Friday, August 12, 2011

Southern Caramel Cake - A Tribute to The Help Movie

A light, tender yellow butter cake with a classic boiled icing, traditionally made from burnt sugar or for more modern versions, with boiled brown sugar.

Southern Caramel Cake


As soon as I knew they were making a movie from the book The Help, I knew I wanted to make a caramel cake for the website. Really, from the first time I read about Minny's caramel cake in the book in 2009, I knew I'd be making one. There is just something about this book that makes you want a caramel cake... and maybe never want to eat a chocolate pie - at least for awhile. You'll know what I mean on all of the above counts if you read the book.

My intention had been to make this cake over the past weekend, but I was dragging my tail-end here recently thanks to fighting off a summer cold while simultaneously pulling a muscle in my back and found my motivation lacking. With the film making its debut at the theater Wednesday, I decided to make the cake anyway, and found myself up at 2:00 a.m. that morning icing a cake!

When I got up later, I decided I wanted to go see the movie on it's opening day after all, and I'm so glad that I did.  As I mentioned over on Facebook, I literally cried in the very opening scene, then I laughed till I cried, and even got a headache from trying not to cry. It was a hilariously funny movie, that touched just about every possible emotion including, as a native Mississippian, moments of shame, sadness and heartbreak. It was the best movie and very true to the book, and while I rarely read any book more than once, I am on my fourth read of this one. I not only own it on audio, but I have it as an e-book and in a regular paper book I can hold in my hand. That is how much I love this book that is now being referred to everywhere as a new classic.

I'll be the first in line to own a DVD copy of the movie too. Watching it made me fall in love with the characters of Aibileen, Minny and Skeeter all over again, and I can't help but to find a little bit of me in all of them. The villain, Two Slice Hilly, was as nasty as I thought she would be, and I do confess, I held no empathy for her having eaten a bit of er, shall we say, humble pie? Bryce Dallas Howard earned herself an Oscar on this one, I'm certain of that. The Mad Men reminiscent set scenery was 1960s authentic, as were the hairstyles and fashion, and I am in absolute car envy of that gorgeous red Mercury Turnpike Cruiser of Celia's - identified by one of our readers as a friend's car.

Anyway, we're here for the cake aren't we, so just get the book, read it and go see the movie!

In the book, caramel cake is mentioned six times, and in one scene of the movie, there is a quick glimpse of a sliced 7-layer caramel cake on a kitchen table at Minny's house. Even the movie cake made by Charleston South Carolina native, and founder of the acclaimed Caroline's Cakes bakery in Annapolis, Maryland, Caroline Ragsdale Reutter, has a story all its own. Well... truth is, as you can clearly tell by the pictures here, I'm not really much of a baker, much less a cake-maker, and I'm not about to take on that tedious task of cutting seven layers, so I hope you'll settle for my humble little three layer cake!

Caramel cake has always been one of those classic southern cakes that graces the table only for major holidays or other very special occasions like birthdays, though sometimes you'll run across one at a reunion or on a funeral spread. The cake itself is really just a basic homemade yellow butter cake, but what really sets it apart is the caramel icing.

Traditionally made as a burnt sugar icing, it's can be a tedious process that involves melting granulated sugar in a cast iron skillet until caramelized, added it to a boiled sugar, cooking to soft-ball stage and frankly takes a bit of practice to get right. Most people today opt for a shortcut brown sugar version, which though not quite the same taste, is what I used. Even Miss Caroline said it took her two years to perfect her bakery cake and icing, but if you're up to tackling it, I've included one version of a burnt sugar recipe adapted from The Blue Willow Inn Bible. Thankfully, Hommie Holly, one of our readers over on the Facebook page, was kind enough to share her tried and true, foolproof homemade caramel icing with us too. You can see a picture of her icing on the Facebook page.

When I posted a picture of my cake on Facebook Wednesday before taking off to see the movie, one of the readers said just looking at the picture made his "teeth hurt." Well, I can certainly see that because mercy! It indeed is one sweet icing - sort of like that whole chess pie thing. Which, besides my lack of talent in cake making, might be another reason that you don't see a lot of cakes on my site since I'm more of a savory kinda gal. At any rate, you will really only need thin layers of the icing, unless you have an incredible sweet tooth.


