Good gracious, I’ve been waiting patiently like a good little girl for this one. Caramel, especially of the salted persuasion, is one of the great pleasures of my life. I’ve not been shy about my love affair with chocolate on this blog, but if I’m honest… caramel is a pretty close second. (If you combine the two, I can’t be held responsible for my actions.) This Antique Caramel Cake from the Caramel chapter of Baked Elements is this week’s recipe for Baked Sunday Mornings, and with the exception of a couple of small modifications for next time, I could not be more delighted. It is a true Southern-style cake, reminiscent of some of the cakes in my Southern Cakes cookbook. In fact, the cake portion is very similar in composition to a true Red Velvet Cake, minus the red food coloring and small amount of cocoa powder. It contains most of the essential ingredients that produce the chemical reactions resulting in rich, tender red velvet: buttermilk, baking soda, and vinegar. There is something about this combination that seems distinctly Southern to me; I don’t know if that’s actually a thing unique to Southern cakes, or if it’s just a personal impression, but in any case, I was super excited to make this cake!
I’m still learning about the magical wonders of sugar. It is simultaneously mesmerizing and infuriating; its ability to transform itself and its destination dish is like nothing else in the culinary realm. I’ve created some swoon-inducing caramel, toffee, and butterscotch treats, the mere thought of which brighten up many a mundane workday; but I’ve also burned countless pots of boiling sugar, and I even broke my favorite wooden spoon in a pot of failed Toasted Pumpkin Seed Brittle. Fortunately, the trauma of the latter has faded, and my caramel ninja skills are steadily improving!
Calling this a “caramel” cake is actually a bit of a misnomer; the caramel element comes from the frosting and the salted caramel topping, not the actual cake. The cake is a brown sugar-buttermilk cake, delicious in its own right; it is a wonderful complement to the tangy cream cheese-caramel frosting. This is a two-layer cake, but I decided to make it three layers (like most of BAKED’s cakes) because I’ve come to enjoy the challenge of stacking and frosting taller cakes! (Did I just say that?!) I doubled the cake ingredients and used three 8-inch cake pans. (There was enough batter left over for about 6-8 cupcakes or so, but it was late at night, so I didn’t use the extra.)
The cake is made by creaming the butter and sugars together, which took at least 5 minutes, I presume due to the large quantity. It looked like lumps of sugar cookie dough rotating around in the mixer bowl for a while, but eventually it broke down into a fluffy mixture. I added the eggs two at a time, as I thought six separate additions might result in over-mixing. Next, the flour and buttermilk go in in alternating additions…
… and then the fun part. Behold, baking chemistry before your eyes! Mixing the vinegar and baking soda produces an immediate foaming reaction– this usually happens inside the batter *in* the oven. I don’t remember a thing from high school chemistry, so yes, I was quite delighted by this little fizzy concoction… IT’S SCIENCE.
The magical brew is then added to the batter– everything came together quite easily. (Many of BAKED’s cakes are chiffon-style cakes, in which you have to fold in whipped egg whites– this was a nice respite, as the egg whites always make me nervous…) Into the oven went the cakes, and out they came after 35 minutes with beautifully golden tops.
While the cakes cooled, I made the luscious frosting. I made a 1 ½ batch to accommodate the extra cake layer, but I actually could have used a full double-batch, as I barely had enough to cover the sides. I have toiled on many an occasion with BAKED’s signature frosting method, and although I think I have finally mastered it, I’m still always apprehensive; for this cake, I was delighted to see that it was a cream cheese-based frosting, not their usual cooked roux-like variety. And this one entails making a lil’ brown sugar caramel to be added to the cream cheese base. GAH!
However, frosting is not my forté in general, and I never quite get the right consistency with cream cheese frosting, even though it’s so easy to make. It was very soft, which probably means that I over-mixed it, causing the structure to collapse. I put it in the fridge for about 15-20 minutes to firm up, which helped a bit but it was still a somewhat challenging cake to frost.
