Best-Ever Caramel Cake

What a celebration cake! This recipe is worthy of birthdays, anniversaries, parties and other special occasions. It is extra-special because not only 'can' it be made ahead of time, it actually tastes better the second day. The cake itself is deep with vanilla, the icing dark and firm with the caramel that only comes from that special concoction of sugar, cream and butter.

Best-Ever Caramel Cake

How'd I do?
Even before making this gorgeous cake, I knew I'd try to set up the photo as seen in Food & Wine. Here's their inspiring shot!

“Honey, it’s only a number,” chided my eighty-something neighbor when I once hesitated to answer the dreaded "How old are you?" question. "Well good," I thought. “Then I pick 37!”

When it comes to age, I come from a family of liars. My cousin Lynda is now younger than her two grown sons. My clever cousin Barb is not 29, but 31. I liked her unusual choice so much that one year, I decided to turn 41 from 29 – but only after a party.

It’s easy for liars to stay young, so long as the memory and math skills still work. Most people, normal people, turn a year older one birthday at a time. Me, every birthday, I recalculated the year of my birth. I lied about my age for so long, I had to think real hard to remember my real age.

When my nephews were young, they’d say, “Auntie Al, you can’t be 35. You’re older than our mom and she’s 39!” I would calmly remind them of the year I was born and suggest they ‘do the math’.

One year, the little guy, all serious, put a pencil to paper then professed to his older brother, “Mathew, she IS 35. Do the math!”

I quaked: my sweet, innocent and generous-hearted nephew Alex actually believed my lie. I hoped fervently that someday, perhaps at my funeral, he and his brother would laugh about their aunt’s habit of lying about her age.

MAKE IT AN OCCASION No lying about this Caramel Cake, however. With three layers, a dramatic appearance and rich, groan-now-it’s-so-good flavor, Best-Ever Caramel Cake shouts ‘party’. I made it for my own birthday (which one? pick a number!) and oh my, we all scraped the last sweet crumbs from our plates.

MAKE IT AHEAD OF TIME Still, I know, the recipe is long, especially the icing. The one oh-so-important reason why I’m sharing the recipe is this: it not only can be made ahead of time, it tastes better the day after it’s made. This makes it perfect for making the night before and taking to work, say; or making the day before, then carrying along to a potluck the next day; or you know, making it the day before your birthday, then relaxing with bonbons in a bubble bath on your birthday itself, knowing the cake is baked and beautiful.

The recipe for Best-Ever Caramel Cake is adapted from the September 2010 issue of Food & Wine, a fabulous issue from which I clipped more than a dozen recipes. But this cake, what Food & Wine and its developer, chef Ann Cashion of Johnny's Half Shell in Washington, DC call "Revelatory Caramel Cake", this cake called to me for days. It just insisted on being made!

ALANNA’s TIPS This is the longest recipe I’ve ever published on Kitchen Parade, which is known for quick and easy recipes. Making the cake itself is, well, a piece of cake, very straight-forward. The icing is a considerable production although nothing hard, just lots of steps. If the icing is too daunting, no problem, just make a triple or quadruple batch of my mom’s recipe for Caramel Frosting. Please note, I haven’t made the cake with Mom’s Caramel Frosting but think that it would work just fine. Next time, I will use cake dowels to prevent the cake from slipping. It didn't, but it felt like it could have.

SHOPPING LIST To make the recipe easier to follow, I have written it showing each ingredient in the quantity called for in each step. But several ingredients are repeated. To make the vanilla cake and the caramel icing, you’ll need a total of:

  • 4 egg whites
  • 1-3/4 cups whole milk
  • 4-1/2 cups sugar
  • 2-1/2 sticks butter
  • 1-1/4 cups cream
  • 3 cups cake flour
  • light corn syrup
  • baking powder
  • vanilla
  • table salt

KITCHEN EQUIPMENT To make this Best-Ever Caramel Cake, you’ll need:

  • 3 round cake pans
  • parchment paper & waxed paper
  • 1 small bowl
  • a whisk and a spatula
  • an electric mixer, preferably a standing mixer since the icing requires a long stretch of mixing
  • toothpicks
  • cooling racks
  • medium saucepan
  • large heavy saucepan
  • candy thermometer
  • strainer
  • cake plate
  • knife or offset spatula
  • squeeze bottle, optional

ABOUT THE CALORIES No doubt, this cake is an indulgence, a rarity in Kitchen Parade.

Some times I hesitate to even calculate the calories and Weight Watchers points. In my head, I write, “Some things we don’t want to know” and imagine people grinning, or maybe, groaning, but everyone understanding that this is a big cake.

But the thing is, knowledge is power. When we bake, the calories add up fast and we’re crazy to fool ourselves otherwise. This cake calls for so much butter, sugar and cream, at least we KNOW it’s an indulgence. We also know it's a special-occasion cake. Is it worth the calories? That’s for each one to decide.

But anyone who turns to recipes from Kitchen Parade is armed with the information needed to make an informed decision. That too is a rarity, just look at the baking blogs, the food magazines, the programs on food TV. How many of these provide nutrition information? I'm willing to bet, elsewhere, indulgences are commonplace, not the rarity they should be.