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Recipe: Southern Caramel Cake

©From the Kitchen of Deep South Dish
Prep time: 15 min |Cook time: 30 min | Yield: About 10 to 12 servings

Ingredients

For the Cake:
  • 3 cups cake flour
  • 3 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup (2 sticks) of unsalted butter, softened at room temperature
  • 2 cups granulated sugar
  • 4 large eggs
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • Caramel icing, recipes below
  • 3/4 cup of finely chopped toasted pecans, or whole pecan halves, optional
For the Caramel Icing:
  • 2 cups of granulated sugar
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons of baking soda
  • 2 tablespoons of white corn syrup
  • 1/2 cup of buttermilk
  • 1/2 cup of vegetable shortening
  • 1/2 cup of unsalted butter
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Instructions

Have everything at room temperature. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray the bottoms of three 9-inch cake pans with cooking spray. Cut rounds of parchment paper to place into the bottoms of each pan and grease or flour the pan and paper, or spray with Baker's Joy; set aside. In a large bowl, sift together the cake flour, baking powder and salt; set aside.

With a mixer, cream the butter first on medium speed, then add the sugar a little at a time, beating well for about 6 minutes total. Reduce the speed to low and add the eggs, one at a time, mixing each in before adding the next one. Start adding the flour and alternate adding in the flour and the milk, starting with the flour and ending with the flour. Add the vanilla and mix well.

Equally divide the batter among the three pans and level the batter. Bake at 350 degrees for about 25 to 30 minutes, or until a toothpick comes back clean, shifting the pans around halfway through. Don't overcook it or it will be dry, so check at about 20 minutes. Cool in the pan for about 10 minutes, turn out onto a rack to cool completely.

For the icing, combine all ingredients except vanilla in a saucepan. Cook over medium heat, whisking constantly, until it reaches the desired caramel color. Remove from heat and add vanilla. Use a hand held mixer to beat it until it cools and becomes thick enough to spread. Spread thinly on each layer, on the top and along the sides. Sprinkle the nuts on top before icing sets, or decorate the top and sides with whole pecan halves.

Note: I used Swan's Down cake flour and Land O'Lakes unsalted butter. To make a cake flour substitute, for every 1 cup of cake flour, use 1 cup of all purpose flour MINUS 2 tablespoons. Replace the 2 tablespoons of flour with cornstarch and whisk together well.

Alternate Icings:

Classic Burnt Sugar Caramel Icing
From the Kitchen of Deep South Dish

3-1/4 cups of granulated sugar, separated
1 cup of whole milk
1/2 cup (1 stick) of butter
1 teaspoon of vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon of baking soda
1/4 cup of boiling water

Do not attempt this icing on a rainy day. In a large saucepan over medium heat combine 3 cups of the sugar with the milk, butter, vanilla and baking soda; bring mixture up to a boil. Meanwhile cook the remaining 1/4 cup of the sugar in a cast iron skillet over medium high heat until melted and browned. Quickly stir in the boiling water; stir until blended. Add some of the milk mixture to the skillet to deglaze, then transfer the contents of the skillet to the saucepan. Boil, stirring constantly, until mixture reaches 240 degrees F (soft-ball stage). Remove saucepan from the heat and beat until thick and creamy. Let cool and ice cake.

This recipe below is not traditional, but it's easy and it is one that is most commonly used today.

Easy Caramel Icing
From the Kitchen of Deep South Dish

1 (1 pound) box of powdered sugar, sifted
1 cup (2 sticks) of unsalted butter
2 cups of light brown sugar, packed
1/4 cup of heavy cream or milk
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Sift powdered sugar into a mixing bowl; set aside. In a heavy bottomed saucepan, combine the butter and brown sugar and stir over medium low heat until blended. Stir in the cream and bring mixture up to a full rolling boil. Immediately remove from the heat and add the vanilla extract and blend. Set aside to cool until lukewarm. When ready to frost the cake, add the mixture to the mixing bowl with the sifted powdered sugar and beat on high until creamy and spreadable. If icing begins to harden, beat in, literally only a drop or two of cream at a time, by hand to loosen it. Don't add too much, just a drop until it's spreadable again.

Source: http://deepsouthdish.com

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Posted by on August 12, 2011
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41 comments:

  1. YAY! Thanks Mary! Making it today! Sounds amazing as it looks....so excited. Sure hope your back feels better soon!

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  2. I'd love to give the easy version a try, because, hon, I tried the old school caramel icing from a southern recipe book set in the 50's and it was teee-dee-ous! The cake was so light and fluffy, but I've nixed making it again until I found another caramel icing to try so thanks for sharing : )

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  3. Thanks so much for posting this!! I, too LOVE "The Help" (isn't it just the GREATEST?!?) & I can't wait to see the movie! I have the audio book, too & listen to it ALL THE TIME! I have been wanting to try to make a caramel cake ever since I read it for the first time! I am not much of a baker either, so hopefully I can do it justice!!

