Caramel cake is a Southern dessert that is traditionally made with white cake and caramel frosting. Lots of variations exist (i.e., caramel cake and caramel icing, yellow cake with buttercream icing drizzled with caramel), but in my opinion, the original is the best. When I am home, my mom always picks up Cindy Lou’s caramel cakes from the Cashiers (NC) Farmers Market (visit their website). While I’ve tried to replicate her recipe at least a dozen times, I can never quite perfect it. Usually, my icing is too thin (and seeps into the cake) or too hard (and nearly impossible to spread onto the cake). While the icing in today’s attempt is darker than Cindy Lou’s version, I think I finally figured this cake out! At the least this recipe will tide me over until I am back in North Carolina and can get a slice of the real thing! A few important lessons I have learned during my caramel cake attempts:
1. Buy a candy thermometer. It’s the best $5 I spent and really helps to know when the icing is done.
2. When making the caramel icing, use LOW heat. It takes forever (or nearly an hour in my case), but you won’t burn the caramel and make a huge mess of your kitchen.
3. Wait for the cake and the icing to be fully cooled before you try and ice the cake. If either is still warm, the icing won’t stay on the cake.
4. Sometimes, you can’t recreate a recipe to a tee and that’s OK. However, Cindy Lou – if you’re reading this and want to give me your recipe, I would be forever grateful!!!
For the Cake:
2 cups plus 2 tablespoons sifted cake flour (not self-rising; sift before measuring)
1 teaspoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 stick unsalted butter, softened
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 large eggs, at room temperature 30 minutes
1 cup well-shaken buttermilk
For the Icing:
3 cups (light) brown sugar, firmly packed
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons half and half
1/2 stick (4 tablespoons) butter
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
For the Cake:
1. Preheat oven to 350°F with rack in middle. Butter an 8-inch square cake pan and line with a square of parchment paper, then butter parchment.
2. Sift together flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.
3. Beat butter and sugar in a large bowl with an electric mixer at medium speed until pale and fluffy, then beat in vanilla. Add eggs 1 at a time, beating well after each addition. At low speed, beat in buttermilk until just combined (mixture may look curdled – see photo below). Add flour mixture in 3 batches, mixing until each addition is just incorporated.
4. Spread batter evenly in cake pan, then rap pan on counter several times to eliminate air bubbles.
5. Bake until golden and a wooden pick inserted in center of cake comes out clean, 35 to 40 minutes. Cool in pan on a rack 10 minutes, then run a knife around edge of pan. Invert onto rack and discard parchment, then cool completely, about 1 hour.
For the Icing:
1. Mix sugar and half and half in a heavy saucepan and cook, stirring over low heat until syrup reaches the soft-ball stage, 235 degrees on a candy thermometer. If lacking a thermometer, check doneness by dropping a tiny bit of syrup into a cup of cold water. When the syrup can be gathered up in fingers and will almost hold its shape, it has reached the soft-ball stage.
2. Remove pan from heat. Stir in butter, then let syrup cool. Add vanilla and beat until frosting reaches spreading consistency (note: the icing will thicken as it cools). A little cream (or half-and-half) may be added is mixture is too thick.
3. Spread icing on cooled cake. Don’t skimp on the icing! The photo below contains only the first 1/3 of the icing that I ultimately used to frost the cake. (Note: This is a really messy, sticky cake. In order to make cleanup easier, I put the cake inside a disposable roasting pan to frost it and transport it to my friend’s apartment. Not the prettiest way to serve it, but caramel would have been everywhere otherwise!)