Kitchen Parade is written by second-generation food columnist Alanna Kellogg and features fresh, seasonal dishes for every-day healthful eating and occasional indulgences. Do you have a favorite recipe that other Kitchen Parade readers might like? Just send me a quick e-mail via recipes@kitchen-parade.com. How to print a Kitchen Parade recipe. Never miss a recipe! If you like this recipe, sign up for a free e-mail subscription. If you like Kitchen Parade, you're sure to like my food blog about vegetable recipes, too, A Veggie Venture. Follow Kitchen Parade on Facebook!

BEST-EVER CARAMEL CAKE

Hands-on time: 1 hour with regular attention throughout over 4 hours
Time to serve: Cake tastes best the day after it’s made
Serves 12 or 16 or even 20

VANILLA CAKE

(Vanilla Cake only)
Hands-on time: 45 minutes
Total time to make & cool: 2-1/2 hours

Preheat oven to 350F. Butter three 8-inch cake pans. Cut three rounds of parchment for the pan bottoms. Butter the parchment and then flour the pans. Tap out the excess flour. If you have just one mixing bowl, you might want to whip the 3/4 cup of cream that's called for late in the cake recipe too.

  • 1/4 cup whole milk
  • 4 large egg whites
  • 2-1/2 teaspoons vanilla

In a bowl, gently whisk the milk, egg whites and vanilla until just combined.

In standing mixer, mix the cake flour, sugar, baking powder and salt for a few seconds.

  • 12 tablespoons butter, cut into tablespoons, warmed to room temperature
  • 3/4 cup whole milk

Add the butter and milk to the flour mixture, blend at low speed til blended, then medium speed until smooth, about one minute. Beat in the milk-egg white mixture in three batches.

  • 3/4 cup heavy cream, whipped to soft peaks in another bowl

With a spatula, stir in about a third of the whipped cream, then fold in the remaining whipped cream.

Divide the cake batter among the three pans, smoothing the tops. Bake for 25 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean. Cool on a rack for 10 minutes, remove from the pans, peel off the parchment, then invert onto a rack to cool completely.

Once cool, place five or six strips of waxed paper around the perimeter of a cake plate or cake stand, then place the bottom layer in the center, covering up about an inch of the waxed paper strips. (Why the waxed paper? To protect the plate from the Caramel Icing as it drips down the sides.)


CARAMEL ICING

This icing uses no powdered sugar! It is thickened by the caramel itself and sets to a firm but not hard cake frosting.
(Caramel Icing Only)
Hands-on time: 15 minutes
Total time to mix and ice: 90 minutes
  • 2-1/2 cups sugar
  • 3 tablespoons light corn syrup
  • 1-1/2 cups whole milk

DISSOLVE THE SUGAR In a medium saucepan, stir together the sugar, corn syrup and milk, then cook over medium heat, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Keep warm while continuing.

  • 1/2 cup sugar

MAKE THE CARAMEL In a large, heavy saucepan (my four-quart Dutch oven worked perfectly, the caramel swells a lot as it cooks so be sure to use a large enough pan), sprinkle the sugar over the pan’s bottom. Cook over moderate heat, swirling occasionally, until an amber caramel forms. (For more caramel flavor, let the caramel get quite dark, just be careful not to burn the sugar.) Carefully pour the warm milk mixture over the caramel (careful, it will sizzle). Cook over medium high, stirring, until the caramel dissolves (this will take awhile, just keep stirring, scraping up any caramel bits from the bottom of the pan). Now, this will be hard but STOP STIRRING and cook until caramel registers 235F (the soft-ball stage) on a candy thermometer, about 30 minutes. (During this time, the caramel should bubble fast and will swell to nearly fill the saucepan. If it doesn’t, gradually increase the heat until it does.) Remove from the heat.

  • 1 stick butter, softened to room temp
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1/4 cup cream

ADD RICHNESS & COOL Stir in the butter, vanilla and cream and stir until the butter melts. Strain the caramel into the bowl of the standing mixer, let cool 15 minutes.

  • 1/4 cup cream

BEAT UNTIL CREAMY Beating the mixture at medium speed, slowly add the cream. Continue beating the mixture until light and creamy, about 15 minutes. Work quickly from this point on, the icing will begin to harden.

FINALLY! ICE THE CAKE Set one cake layer on a plate, pour enough icing over the layer to cover the top, leaving about a quarter inch around the perimeter for the icing to squeeze out. Top with the second layer, cover with icing. Add the final layer and pour the rest of the icing over the top, letting it run down the sides. Working quickly, use a knife or offset spatula to spread the icing gently around the sides. Check the sides carefully for complete coverage, patching later will be obvious. I used only about 2/3 of the icing, it was plenty.

If you like, transfer some icing to a squeeze bottle and squeeze out a design on cake’s top. I used a V pattern for the outer ring, then a U pattern inside it, then dots in the center. Much to my surprise, from the top, it looked like a sunflower! Go crazy!