    PS... thanks for sharing about your emotions while watching the movie. I'll make sure to bring a box of tissues when I go see it!! ;)

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  4. I have dreamed of this cake for years. My grandmommie made this and i can remember watching here boil the icing and dropping it in a cold glass of water to check for the right ball stage. I have only attmpted this once and only the cheater version. You can bet I will try and spend some time perfecting this cake. If you've never had it you've missed something special.

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  5. I swear, I'd probably eat sawdust if it had caramel icing on it. This cake looks divine, and waaaaay better than sawdust!

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  6. Thanks for posting! I read The Help and LOVED it. My Grandmother who lived in Mississippi was famous for her caramel cake but never really had a recipe. I haven't had caramel cake in ages. Can't wait to make this!

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  7. I've been waiting for you to post this recipe :) Thanks Mary. Now I need to go get more butter and sugar so I can get to cookin' :)

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  8. I have never made one of these because a friend of our families makes and sells the best ones in Knoxville. They are delicious!

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  9. Mary, when you mentioned Caramel Cake, I had a flashback! I'm 62 years old and Caramel Cakes and Jam Cakes were very popular at church suppers, reunions, and picnics when I was growing up. Even though I am from Pennsylvania, many people in my community migrated North from the Carolinas. This cake reminds me of watermelon on hot days, lemonade, and fried chicken on Sundays.

    Thank you, Mary, you have truly blessed my heart today. I wish my parents were still living so I could make this cake for them.

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  10. Oh...thanks so much for posting this recipe. I remember my Grandmother's making a similar cake. When I read The Help, it jogged my memory and I intended to look for the recipe; so thanks for saving me the effort. I'm headed to the movie tomorrow and want to make the cake sometime this weekend. Thanks again!

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  11. This reminds me of my childhood. My grandmother always made this delicious cake. Also I found a yummy quick way to make it. They now have duncon hines pecan cake mix. VERY GOOD. I use it whenever I am in a hurry to have some of this tasty cake. However there is no substitute for the frosting. I hope you are feeling better. Take Care.

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  12. Love your website and have commented before. I remember Caramel Cake from my childhood. I've never tried to bake one but might give this one a try. I have not read the book and have no plans to see the movie. Being a Southerner myself, the movie trailer got my attention and then I came across information about the author and the real life Ablene. I decided Kathryn Stockett won't get any of my money.

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  13. I'm really wanting to read this book...it's on the list for sure. The cake does look scrumptious! When I was young, I can remember a friend's mother made a "burnt sugar" cake, and it must have made an impression since I've remembered it all this time. When I first started blogging I tried it myself and it was a total flop...glad to see your version.

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  14. I do so love an old fashion caramel cake, a good is hard to find... ya just gotta know someone who knows how to do it right... your version looks so good, just like it ought to... thanks for posting Hommie's version, it is so like my grandmothers, I want to try it to see the difference

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  15. My mom and grandma both made these in my youth and I haven't had any in 100 years. Yours looks and sounds delicious.

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  16. The movie & book were both excellent! Your cake looks so awesome! I will be using your recipe & making myself one next week. Hope it turns out as impressive as yours. Thanks for sharing your lovely recipes with us!

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  17. Now that is a glorious cake. It looks just like I imagined the one in the book would have looked like. It was such a great book and I cannot wait to see the movie.

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  18. The book was great.. and so was the movie. I saw it on Friday night. I am going to have to try this recipe

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  19. Just saw that movie this past weekend, and have been dying to read the book. Your caramel cake looks amazing!!!!! I love caramel so much. I think I'll pass on any chocolate pies for awhile though lol :) I agree it was a great movie, and I can't wait to read the book now too.

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  20. Reading about Minnie's cake made me suddenly crave a Caramel Cake too. Thanks for the recipe!

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  21. I grew up eating caramel cake in North Carolina and am excited to try the icing recipe. I have never seen the caramel icing used on anything other than a 7 layer cake, which is decadent and divine. Pure southern heaven. Not sure if I have the patience to make it!

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  22. I made this cake for someone for thanksgiving and they said that it was the best caramel cake they ever had. Very nice recipe!!

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    Replies
    1. Thanks so much for coming by to let me know Tamika!!

