Like many other great desserts, the origin of carrot cake is unclear. The modern version is a far-distant relative of carrot puddings enjoyed by Medieval Europeans—or, perhaps even a 10th-century Arabian recipe that involved pounding fresh carrots in a mortar, then cooking it in a copper cauldron with honey and walnut or pistachio oil until thickened.
Back then, carrots were used in lieu of sugar, a rare and expensive ingredient at the time, according to food historian Alan Davidson. Cakes, puddings, and other desserts made with the orange root vegetable appeared in cookbooks throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, from 1803’s Frugal Housewife by Susannah Carter to Esther Howard’s 1845 cookbook, New England Economical Housekeeper. But, carrot cake wasn’t always a food of the frugal: even George Washington was said to serve carrot cake at parties.
During the first few decades of the 20th century, cookbook authors continued to publish their own iteration of carrot cake. When sugar was rationed during the Second World War, British housewives used grated carrots to sweeten cakes. In 1963, a recipe for carrot cake as we know it today in all of its cream cheese-frosted glory, was first published in the Washington Post and Times-Herald. Also during that last quarter of the 20th century, particularly during the health food fads of the 1970s, people started to perceive carrot cake as a better-for-you dessert thanks to the addition of carrots, walnuts, and raisins.
All in all, carrot cake’s popularity has had its ups and downs, but its presence in households and bakeries is enduring, unlike some other desserts (but hey, cake pops and cronuts may rise again one day). It’s even a staple in vegan bakeries from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania’s Vegan Treats to Erin McKenna’s Bakery in Los Angeles. And, of course, you can make it at home.
This vegan carrot cake recipe has a light and airy sponge while being packed with carrots and walnuts, plus a deliciously sweet dairy-free cream cheese frosting. Though it’s designed as a sheet cake, you can use it for any style of cake, including cupcakes and layer cakes.
Vegan Carrot Cake With Cream Cheese Frosting
- 2 ½ cups all-purpose flour
- 2 teaspoons baking soda
- 3 teaspoons spices (ideal is a mixture of 2 teaspoons cinnamon and 1 teaspoon nutmeg)
- 1 ½ cups light brown sugar
- 3 cups grated carrot
- 2 tablespoons flax meal (flax seeds, ground)
- 1 cup plant milk
- ⅓ cup neutral oil, like avocado or canola
- 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
- 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
- 1 teaspoon salt
- ½ cup chopped walnuts, optional
Cream cheese frosting
- 1 cup (2 sticks) vegan butter, at room temperature
- 4 ½ cups powdered sugar
- 1 tablespoon white vinegar
- 2 tablespoons lemon juice
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Preheat the oven to 355 F. Line a deep baking pan (9”x13”x2”) with parchment and then grease it with vegan butter or oil.
Grate the carrots and then use a kitchen towel to squeeze out the excess moisture from the grated carrots.
Sift together all the dry ingredients (flour, baking soda, spices and salt). Stir in the grated carrots (and walnuts).
In a small mixing bowl, mix the flax meal with a few tablespoons of warm plant milk and set aside for 5 minutes. Once it has thickened up, mix together the remaining ingredients in a larger bowl and add in the flax meal. Whisk until smooth.
Finally, mix the wet ingredients into the dry ones. Be careful not to overmix.
Pour the batter into the baking pan and bake for 20 to 25 minutes. Use a toothpick to see if the cake is ready (no residue batter should be on the toothpick).
Allow it cool for 15 minutes and then turn the whole cake onto a wire rack to cool completely.
To make the frosting, place the (room temperature) butter in a stand mixer with the paddle attachment and mix until pale and light.
Mix 1 cup of the icing sugar with all the wet ingredients in a separate bowl until smooth. If it is too thick, add a touch more lemon juice or water.
Pour the smooth liquid through a sieve into the beaten butter. Mix together for 5 minutes until completely smooth. Add in the rest of the icing one spoon at a time.
Spoon the frosting onto the cooled layer of carrot cake and smooth it out with a knife or offset spatula.
Sprinkle with extra walnuts and serve.
Though this recipe is designed as a sheet cake, you can use it for any style of cake, including cupcakes and layer cakes.
You will need a cake pan sized 9×13 inches, 10×12 inches, or 11×11 inches.