Ben Starr’s Pumpkin Carrot Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting and Candied Hazelnuts

**Please note, instructions for making this into cupcakes are located at the bottom of the “cake” section of the recipe.

This is the cake that I get demands for every October at my annual Fall Dinner Party, where I serve a 5 course meal with each course based on pumpkin. Regardless of what unique, delicious pumpkin dessert I have planned, people always email and call ahead to ask if I’m doing my Pumpkin Carrot Cake. I can’t let them down.

This is also the cake that Gordon Ramsay loved on MasterChef, and that Graham Elliot said gave his mouth an orgasm.

This is one of the most delicious cakes you’ll ever eat. It has a definite carrot cake flavor, but it’s a lot more moist and spicy. The candied nuts on top add a delicious crunch and extra dimension of flavor.

First, a video tutorial showing the procedure for baking this cake, step-by-step, with common pitfalls for new bakers to avoid.  This is a VERY detailed video, and consequently…it’s an hour long.  Feel free to skip to the recipe below if you’re an experienced baker!

I normally make this as a 3 layer cake using 9″ cake pans.  On MasterChef I sliced each layer in half, resulting in a 6 layer cake.  (To better facilitate the slicing, freeze the cake rounds for 30 minutes to stiffen them up, then carefully rotate the cake as you slice back and forth with a long bread knife.  A lazy Susan helps, but isn’t necessary.)

***A new breakthrough occurred in this cake’s evolution on December 22, 2011.  Following a method for meringue used by my friends in Perth, Australia, I STARTED with the meringue first…something I don’t normally do.  This step makes the cake much easier for beginners, as it virtually ensures you can’t over-beat your whites.  I recommend modifying the recipe by taking this step for now, and when I can remake the video, I will permanently alter the recipe.  To begin, take 6-9 egg whites (I use 9) and put them in the mixer bowl along with 1 cup of white sugar and 1 teaspoon cream of tartar.  Turn the mixer on high and in 2-3 minutes you’ll have stiff peaked meringue.  It is VERY hard to overbeat this meringue.  Stop when the whites start to ruffle up around the whisk, then test by pulling the whisk up through the whites.  If the peak that remains on the whisk or in the bowl is firm and doesn’t sink over, you’re ready.  If the peak is soft and “wilts” then beat it a bit longer until the peak remains stiff.  Then remove the meringue to a bowl, and the bowl can immediately be used to proceed with the cake batter without washing it.  Just switch to the paddle attachment, add the butter, the remaining 1/2 cup white sugar, and the 1/2 cup brown sugar and proceed…

2 sticks unsalted butter (8 ounces, 227 grams), softened (do NOT use margarine)

Whip until the butter is light and creamy.  Then add:

1 ½ cups sugar (10 1/2 ounces, 308 grams)
½ cup brown sugar (4 ounces, 97 grams)

Cream the butter and sugars together until they are light and fluffy, at least 3 minutes, preferably 5.

Then add:

3 large egg yolks

Blend on medium speed for 3 more minutes. Then add:

1 ¼ cups pumpkin puree (319 grams, canned pumpkin is okay, or microwave sweet potatoes or butternut squash in season, and puree)
1 teaspoon vanilla

Blend on medium speed for 3 more minutes.  You should have a thick, airy, lightly-colored batter.  Then fold in:

2 cups grated carrots (302 grams)

In a separate bowl, combine:

2 1/2 cups (12 1/2 ounces) all-purpose flour (I use 8 oz AP flour and 4.5 oz cake flour, or 227 grams AP and 127 grams cake)
4 teaspoons (16 grams) baking powder
1 teaspoon (6 grams) baking soda
2 Tablespoons (6 grams) ground cinnamon
1 Tablespoon (4 grams) ginger
1 Tablespoon (4 grams) ground cardamom
1/4 tsp each (heavy pinch) nutmeg, allspice, cloves
1 teaspoon (3 grams) salt

(To kick this recipe up a notch, lightly toast your spices in a skillet over medium heat for a few seconds to bloom the flavor, then add to the flour.)

Stir around with your fingers until they’re well mixed. Then sift at least twice through a sifter or strainer.  Sift the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients and mix on slowest speed until combined.

In a separate bowl, (or THOROUGHLY wash your mixer bowl to remove all traces of fat) beat:

6 egg whites (or, for extra lift, up to 9 whites)
1/2 tsp (2.4 grams) cream of tartar (optional, but recommended, add when whites begin to get foamy)
2 Tablespoons (8 grams) white sugar (add gradually when whites are going through soft peak stage)

To stiff peaks.  Start out on high speed, and as the whites begin to change color from foamy yellow to a whiter color, add the cream of tartar, lower the speed to medium low and whip VERY slowly, adding the maximum amount of air without damaging the protein structure of the whites.  Slowly incorporate 2 Tablespoons of white sugar, a bit at a time.  Once you have reached stiff peaks, stop immediately.  (It’s better to be just shy of still peaks than past stiff peaks where the white separate into curds when you scoop them.)  Stir 1/3 of the whites into the batter to lighten the batter.  Gently fold the remaining 2/3 into the cake batter until you can’t see any clumps of white left.

