Thursday, March 31, 2011

A Taste of Back Home

This morning I woke up wanting a taste of home... and a challenge.  What might fit the bill for this?

One of my very favorite yummy things in the whole wide world. An Old-Fashioned Burnt Caramel Cake.  (And you have to say it right... not "CAR-mel" and not "caraMEL"... it's "CARE-amul")

I didn't realize when I was younger that the Burnt Caramel cake was such a local/Southern thing.  This realization came sometime when I was in college and looking to expand my baking skills.  I've always loved to cook and bake, and I heard that this little cake was a doozie, so I wanted to give it a shot.  I searched online in every search possible and only came up with a regular caramel cake-- no burnt caramel cake.  I finally came across a couple of recipes in my hometown church's cookbook.  It just happened to have two recipes from two women who make what are pretty much LEGENDARY Burnt Caramel Cakes in my hometown.

I had to try my hand at this cake.  And so, a few years ago I began what has become an epic battle of conquering this cake. 

Now the cake part, mind you, is a cinch.  It's the icing.  Timing is absolutely everything, and more times than not, the icing has kicked my butt and I've walked away with my tail between my legs.

After many failures, I've finally had some success! (I conquered this cake probably about a year and a half ago, but until today, it had been a full year since I'd attempted it, so I was a little nervous.)  

Today, I thought I'd share the wealth and the little bit that I know about this in case someone else is searching the internet high and low like I once did. 

I must warn you... I am by NO means an expert, but with lots of patience and lots of persistence, my cake finally tastes almost exactly like the caramel cakes of the legendary baking ladies in my hometown. The appearance, on the other hand, still leaves a lot to be desired-- but I have plenty of time to perfect that in the future... Good Lord willing.  

For the cake part, I got out everything I needed (2 sticks room temperature butter, 3/4 cup Crisco, 2 1/2 cups sugar, 2 tsp. vanilla, 5 eggs, 3 cups cake flour, and 1 cup milk).  Then I preheated my oven to 325 degrees and greased and floured 3 cake pans.  Next, I creamed the margarine and Crisco until smooth (I don't have a big fancy Kitchen-Aid mixer like in my dreams, so I make a hand mixer work, and it does the job).  Then I added the sugar and mixed until smooth.  When that is smooth, add one egg at a time and mix well after each.  Finally, add flour and milk alternately, followed by vanilla.

When everything is nice and mixed together, divide it among the three cake pans and bake for 20-25 minutes (or a tad longer if your oven is a hunk of junk like mine).  It's important not to over bake, though, because you need this cake to have moisture.

When they come out, let them cool on wire racks.
(I still don't have any in this house, so I told myself I did it the "pioneer way" and let them cool on the counter... Hey, it worked for me today...)

Can we say yum???

Once the cakes are well on their way to being cool, it's time to start the icing.  The rough and tumble, hard-headed and stubborn, hard to nail down icing....

I pulled out the whopping 3 ingredients I needed-- 3 cups of sugar, 1 cup Carnation evaporated milk, and 2 sticks of butter.  Yep, that's it.

I also went ahead and pulled out my trusty and very important black cast iron skillet.

I love this thing.

And I got my stainless steel sauce pan ready.
Now comes the tricky part (the part where having as many arms as an octopus would come in handy).  Put 3 T of the sugar into the cast iron skillet.  Put the rest of the sugar, the evaporated milk, and the butter into the saucepan and slowly start bringing it to a boil.

On another eye, start slowly browning the sugar.  (Don't worry, when I first began this battle years ago, I didn't know what exactly browning meant either.  It was the cause of at least a handful of failed attempts.  Therefore, I'll try my best to explain and give you visuals.)

The trick here is to get them both going at the same time.  Timing is everything.  You want the sugar to be fully browned and ready to pour into the sauce pan mixture just as the mixture is starting to boil.  
I always put the skillet and the sauce pan on stove eyes right beside each other so I can stir two things at once.

This photo was when I had just started heating everything.

Pretty soon your sugar will start to look like this.

This is not "browned."  It's is only the first stage.  It clumps up like this at first and turns a tan color.

You will be doing this.... stirring with both hands.
Thank Kent and his awesome photography skills for this blurry photo.  
And thank me for the ridiculous face.

This is what your sugar will look like when it's actually "browned." 
I really think a more accurate description of what you're going for is "melted."

I had to stop taking pictures for a few minutes at this point because I needed my hands plus Kent's.

When your sugar is "browned" and your mixture is just about to boil, pour the "browned" sugar into the mixture.  Keep stirring the mixture constantly.  Continue to stir the boiling mixture on medium head for 8-10 minutes.  If you drop a little  of the mixture in cold water and it forms a soft ball, then it's ready to take off the stove.

It will look something like this.

This next part is another thing I goofed time and time again when I first attempted to take on this cake.  Let the icing cool.  Let it cool at least 40 minutes or to the point that it's barely warm to the touch.  Then it's time to get ready to ice the cake-- the part of this epic battle that I consider a full fledged assault from the cake.

My advice is to make sure you have an apron or old clothes on for this next step because it can get messy (as in an oily, not-coming-out-of-your-clothes-without-a-fight mess).  I didn't have any photos of this final step in the process because Kent was out getting Cruiser parts, and if you ever attempt it, you'll know I had absolutely NO time to grab the camera myself.

Grab your handy dandy wooden spoon, and beat the icing until it's smooth and creamy.  Mine usually looks kind of slimy thanks to what I'm pretty sure is melted butter.  Just mix that oily buttery-ness into the icing as best you can, and when you get it as smooth as you can get it (don't beat it too long), start icing.  

Here's the thing I haven't mastered just yet.  ICE THE CAKE FAST!  If you don't do it fast enough, you really will run out of time.  The icing "hardens" fast, so keep a glass of hot water handy.  It helps to smooth out areas and gives you a little extra time, but not much.  Ice each layer fast and worry about the smoothing out later.  In between each layer, I've found I have to beat the icing just a little more. Get it done as quickly as possible though, and voila!  There's a delicious Old Fashioned Burnt Caramel cake!

Like I said, I'm definitely not up to par on the icing part, but it sure does taste good!
One last hint from what I've found through my trials and errors over the years.... It's better the next day.  I'm not sure if everything has time to meld together or if I just enjoy it more the day after the battle has been fought in the kitchen, but somehow it just tastes better the next day.  The flavor is richer, and the icing is creamier... especially if it has been wrapped in clear plastic wrap after the icing is set. 

I sure hope at least someone will find this helpful!
Happy baking!


  1. Yummy!!! Wish I was there so I could have a piece! :) Next time you come home this is what I want....I'm giving you plenty of advance notice so practice all you want before hand! Love you!

  2. oh my goddness!!! please come over and bake one of those with me!!!!


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