LET ICING SET Let the cake stand for 2 hours before to allow the icing to set. If serving the next day, refrigerate overnight but return to room temperature before serving.

NUTRITION ESTIMATE Per Slice, assuming 20/16/12 slices: 414/518/691 Calories; 17/21/28g Tot Fat; 11/14/19g Sat Fat; 53/67/89mg Cholesterol; 297/371/495mg Sodium; 61/77/102g Carb; 0g Fiber; 48/59/79g Sugar; 3/4/6g Protein; Weight Watchers Old Points 10/12/16; PointsPlus 11/14/19


Best-Ever Caramel Cake - top

If you like tone on tone, you'll love the looks of this cake after it's iced. The Food & Wine cake just smoothed the icing. I found that a little plain so got out a squeeze bottle and started squeezing. Turns out, from the top, the design looked just like a sunflower! Nice, since the the cake platter is a gift from my dear Auntie Gloria and has a sunflower design too!


If Age is Just a Number ...

What do you pick, your real age or something else? Let me know in the comments!


More Party Cakes!

(hover for a description, click a photo for a recipe)
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~ more cake recipes ~

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~ Caramel Icing ~





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Oh, YUM. My birthday is next week, and this cake may just be on the menu. Your photo is much nicer than the one from F&W. Beautiful!
 
This cake looks amazing—and your photo looks better than theirs! :)
 
Anonymous ~ I have to tell you, this cake "called" to me until I just had to make it. It takes some effort but the payoff is BIG. Happy early birthday!

Susan ~ Why thanks! The print version of the Food & Wine photo is fabulous, it's half of what "called" to me for so long, too bad it doesn't come across as well on their website. I'll tell you too, it's a hard cake to shoot, so 'flat' in color.)
 
Definitely looks like a great cake and I hope to try it for an occasion that merits all the work. As to numbers, I've used the real one all my long life, now 71. I always thought it made no difference what it's called, what is is what is.
 
Alanna, this frosting is what my mother has made for 65 years, and her mother before, under the title "Burnt Sugar." I have the recipe for the Burnt Sugar Cake, too, if you're interested. It starts with the same process of caramelizing the sugar in a skillet.
 
Alanna, you asked if my mother's recipe was simpler - I can tell you that it's definitely much shorter than yours! I'll put it below. The cake is dense, and the frosting has the texture of fudge. But the flavor is divine and is demanded by all six of us kids any time we go visit. I'm looking forward to Thanksgiving in Texas so I can get her to make it. (Yeah, I know I can make it myself, but it's just not the same unless Mom makes it!)
Burnt Sugar Cake
¾ cups sugar
½ cup hot water
1 ½ cups sugar
½ cup shortening
3 eggs
2 ½ cups flour
3 teaspoons baking powder
⅛ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup milk

Caramelize 3/4 sugar by browning it slowly in heavy skillet. Add hot water slowly, stirring until clear. Cool.
Cream 1 1/2 c sugar and shortening. Add eggs. Sift together flour, baking powder, and salt. Add to sugar mixture alternately with vanilla and milk. Add caramelized sugar mixture. Bake in greased layer pans at 350˚ till tests done.

Burnt Sugar Frosting: Caramelize 3/4 c sugar; add 1/2 c hot water. Add 1 stick butter, 3/4 c milk, 1 t vanilla, and 2 c sugar. Cook over medium heat until soft ball stage. Remove from heat. Beat until dull; quickly frost cake.
 
this is yummmm, am wanting a bite!
 
I think this would be fun to make with a custard filling, too. :)
 
Yum! I am printing this recipe tonight. My grandmother used to make a wonderful caramel frosting that I am pasting below. I made it recently and it reminded me of her. By the way - I LOVE your blog! I have printed many recipes, but this is the first time I have left a comment. It is so nice that you are carrying on a tradition in a new medium.

*FROSTING*
1 stick (1/2 cup) butter
1 cup brown sugar
¼ cup milk
2 cups confectionary sugar
1 tsp vanilla
salt

Melt butter in a medium saucepan and stir in brown sugar. Bring to a boil for 3 minutes. Stir in milk and boil again. Cool mixture. Remove from stovetop and mix in confectionary sugar gradually. Add vanilla and a few grains of salt.
Yield: It will make icing for one cake.
 
OK, can I pay one of you ladies to come and make it for me? I don't have the time or energy but it looks spectacular. I saw it in Food and Wine too.
 
There are so many variations of caramel frosting/icing out there and I believe that this one is more similar to what I am looking for. But just to clarify, can you tell me if this is the really thick fudge like caramel icing because if so, then this is not the one that I am looking to make.
 
Well gosh, Cdavis ~ You know your caramel icing. This icing is firm but not hard and you can see from the pictures that it's not thick or dense like fudge. So maybe it would work for you? If so, let me know!
 

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Thank you for taking a moment to write! I read each and every comment, for each and every recipe. If you have a specific question, it's nearly always answered quick-quick. But I also love hearing your reactions, your curiosity, even your concerns! When you've made a recipe, I especially love to know how it turned out, what variations you made, what you'll do differently the next time. ~ Alanna