Food & Drink

For the love of caramel cake

A classic Southern caramel cake involves a little science -- and a few tricks.
A classic Southern caramel cake involves a little science -- and a few tricks.

There’s no excuse for my fear of caramel.

Well, yes, it does involve molten sugar that can take your skin off with a tiny splash, precise temperatures that go from perfect to ruined in seconds, and chemical reactions that even scientists don’t completely understand.

Usually, though, none of that would worry me. I’ve tackled whole country hams and puff pastry from scratch. I have a weird definition of fun.

The problem with caramel and me, though, was clearing a bar that was set very high. My caramel standard started in childhood, with my aunt Rosalie’s caramel cake.

Most people don’t make a real caramel cake anymore. We use simpler brown sugar or butter creams to avoid the boiled-sugar battle. But that’s not real caramel icing. The real thing is a rippled brown coating that drapes over yellow cake layers with a texture a little softer than fudge with just a hint of sugary sheen.

You still see it occasionally at rural bake sales or small-town bakeries. It looks humble, the epitome of homemade, but that simplicity masks a complex flavor that’s the essence of browned sugar.

In Americus, Ga., my father’s hometown, my late aunt Rosalie Bass was the queen of the caramel cake. A widow on a limited pension, she supplemented her income by baking, piping out cheese straws by the mile for weddings and turning out a caramel cake that was legend. Sugar is expensive, so she usually only made it for pay or for very special occasions, like my father’s birthday in July.

I know now hard it must have been to make that cake in summer in a house with no air conditioning. Fancy things like candy thermometers were not my aunt’s way. She would have had to battle humidity, and judge sugar temperature by dripping hot syrup in a glass of water.

She beat her icing by hand, a good definition of elbow grease. That’s part of the trick – beating until you hit the perfect point between soft enough to spread and hard enough to set.

When Dad got a cake, it was precious. He usually only let us kids have a single thin slice. I ate mine in tiny bites, to make it last.

Before my aunt died in 1992, I got her recipe. And I ruined it every time: I’d burn the sugar. Or my melting sugar would suddenly seize up into a hard, crunchy mass. Or I wouldn’t beat the icing long enough. Or I’d beat it too long, and it would harden in the mixing bowl.

I finally slammed the drawer on the recipe and turned my back on caramel cake.

Let’s make this crystal clear

This year, I decided it was time I got over it. I’m a food writer, for heaven’s sake. Surely I can do something my aunt could do with the most basic equipment.

First, I dug into the science of sugar.

Granulated sugar is really tiny white crystals of sucrose. It’s pretty, and we’re hard-wired to crave it. But the taste is just sweet, with little complexity.

When you melt sugar, though, you break the sucrose molecule into two other molecules, glucose and fructose. Those two new molecules react with each other to create new flavors, called esters, that give hundreds of tastes – buttery, nutty, malty and every range between.

You also get different textures. Depending on how hot you let the sugar get and how you handle it after that, you get soft caramel, sticky caramel or crunchy caramel.

Another bit of science makes that harder than it sounds, though: Sugar is a crystal, and crystals like to grab each other. If melted syrup comes in contact with just a few crystals of sugar, called seeding, it starts a chain reaction that turns it into a mass of crystals.

To stop that, you brush down the insides of the pot with water, and you never stir caramel once the sugar starts to melt. Just a few sugar crystals, clinging to the spoon or pan, makes the whole pool clump and harden.

Sugar recipes build in tricks to help. Some add a little corn syrup, really long chains of glucose molecules, to keep the sucrose molecules from coming back together. Others mix water with the sugar, to keep the temperature low while the water evaporates.

Proteins, like milk, interfere with the crystal formation. When you melt sugar and let it brown, then mix it with milk or butter, you suspend the glucose and fructose in a semi-solid, like a gel, that stays a little soft.

In other words: You get my aunt’s caramel icing.

Equipment counts

To finally get it right, I made three changes in my equipment. First, I invested $18 in a better candy thermometer. The cheap one I had always used is a glass tube that holds a thermometer and a cardboard sheet of markings.

Forget those: The cardboard can be misprinted or shift in the tube so it isn’t precise. If the bottom of the bulb touches the bottom of the pot, it reads the pot, not the sugar.

What I needed was a candy thermometer in a metal frame. The frame has a flat foot that sits on the pot and holds the bulb a fraction of an inch higher. OXO makes a dandy version that was just the thing.

