Carrot cake: it’s a comfort food and it works for so many reasons. Carrots help to ensure that you’re never eating dry cake; warm spices in the batter warm the soul; and cream cheese makes for a frosting that is both decadent and nostalgic at the same time.

All things considered, carrot cake recipes shouldn’t be tweaked too much because otherwise they can stray too far from the tried and true formula that so many of us know and love. So, if you’re looking to spice up your carrot cake, but still make it just like grandma used to, these adjustments can modernize classic recipes without straying too far from the originals.

The vegetables (and fruits)

As the name suggests, carrot cake wouldn’t be carrot cake without carrots, however we’re all for taking our liberties with tradition. Other sweet root vegetables can be substituted in, just fine. Take beets for example, which can be grated in and add a beautiful, magenta colour to the finished cake. Quick tip: to help fix the colour of the beets, mix them with a bit of crushed vitamin C (one tablet will do, just pulverize it and stir it into the shredded beets so they stay “beet” red).

Shredded parsnips can also be subbed in for carrots, or mixed half and half to maintain the cake’s orange colour and milder flavour. Along with the shredded veg, it doesn’t hurt to add some shredded fruit into the mix either. Just stick with apples and pears, substituted for up to half of the carrots, as not to add too much moisture to the batter and require adjustments to other aspects of the recipe.

The bits and bobs

Carrot cake is almost one of those desserts that when loaded with enough accoutrements, it becomes nutritionally balanced enough to justify eating for breakfast or any other meal. Even if health isn’t your primary focus, most carrot cake recipes benefit from some combination of add-ins. 

Nuts and seeds like pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, walnuts, and pecans, are always welcome stirred into the batter. The same goes for dried fruit from standard raisons, to dried sour cherries, chopped dates, figs, and candied pineapple. Shredded coconut? Yes please. Oats? Absolutely. Within reason, pretty much anything goes.

The icing/frosting

Whether you call it icing or frosting, a sweetened mix of cream cheese and butter is the proverbial icing on the cake when it comes to classic carrot cake. While there’s absolutely nothing wrong with this recipe, plenty of other dairy (and non-dairy) products can be made to work too. 

Mascarpone is the Italian substitute that has a higher milk fat content than standard cream cheese and is thus much more rich. Alternately, cream cheese or mascarpone can be cut with yogurt for added tang with less fat. Plus, what you stir into your frosting is just as important as the base. 

“Carrot cake is almost one of those desserts that when loaded with enough accoutrements, it becomes nutritionally balanced enough to justify eating for breakfast or any other meal.”

Take standard cream cheese, the perfect, blank canvas for various flavours and colours. If you elected to grate beets into your batter in step one, mix a few drops of beet juice into your icing. Want that bright pink colour without the earthy taste of beet juice? Stir in pomegranate juice.

The spices

Characteristic of carrot cake are the warm, sweet spices that help to make this dessert as comforting as it is. Cinnamon is a staple in most recipes, as well as the usual “pumpkin spice” culprits like nutmeg, cloves, ginger, and allspice. While these are all fantastic options that you can’t go wrong with, you can also get a bit more creative. 

A liberal dose of freshly cracked black pepper never goes amiss in combination with the aforementioned spices. Or, you can take a different approach entirely and opt for more savoury spices and blends. Curry powder, used sparingly, can complement the sweetness of carrots beautifully and add a spicy spin. You can also grind up smoky dried chills (minus the seeds) like ancho, pasilla, and mulato, and add them in for heat, yes, but also a rich, jammy note that will add depth to your cake. Or, whisk Japanese miso (white or dark) into your batter for that sweet, salty, savoury “je ne sais quoi”. 

The format

While the ideal format for carrot cake might be a standard layer cake, with three, alternating layers of cake and cream cheese to ensure that each bite contains enough icing, it’s not the only format to go with. 

Feeding a crowd? Bake off your carrot cake in a standard 9×13” Pyrex and smear icing over the top once cooled. Feeding a crowd and want to be a bit fancier about it? Bake off your carrot cake on a sheet tray, ice it, roll it up, and voila, you’ve got yourself a carrot cake roulade. Want individual servings? Cupcakes it is. Or, if you’d like to ditch the forks altogether, make carrot cake whoopie pies, sandwiched with cream cheese icing. 

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