Friday, August 12, 2011

Southern Caramel Cake

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.

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


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

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.


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Posted by on August 12, 2011
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