At the beginning of this month, my dad celebrated his 82nd birthday. Or, as he likes to put it, “I’m turning 40 with 42 years of experience.”
In all his many years, my dad has loved one dessert over everything else: caramel cake. Caramel cake is a Southern staple, and most families have their own recipe. No good Southern cookbook is complete without it. As a kid raised in rural Alabama, it makes sense that my dad would cherish this dessert as his favourite. He has fond memories of his mother making it for him – buttery, crumbly cake swathed in tooth-achingly sweet caramel icing.
I had planned on making dad a caramel cake for his birthday for a while, but waited until the last minute (i.e. 2 pm on the day) to make preparations. This was a big mistake: one, I had assumed we had in our possession the secret family caramel cake recipe; and two, I had forgotten how work intensive making a one of these is. After checking with my mom, I was dismayed to hear we didn’t have the recipe. I took to the Internet, hoping to find a good alternative, and hoping that if I found one, I wouldn’t mess it up.
Thankfully I came across Add a Pinch, an excellent Southern cooking blog. The recipe I used for my dad’s birthday cake was adapted from this one. (And when I say adapted, literally the only thing I did different was to add some flavour extracts.) Please head over to that site to get the full recipe.
Like all good cakes, it starts with a sinfully delicious whipped mixture of sugar and butter. Don’t try it – you’ll want to eat it by the spoonful.
First you let you butter sit out of the refrigerator for a little while to soften up. Cream it on medium speed, then slowly add your sugar.
Mix it together until it’s whipped and creamy.
Next you’ll add your eggs, one at a time whilst mixing, waiting just until each egg is incorporated into the batter before adding the next one.
(It wasn’t until after this photo was taken that my mom told me it might be a better idea to break eggs into a bowl first instead of cracking them directly into the batter. If an eggshell goes in, you’ll lose it before you can fish it out. But, you know, this made for a better picture.)
Now the batter is starting to look silky smooth.
It’s a good idea to stop whisking after each new addition to use a spatula to scrape the sides of the bowl and the mixers. You want to make sure that all the ingredients are getting fully mixed in.
For a little extra boost of caramel flavour, I added a half teaspoon of caramel extract.
Next, the recipe calls for adding buttermilk and flour alternately, starting with the flour. Once you’re all done, the mixture should look something like this:
Like making a meringue, you want the cake batter to hold its shape when you pick the beaters up out of the mixture. (Before you pour that batter into the baking pans, make sure they’re greased so that the cake doesn’t stick. I always use melted butter because that gives the cake such a delicious flavour.) The batter should look silky and when you pour it, it should make beautiful folds as it settles out into the pan.
Use the back of your spatula to push the batter into all parts of the pan and to smooth out the top.
Now pop the cakes into the oven (heated to 350°F/180°C/Gas mark 4), shut the door, and set your timer. The recommended baking time for this cake is 25-30 minutes. It’s important that you don’t check the cake every few minutes – have a little faith in the recipe. If you open the door too much, it can disturb the batter and cause the cake to fall. I normally set my timer for 2 or 3 minutes before the recommended baking time and take a tiny peek to make sure the cakes aren’t done too early. When they look ready, you can take them out and test them to see if they are done all the way through.
My trick for testing the doneness is simple, and you can use it with cakes, brownies, and most other baked goods. Take a clean butter knife and insert it into the center of the cake. When you pull it out, it should come out clean, like in the picture below. If it does, that means your cake is done.
However, if the knife comes out with batter stuck to it, your cake needs to be baked a bit more. While one of my cakes was done in the given baking time, the other needed a bit more time in the oven. The center was still wet, but the edge of the cake was already cooked and starting to burn. If this ever happens, there’s a simple fix: just use some tin foil to cover the edges of the cake to keep them from cooking much more.
With the cakes made and resting in their pans to cool, I started on the caramel icing. For this, I actually didn’t use Add a Pinch’s recipe, as it called for Crisco. I hate to admit this, but my mother, a supposedly Southern woman, didn’t have Crisco in her pantry. Shock! Horror! So I turned to the bible of the Southern kitchen, The Southern Living Cookbook, our most dog-eared and well-worn cookbook. Since many recipes for caramel icing I had looked at online called for buttermilk, I made a simple substitution to the recipe to use buttermilk instead of whole milk. I think this made a significant difference to the taste, and possibly consistency, of the icing for the better.
1/2 cup sugar
3/4 cup buttermilk
1 egg, beaten
pinch of salt
2 1/2 cups sugar
1/2 cup of butter, cut up
Put the 1/2 cup of sugar in a heavy saucepan and cook it over medium heat, stirring constantly. After about 15-20 minutes, it will turn a light golden brown.
Whisk together the remaining sugar, the buttermilk, the egg, and the softened butter. Pour this mixture into the caramelized sugar. The sugar will curdle and lump together – apparently this is ok. I panicked and threw my first batch out before realizing that the lump would melt with further cooking.
Cook the mixture for another 15-20 minutes, always stirring, until the caramel reaches 230°F (110°C) on a candy thermometer. Remove the mixture from heat and let it cool for 5 minutes; then stir it with a wooden spoon until it is cooled and of spreading consistency.
By now the cake should be nice and cool, so you can remove it from the pans.
At this point, it was around 11 pm – I had been in the kitchen cooking dad’s birthday dinner since 5 pm, and he was almost falling asleep. I spread the still-warm caramel icing on as best I could, knowing that it would at least taste good, even if the appearance left a little to be desired.
Miki, my mom’s dog, doesn’t care what it looks like. He just loves carbs. He’s a bit of a weird one.
Despite his desperate, silent pleas, he didn’t get any cake.
So finally, the birthday cake was done. The recipe was wonderful – it yielded a soft, fluffy cake with buttery flavour. The buttermilk really made a difference to the icing as well, giving it a delicious, rich tang underneath the overwhelming sweetness of the icing. Paired with a glass of milk, dessert doesn’t get much better than this.
Dad said it was one of the best caramel cakes he’s ever had, and in my opinion, recommendations don’t come much higher than that.
Happy Birthday Dad!