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  23. Thanks so much for recipe been searching far wide an a long time for this icing, as well as the others my grandmother also made the best caramel cake ever, there are only one person in family who knows how to make it .the family members used to tell us when we were kids how to make it .we know butter sugar and milk but that's all there telling now a days.it's like it's a hush hush secret .so now your'e recipe has become my new recipe for the icing .it may not be grandma's recipe but it sure does taste like it and that's the most important part to me .And for the record the cake came out fabulous made it in dec for my daughter's 19th birthday it was a great hit.following your directions made it so easy it was really easy to make.another version i tryed had me stiring on stove for 30 minutes.love your way . makeing two more today for home an co-worker i try to make them often to keep up on the practice of it .you have made me smile for the next 50 years with this one recipe .thanks sooo much .love what you do an love all the great foods an recipe's i see,i will be back to try many of the recipe's you have listed. Sincerly Ms.LYNN B.

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    1. Thank you so much Ms. Lynn!! I's so thrilled to hear that there has been a caramel cake revival in your family thanks to this & it really means the world to me that you came back by to let me know!! Happy belated birthday to your daughter!

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  24. Just made this today (as a 13x9 sheet cake) for my husband's staff member who requested it for her birthday! WOWee it's amazing. I followed the simpler recipe for the frosting and that's amazing too. TY!

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    Replies
    1. You're so welcome Mary & thank you SO much for taking the time to come back by & let me know that you enjoyed the recipe. I really appreciate that!

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  25. I've made this cake every Christmas for the family. I use a very easy Caramel Icing. You can buy a can of Eagle Brand Condensed Milk, put the can in a pressure cooker and cover it with water. Boil on the stove top for approx. two hours and Bam! or if you don't have a pressure cooker, it can be done with a regular pot. You just have to make sure that the pot is deep enough so that the water will cover the can of condensed milk and boil for 4 hours adding water as it evaporates so the can will remain covered. Either method, set aside and let cool. Please do not open the can while hot. It's very dangerous.

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    Replies
    1. Oh my gosh - I was just wondering TODAY if you could do that condensed milk thing in a pressure cooker LOL!! That is too funny. I knew you could do it in a pot but I wondered if it would save time with a pressure cooker - then I thought it's a can under pressure already, that'd probably explode! I think I'm still too scared to try it LOL!!

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  26. For the caramel icing, here's an easy recipe. You can boil a can of eagle brand condensed milk completed cover in water for 2 hours using a pressure cooker and let cool before opening can or using a regular pot for 4 hours. If using a regular pot, ensure it's deep enough so that the water covers the can adding more each time water level gets below top of can. Again, let cool before opening. It's important when using a regular to keep and eye on the water level. If not you have a mess to clean up like a friend of mind did when I gave her the recipe and she ended up with caramel on her ceiling.

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  27. Hi. I have been looking for a caramel icing recipe that hardens. I've tried several, but with NO success! Do any of yours harden? My husband will be BEYOND excited whenever I finally make one! Even after 20 yrs and 4 daughters, cooking is still just not one of my assets. I did make your banana pudding recipe last week, and it was an awesome hit! I ended up making both fillings for the same dish..I ran out of the homemade custard ingredients, so I made a batch of the quick filling, and layered it on the last layer. It was gone the next morning! :)

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    Replies
    1. I bet that was good!

      On the hardened icing, I think what is closest to what you probably want is the burnt caramel icing. It's the same basic ingredients and really more of a matter of cooking it to a certain stage, like when you make candy & the different between caramels and hard candies. I'll be honest with you - it's not easy and it comes with experience! You have to be precise and know exactly when to stop cooking it so you don't end up with candy and once you get it there, you have to pour it quickly over the cake. Once it cools it hardens, like a cross between a crackly icing and pralines almost.

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  28. Can you do this in a 13x9 and just ice the top? I don't have any round cake pans.

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  29. My caramel didn't come out nearly so light colored as yours, plus I must have put it on the cake while it was still warm because it's trying to drip off. Making this for one of my husbands co-workers. Hope it's what he wanted. If not I will try again.

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    Replies
    1. Hi Kellie! The color of the icing is actually a personal preference. Just depends on how long you cook it, sort of like a roux. The longer it cooks, the more the sugar will caramelize and the darker it will be. You do have to beat the icing until it thickens and cools and also be sure that the cake is cooled completely before icing or it will not stick - you should not feel any heat at all from the cooled cake.

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  30. I've been making caramel cake for some years, a recipe from my mother in law, and could never get the consistency quite right. I knew it was because she didn't give me her actual recipe, but another version... I was making the easy kind, and with condensed milk! Now I'm going to try the real kind....and I can't thank you enough for showing me there's more than one option!! I knew there had to be more to it!!! ;-)

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    Replies
    1. You're welcome, but truth is, they are ALL good!

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  31. I finally made my first caramel cake thanks to you. Great recipe! !

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    1. Aw Valerie, you're so sweet!! I only gave you the foundation though. The rest was all you & you get all the credit!!

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