Divide it equally into parchment-lined, greased and floured cake pans. (I spray my cake pans with canola oil, add a round of parchment or wax paper, spray again, and then liberally flour them, shake the flour around, and dump it out.)  Optionally, spray top of batter evenly with water to slow the rising process, resulting in flatter cakes.

Place cakes in a preheated 350F oven, and toss a handful of ice cubes in the bottom of the oven.  This creates steam which again results in flatter cakes.  Immediately reduce the heat to 325F and bake for 30 minutes (or 50 minutes for deep 6” rounds) or until a knife inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean.

Remove from the oven and cool in the pans for 15-30 minutes. Then dump upside down (gently!) onto a cooling rack to cool completely.

I like to chill my cakes before I frost them. They hold up better. 45 minutes in the freezer is usually perfect, but make sure the cake is fully cool before putting it in your freezer or you may thaw out other things in the freezer. While the cake is cooling, make up the frosting and the candied nuts.


This recipe makes beautiful cupcakes.  Add an additional teaspoon of baking powder, fill cupcake cups almost to the top with batter, and bake in a 375F oven for 15-20 minutes until they test done.  (Don’t spray water or add ice to the oven.  These techniques encourage a flatter top, and cupcakes typically have a more rounded top.)


***Please note this makes enough frosting for a 6 layer cake.  You can halve the recipe if you are only making 2 or 3 layers.***

2 packages (16 ounces, 454 grams) cream cheese (or mascarpone, or lebni/labneh…a Middle Eastern kefir yogurt cheese)
2 sticks butter (8 ounces, 227 grams), softened

Cream together cheese and butter with a hand or stand mixer on high speed until it’s light and fluffy. Then slowly begin to add:

1-2 pounds confectioner’s sugar (powdered sugar) (454-907 grams) depending on how sweet and stiff you like the frosting

Add the sugar gradually, beating constantly. I like to start with low speed right after I’ve added sugar to keep it from flying everywhere, then increase the speed as it gets incorporated. Continue adding sugar in small batches and mixing thoroughly until the frosting reaches the desired sweetness level. The more sugar you add, the stiffer the frosting will be.  Loose frosting is easier to work with.  Stiff frosting holds the cake together better.  Then add:

2 teaspoons vanilla

Beat on slow speed until the vanilla begins to get mixed in, then beat on the highest speed possible for 2 minutes to ensure a light and fluffy frosting.

Frost the cake liberally. Don’t worry too much about crumbs getting into the frosting, because you’re going to press candied nuts into the frosting anyway, so it’s not critical to have a perfectly clean frosting job.


Spread out a piece of parchment/waxed paper or foil onto a countertop and butter it or spray it lightly with canola oil.  (Or use a silicone pad, which is the preferable method.  No matter how well you butter your paper or foil, SOME of it will stick to the bottom of your candy and you’ll have to scrape it off with your fingernail.)

Into a very heavy skillet, put:

½ cup brown sugar
2 Tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon cloves
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon water

Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring constantly with a whisk. Once the mixture is at a full rolling boil, continue stirring and boiling for 3 minutes until the mixture is deep brown and fragrant. (If you have a candy thermometer, you’re shooting for 325F) Then add:

¼ – ½ cup chopped nuts (I like to use hazelnuts when I can find them, pecans if I can’t.  Your flavor will be better if you’ll gently toast the nuts in a skillet over medium heat, tossing frequently, until they are fragrant and have deepened a bit in color.  You can also toast in the microwave using 1 minute intervals on full power, until nuts are lightly browned and fragrant.)

Stir the nuts into the boiling sugar, making sure they are well-coated. Then remove the pan from the heat and pour the nuts onto the oiled wax paper. Let them cool completely before the next step.

Pull the candied nuts off the paper and place them in a zip-top bag. Pound them with a rolling pin or wine bottle to break them up, then roll over them back and forth until they are well pulverized, but not powdered.

After you’ve frosted the cake, sprinkle the nuts on top. Then place some in your palm and press them up against the sides of the cake. (It’s messy, but it works.) Continue around the cake until the sides are coated with nuts.

This cake tastes best at room temperature, and it does disappear fast, but if you’ve got a small crowd eating, you’ll want to refrigerate it after serving. Then let it sit on the countertop for an hour before serving again.

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