a very happy birthday + the easiest from-scratch birthday cake ever

The day after the election is a good day to talk about something light and fluffy, don't you think? Like birthdays. And cake. My favorite cake is carrot cake. What's yours?

There's something about carrot cake. Well, I can't explain it but those who love it know what I'm trying to say. 

Have you ever done that thing where you project your own likes onto your child? Like, "She really likes soft pillows and her bath extra warm" when it's really what you like? Well, I do that with Greta and food. Once, when she wouldn't eat sweet potatoes, one of my favorite (and one of the healthiest) foods, I said, aghast, "but it's your favorite!" Now, when I serve her sweet potatoes, she says, "my favorite!" and gobbles them right up. So on her second birthday, I knew exactly what cake I'd be making her—the same carrot cake mom made me each and every year.

On the way to this decision, I actually tried on other people's carrot cakes, just for fun. I made some healthier, some double deckers and some plain old-fashioneds.  But here's the thing—on a birthday, only the very best will do. That's mom's cake. 

During this journey, here's what I figured out—this is the easiest from-scratch cake, ever. And I mean ever. Like, make on your lunch break (if you work from home) or while the laundry is on the spin-cycles easy. Which is probably why, besides the fact that I love it so much, my mom always made it for me—I'm the third of four kids and my guess is she didn't have a lot of spare time for making cakes.

What she did do is decorate my cakes to the max, aqua-blue pool for a pool party, a yellow-studded pineapple for a luau party, but whenever she’d slice it open, there was my favorite orange cake. I don't have the patience for piping bags lately, so I opted instead to make Greta’s cake these sweet vintage Jell-O molds my sister bought me during my last visit. I didn't do a test run, just buttered and floured the day of the party and crossed my fingers while I put out the rest of the spread.

It was a risk, I admit, baking them blind on the day of the party. I did pour the remaining batter into a quarter sheet pan for backup, but the mini bundts worked like a charm, too. Just one more reason I love and adore this cake—in any shape or size, it rarely disappoints.

Here's the very, very special thing about carrot cake that really must be said—if you want to, you can go ahead and convince yourself it is good for you, and that it’s a perfectly okay cake for kids. It's carrots, after all. While we know it's not exactly health food, I have made a few modifications to my version (whole wheat white flour, less oil, less sugar) that I guarantee you, even if you happened to have come to one of my birthday parties between age 2 and 12 and got hooked like me, you'd never know the difference.

But enough about cake, let's talk about my itty bitty little lady, who I made this cake for. I adore her. Her spirit is huge and happy. Her eyes shine light and joy on the world. She's a little lover, cradling anything from a baby doll to a bath toy in the nook of her arm and showering everyone she knows with hugs and kisses. It doesn't take carrot cake to sweeten her disposition, but like her mamma, she can down a piece like nobody's business. She knows how to have a good time, and she won't quit until you absolutely make her. We are so, so very grateful for two healthy, delicious years with her and for two loving, doting grandparents who drove 19 hours to celebrate with us. Thanks for the recipe Mom, I owe you one! 

While were telling stories, won’t you tell me your best birthday cake ever story, please? And in the meantime, happy birthday sweet Greta pie. Here's a carrot cake to grow on. 

The Easiest Carrot Cake Ever + Creamy Cheese Frosting

Serves 12 adults or 24 kids

4 large eggs
1 ¾ cups raw organic sugar
1 1/4 cups vegetable oil
10 oz organic carrot baby food (or 1 1/4 cups carrot puree) 
2 cups white whole-wheat flour 
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

10 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
12 oz Neufch√Ętel or cream cheese, at room temperature
3/4 cup confectioners’ sugar
2 teaspoons agave nectar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Lightly butter a 9 by-13-inch pan, quarter sheet pan or 24 muffins or molds. Line the pan with a wide piece of parchment paper cut so that it tucks neatly along 2 opposite sides and hangs over edges by about 1 inch on the other opposite sides to create flaps. Butter and flour the paper or the molds

To make the cake: Beat the eggs and sugar with an electric mixer in a medium bowl on medium-high speed until thick and pale yellow, about 4 minutes. Add the oil and carrot puree. In a separate bowl, stir together the flour, baking soda and cinnamon and stir into the cake batter until evenly combined. Pour into the prepared pans and bake until the cake spring back lightly when touched, about 40 minutes for a sheet cake, or 20 to 22 minutes for small cakes or cupcakes. Transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.      

Meanwhile, to make the frosting: Make sure the butter and cream cheese are soft but still cool. Beat them together with an electric mixer until smooth and fluffy, with no remaining lumps. Sift in the confectioners’ sugar and add agave and vanilla extract. Beat until light and fluffy. 

Spread the frosting evenly over the top of the cooled bars, or top each mini cake with a tuft of frosting. Serve at room temperature.   

P.S. Some 2nd birthday party tips: 

1.  Musical Chairs (or pillows) with sticker prizes is a huge hit with the two-to-three set.

2. If you decide you're going to do face painting at your child's birthday party, by Murphy’s Law, your child will be the only one who doesn't want their face painted. Let them paint your face instead.

Photos and Recipes © Sarah Copeland 2012
Please credit source on Pinterest. All other uses require permission via email.


Lola said...

My favorite is lemon cake. Is is refreshing, sweet and delicious!

Kate Ramos said...

This does look ridiculously easy! And without the frosting-dairy free! Hooray for Greta! And your mom for coming up with this recipe!

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New York City, United States
Sarah Copeland is a food and lifestyle expert, and the author of Feast: Generous Vegetarian Meals for Any Eater and Every Appetite, and The Newlywed Cookbook. She is the Food Director at Real Simple magazine, and has appeared in numerous national publications including Saveur, Health, Fitness, Shape, Martha Stewart Living and Food & Wine magazines. As a passionate gardener, Sarah's Edible Living philosophy aims to inspire good living through growing, cooking and enjoying delicious, irresistible whole foods. She thrives on homegrown veggies, stinky cheese and chocolate cake. Sarah lives in New York with her husband and their young daughter.