and salt in a stand mixer with a paddle until sandy, combining eggs and oil and then adding those, adding dry [The Allison Method]

-batter was golden color (between A/B and C), way more liquidy and bubbly

-cake domed nicely, the smoothest top out of the four

-cake was fluffy, less moist than A and B

(left to right: the batters and layers of a, b, c, d. sorry these aren't the best photos, a and b were sitting upside down on the wire rack for a little bit before i took the pictures which is why they have all of those little lines in them.)

(left to right: a, b, c, d)

It was so fascinating to see one set of identical ingredients, all mixed up with different methods. They were all great! With methods C and D, the ingredient list would have to adjust to lean heavier on the fat (and maybe sugar?) to provide slightly more moisture. But in general my cake preference is usually on the denser side, so I chose to fly with method B, excited with the added bonus that it doesn’t require a stand mixer. 

Then I tested something that caught my eye in Stella’s recipe, browned butter! I am fairly new to brown butter but it seems like everyone flips out about it. I used method B. Here were my notes:

-batter looks pretty much the same as B

-brown butter flavor definitely present in cake

-texture very similar to B, slightly grainy, which was good, slightly more structural integrity, also good

-I don’t know that I necessary like brown butter flavor…. am I a monster if I don’t like browned butter?

I’m still going back and forth about whether or not I like brown butter. I really feel like a monster about this. The cake made with brown butter tastes exactly like a brown butter cake with spices, so if you know that you love brown butter, this is the option for you. I’ve included both options in the recipe below. 

Brown butter or not, I am very happy with this cake. It is dense, moist, and fit for my pops' 60th birthday!

Ok, let's now move on to the frosting. Do you know BJ’s story about carrot cake? And you've already read Allison's frosting non-negotiables right? So carrot cake has to have the best frosting and it has to be cream cheese frosting, we’re all on the same page about that. 

I wasn’t going to fuck around with the frosting too much until halfway through my research when I found the halva caramel cream cheese frosting in Soframiz, and girl, it kept me up at night. I just couldn’t stop thinking about it. I’ve always flipped past cakes that have caramel in the frosting because the thought of cleaning caramel out of a pot stresses me out and I honestly don’t love caramel. But obviously if you add tahini to anything I am sold. So I gave it a shot, using the caramel that Maya and I made for our molten halva lava cakes, and it turns out that such a small quantity of caramel only takes a few quick minutes to make and is actually really satisfying. The caramel mixed with the cream cheese and butter makes for a frosting that is nutty, not too sweet, full of flavor, and an important part of a really nice civilized slice of carrot cake. 

And the addition of tahini all makes sense because carrots go with cinnamon, cinnamon goes with hawaij, cinnamon goes with tahini, tahini goes with caramel, carrots go with tahini, etc., etc., guilty by association, there is a great flavor party happening in this cake. 

Ok I’m done talking about carrot cake for now. 

Oh pistachios! I added them because I like them. And sesame seeds are there because that’s what Soframiz does and I like that there is some sesame continuity now with the frosting. And marzipan carrots are my non-negotiable. 

Ok I’m really done now. 

Happy birthday to me and to my pops! I am spending the day decorating cake and making hotdish and recovering from a weekend of piñata making, taco eating, and rhombus brewery shutting downing!

K bye!

carrot cake with hawaij and tahini caramel frosting

makes two 8" one-layer cakes (pictured) or one 8" two-layer cake


for the cake:

2 1/2 c (340g) all-purpose flour 

1 1/2 tsp kosher salt

1 1/2 tsp baking powder

1 1/2 tsp baking soda 

2 tsp cinnamon 

1 tsp hawaij (or sub 1/2 tsp ginger, 1/2 tsp cardamom, and a pinch each of nutmeg and cloves)

1 c (166g) c brown sugar 

3/4 c (154g) c granulated sugar

1 1/2 c (320g) oil (to sub browned butter, brown 400g butter using stella’s directions and cool

4 large eggs 

1 tb vanilla bean paste or extract

2 c (200g) freshly shredded carrots 

Optional: 2 tb toasted sesame seeds and/or 90g chopped roasted pistachios

for the frosting:

6 tb (76g) granulated sugar

1/4 tsp kosher salt

1 tb water

1/4 c (63g) heavy cream

1/2 c (114g) unsalted butter, softened and divided

3 tb (48g) tahini

8 oz (226g) cream cheese, softened

1 1/2 tsp vanilla extract

to assemble:

Shaved carrot flowers

Marzipan kneaded with orange and green food coloring and shaped into flowers


Sesame seeds


Birthday candles


for the cake:

preheat the oven to 350ºf. grease and line two 8” cake pans with parchment and set aside.

in a large bowl, combine the flour, salt, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, and hawaij and set aside. in a large bowl, whisk together the brown sugar and granulated sugar with the oil. whisk in each of the eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each. whisk in the vanilla extract.

using a wooden spoon or rubber spatula, add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients and mix until about 90% incorporated. add the carrots, sesame seeds and pistachios (if using), and mix to incorporate (and by this time all of the flour mixture should be incorporated as well).

pour the batter into cake pans and bake until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, begin checking for doneness at 30 minutes.

cool for 10 minutes in the pans and then turn onto a wire rack to cool completely. 

for the frosting:

first make the tahini caramel: place the sugar and 1/8 tsp salt in a saucepan. stir in the water and cook over high heat until it starts to bubble. stop stirring and continue cooking for 2-4 minutes until it turns a medium amber color. reduce heat to low and carefully drizzle in the cream while stirring (it will bubble up quickly and make a weird sucking sound, don’t be alarmed). continue to stir until the mixture smooths out. add half of the butter (1/4 c), cube by cube, stirring, until mixture is thick and homogeneous.

remove from the heat and stir in the tahini. let cool and refrigerate until ready to use. this can be made a day in advance. 

To make the frosting, combine the caramel, remaining 1/4 c butter, cream cheese, vanilla, and remaining 1/8 tsp salt in a stand mixer and mix with a paddle attachment until smooth. 

to assemble:

frost each cake liberally with frosting and decorate as desired! or, stack the two cakes for the two-layer version.