The final element is the glorious, beautiful, magical BAKED Sweet and Salty Caramel. It makes people cry. (I’m sure I’m not the only one, right??) Unfortunately it wasn’t my best batch of caramel– I must have had some rogue sugar crystals loitering in my pan, as the caramel was a touch grainy. Totally usable, but irritating to my inner perfectionist! This caramel is deeper and darker than their unsalted variety; the recipe calls for removing the boiling sugar from the heat at around 350°F. When I first made this caramel a few years ago, I thought it seemed a bit too dark, and I clearly remember recoiling in horror as the sugar continued to darken even after removing the pan from the stove– it had burnt within seconds before I could add the cream! I remade the sugar syrup and took it off the heat at around 305°F, producing a beautiful amber mixture. This time, 305°F came and went with barely a hint of golden color in the sugar. I removed the pan at 323°F and was quite pleased with my lovely dark amber sugar syrup. In went the cream and fleur de sel– I love watching it bubble up and spatter!
Thus began the cake-building fun. Even though the recipe didn’t specifically instruct to do a crumb coat, I always recommend it. The cake is soft, so there were ample crumbs, and my three heavy cake layers were on the slippery side as I stacked and filled due to the softness of the frosting, so the crumb coat helped to stabilize the cake. The caramel is then drizzled over the top of the cake; I had visions of gooey, thick ribbons dripping down the sides. I tried making a “burst” pattern with the caramel, but it wouldn’t hold the design– it oozed into itself to look more like a messy web. I should have used a little less caramel; as it was, I didn’t even use half of the batch. It turned out to be VERY messy, as caramel dripped down the sides of the cake and all over the cake board, turntable, cake stand, and countertop! But no matter– it was soooo delicious!!
I had to wait a number of hours to cut into the cake, since I made it for a birthday party… I was exceedingly proud of myself for not making up some fake story about why there was a big hole dug out of the cake with a fork… You know, I didn’t want to make things awkward. Anyway, when I finally did cut into it, I was delighted to see that it cut just beautifully– I’m not sure if I’ve ever had a cake cut so cleanly! The flavor of the cake itself is mild with a slight tang from the buttermilk, and the texture is fluffy and tender. And are you kidding me with this frosting?! It is perfectly creamy, tangy, and caramelicious– there are no words. The combination of cake, frosting, and the wonderful sweet and salty element of the caramel drizzle was rich and indulgent, without feeling heavy. I’m happy to say that the cake was absolutely lovely, and my tasters really enjoyed it!
My only minor qualms are that the cake was a touch dry and it could use a little more caramel flavor… being that it’s a caramel cake. I may take the cakes out of the oven at 33-34 minutes next time to mitigate the first issue. The caramel frosting and salted caramel are to die for, but I think visually less caramel on top would look nicer. There is a recipe note suggesting to make a separate batch of sweet caramel to soak into the cake layers, and I chose not to do this because I wanted to see what the plain cake would taste like. I thought that between this amazing frosting and the salted caramel drizzle, the caramel would shine through loud and clear, plus I didn’t want it to be too sweet. Next time I will make a couple of slight modifications: 1) I will for sure add a layer of salted caramel in between the cake layers (and there was plenty left over for this) in addition to the frosting, which will soak into the cake a bit and make it more flavorful in every bite, and then I can cut back on the caramel topping. 2) I was surprised at the absence of vanilla extract in the cake, and I contemplated adding it, but again, I wanted to taste it unadulterated. I will add vanilla bean paste next time because vanilla rules the world. ‘Tis possible that I’ll make the modified cake for Thanksgiving, in which case I’ll update this blog post…
If you too would like this cake on your Thanksgiving dessert table, you can find the recipe for Antique Caramel Cake at Baked Sunday Mornings, along with my fellow bloggers’ cakes. It would be a great alternative to boring ol’ pumpkin pie, that’s for sure. In fact, it’s a wonderful cake for most any festive celebration! Among other great things in my life this year, I am thankful for the BSM community, and the opportunity to challenge myself constantly to grow as a baker through BAKED’s wonderful recipes. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!
© Dafna Adler & Stellina Sweets, 2013.