In the Southern Kitchen series Saving Southern Recipes, Associate Editor Kate Williams explores the deep heritage of Southern cooking through the lens of passed-down family recipes.
Unless you grew up with it, you may be surprised the first time you eat a slice of caramel cake. At least I was. With a name like that, I expected a cake filled with surprise pockets of caramel inside the cake crumb, or at least flecks dotted throughout like a rainbow sprinkle birthday cake, but better. But with any true Southern caramel cake, the cake itself isn't really the point.
The point is, of course, the caramel frosting, which can be either chewy and toffee-like, or slightly granular and fudgy, depending on the baker. Either way, the frosting is a triumph of culinary skill, a challenging recipe to master and the point of many a home cook's dessert downfall. The cake inside is today, often, made from yellow cake mix, a shortcut in a recipe that allows for no other shortcuts, a shame, sure, but it's an understandable one.
According to Anne Byrn, Southern Kitchen contributor and author of the book "American Cake," the caramel cake is especially beloved in the Mississippi Delta, which is rich in sugar cane but devoid of fruit trees. Once assembled, a classic caramel cake can withstand the region's stifling humidity without weeping; it will "sit there majestically, like some great god of Delta cooking, a shrine to the hard work that went into the cake," Byrn wrote.
The reason caramel frosting is so difficult is that it is, essentially, candy, which, when made properly, will set and harden at room temperature. In order to use it as a cake frosting, bakers must move almost unreasonably quickly to get it on the cake and looking pretty before it sets. (There's also, of course, the whole caramel-making step, but we'll get to that later.)
With this shrine-standard in mind, I decided that it wouldn't be worth making a carmel cake if I didn't make it totally from scratch, the hard way. After a little poking and prodding around in my cookbook collection, and on Google, I learned that there isn't really a standard cake recipe to use. Southern Living says that the most traditional caramel cakes are made with what is called a "hot milk sponge cake," and while I couldn't find any other evidence for this statement, I decided to run with it.
From what I can tell, hot milk sponge is similar to a genoise, which is a sponge cake with additional fat incorporated, most often butter. Hot milk sponge gets — surprise! — hot milk in addition to butter, and it is leavened with baking powder in addition to the power of whipped eggs. It is, in other words, fairly easy to pull off, and is a sturdy and neutral vanilla cake — perfect for caramel icing. I lightly adapted Byrn's recipe for the cake, baking it in two 9-inch pans instead of three, anticipating an easier assembly with fewer layers.
To find the perfect frosting, I spent far too much time reading various food bloggers and cookbooks, looking for the definitive caramel frosting. Spoiler: there isn't one. One blogger, Southern Boy Dishes, said that he had cracked the code on his grandmother's recipe, but when I tried it, I wasn't impressed with the final, ultra-sticky result. Sure, his candy-like frosting tasted good, but I struggled to keep it from scorching and found it nigh-on impossible to actually finish frosting the cake before the frosting became impossibly hard.
Instead, I looked toward the more fudge-like variety of frosting and found a winner in a recipe from Kathleen Purvis, of the Charlotte Observer. Hers is an adaptation of her aunt's recipe; she added in directions for using modern conveniences, such as candy thermometers and stand mixers, which I wholly support. She also pointed out that the traditional cookware used to make caramel, a cast iron skillet, adds an entirely unnecessary level of difficulty to the recipe — so much of caramel-making is visual, so you'll want to use a light-colored pan to make it. It's basically impossible to judge a properly cooked caramel (at least by sight) in dark cast iron.
I ended up fiddling slightly with Purvis's recipe; I added more salt and really honed in on the cooking times for the caramel mixture. I also have never found it problematic to stir dry caramel (those made entirely from sugar), so I encourage you to stir as needed to make sure it cooks evenly. When it comes time to frost the cake, make sure you're set up and ready to go before the frosting is finished. Pull out your spatulas and line your cake stand with parchment paper. Get your cooled cakes at the ready before beating the frosting. Once it just reaches a spreadable form, get to work. You'll need to work quickly, but you can make it happen. And no matter what shape the cake takes, it'll still taste better than anything made from a mix.