Next, I melted the sugar in a small, heavy saucepan that was silver in color, instead of the dark Calphalon I usually use. To judge caramel, you need to see the color: Too pale and it won’t have complexity. Too dark and it tastes burned. Reddish-brown and it’s just right. If you don’t have a silvery pan, drip a little melting sugar on a white plate, or let it pool in a shiny spoon.

Finally, I had to make one major concession. Sorry, Auntie: You were a sturdy woman with a stronger arm. After struggling to beat the icing to the right texture, I finally turned to my KitchenAid mixer. Pouring the cooled icing into a mixing bowl and letting it run until it just started to lose its gloss beat the heck out of hand-beating.

Putting all that together, I settled in on a Sunday afternoon and finally made a caramel cake so good, some of my co-workers actually cooed when they ate it.

One taste and I was back in my aunt’s kitchen on Barlow Street. With just one difference: Now, I can cut as big a slice as I want.

Kathleen Purvis: 704-358-5236, @kathleenpurvis

Rosalie Bass’ Caramel Icing

3 1/2 cups granulated sugar, divided

1 1/4 cups milk

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter

1 teaspoon vanilla

1/4 teaspoon salt

Combine 3 cups sugar and the milk in a large, heavy pot. Bring to a rolling boil, stirring to melt the sugar, then reduce heat and keep warm.

In a small heavy pot or skillet, preferably silver-colored, sprinkle 1/2 cup sugar in an even layer. Place over medium-low heat and heat without stirring until it melts and turns reddish-brown. Be careful not to let it get too dark or burn.

Pour the melted sugar into the large pot of sugar and milk. Be careful: It will bubble up at first. Place a candy thermometer in the pot, positioning it so the bottom is immersed in the liquid, but the bulb isn’t touching the bottom. Cook over medium heat until it is 234 to 240 degrees. (Don’t go over 240, but make sure it is well into the soft-ball stage.)

Remove from heat and stir in the butter, salt and vanilla. Let the pot stand, with the candy thermometer in place, until the temperature drops to 110 degrees. (This may take 30 minutes to an hour.)

Pour the icing into the mixing bowl of a stand mixer. Beat until the icing starts to lose its gloss and just starts to look grainy, but is still soft enough to spread, about 10 minutes. (To keep your cake neat, take out about 1 1/2 cups of icing before you finish beating and spread it on the bottom layer of cake. Top with the second layer and place it in the refrigerator to set while you finish beating the icing. That will keep the layers from shifting while you ice the rest of the cake.)

Yield: Enough to ice a two-layer cake.

Sour Cream Yellow Cake

You don’t need to get fancy with the cake itself. The icing just needs a good, simple cake as its backdrop. Adapted from Southern Living.

1 (8-ounce) container sour cream

1/4 cup milk

1 cup (2 sticks) butter, slightly softened

2 cups sugar

4 large eggs

2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon vanilla

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour two 9-inch cake pans. Whisk together the sour cream and milk in a small bowl and set aside.

Beat butter on medium speed with an electric mixer until creamy. Gradually beat in the sugar, beating well. Beat in the eggs one at a time, beating well after each.

Combine the flour, baking powder and salt, whisking to blend. Beat into the butter mixture by thirds, alternating with the sour cream mixture, beginning and ending with the dry ingredients. Stir in the vanilla.

Pour the batter into the prepared cake pans, smoothing the tops. Bake 30 to 35 minutes, until the tops spring back lightly and the cakes are drawing back from the edges of the pans. Cool in pans on a wire rack for 10 minutes, then turn out the cakes and cool completely before icing.

Yield: 1 (2-layer) cake.

Easier Caramel Icing

OK, not everyone is going to go to the trouble. I get that. Here’s an easier version, more like penuche, from “Southern Cakes,” by Nancie McDermott (Chronicle, 2007). It sets up quickly, so make sure you have the cake layers cooled and ready to go before you start.

1 (1-pound) box light brown sugar (about 2 2/3 cups if you’re measuring from a bag)

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter

7 tablespoons evaporated milk

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Combine all the ingredients in a heavy medium saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Stir well, then adjust the heat so the frosting bubbles gently. Cook for 7 minutes.

Remove from heat and cool for 5 minutes. Beat with a wooden spoon for 2 to 3 minutes, until thickened but still soft enough to spread.

Place a cake layer, top side down, on a platter or cake stand. Quickly spread some icing over the top, then top with the second layer, top side up. Ice the top and the sides. If the icing hardens too much to spread, place back over low heat, add a tablespoon or two more evaporated milk and stir until the icing softens again.

After frosting the cake, dip a table knife in very hot water to smooth out the icing.

Yield: Enough for a two-layer cake.