Baking is a science – chemistry to be exact. Growing up, math was always my favorite subject in school. I could play with numbers all day long. Math was easy. But if you gave me an assignment in chemistry, I would dread it like the plague (and moan and groan and ask for help!) I was at the top of the math class, but Lord knows I had to be among the bottom of the chemistry students.
And just like there are top and bottom students in chemistry, in every small town people can fall into different achievement levels of bakers. There are the cake ladies…those who are at the top of the class. They are the women whose cakes you can always count on to be delicious and beautiful. In my town my friend Robin is a cake lady. So are my husband’s Aunt Wanda, our niece Whitney, Mrs. Hawk, Mrs. Evelyn Cawthon, and the nearby Mennonite ladies. I am sure all of these ladies approach baking with self-confidence.
But not me. Being in the bottom of the chemistry class, I approach cake baking with a Ghostbusters’ mentality of Who ya gonna call? For our wedding cake three decades ago, I called on Mrs. Cawthon, and for many years after that, I called on her for our children’s birthday cakes. She was THE cake lady in our little town before she retired. She and her business partner, Mrs. Nelle Shelton, made many cakes and other goodies for soooo many parties and weddings around here.
When my husband asked for a caramel cake for his birthday, I shook in fear. I knew I couldn’t call on the retired Mrs. Cawthon for help, but I could call on her business partner Mrs. Shelton…not in person per se, but in the form of her cookbook, Treasures from Home. There on page 186, I found the cake recipe I needed…a nice basic 1-2-3-4 cake.
I followed that recipe exactly, and the cake turned out well with good flavor and the perfect amount of flakiness. (Hallelujah!) But the cake is not the hardest part. It is that darn icing. Good grief it is finicky! Sometimes it won’t firm up making it unable to stick to the sides, or it can get so thick you can’t spread it. You can cook the sugar too much, and it tastes really really burnt. (It is supposed to be burnt sugar…but not so much that it tastes bad.) You can undercook it, and it tastes like butterscotch…which is NOT what I want in a caramel icing. I want the flavor of pralines. Butterscotch is definitely not caramel.
Somewhere I read that caramel icing can sense your fear when making it. Well I had plenty of fear when I started this! On page 191 of Mrs. Shelton’s cookbook, I found the sacred old Southern recipe.
I knew from previous experience that one batch would not frost more than a one layer cake, so I doubled the recipe. Ingredients and materials were assembled. I only had a large cast iron skillet, so I had to substitute a small non-stick pan for it. The thermometer is an absolute must.
While the milk and sugar were coming to a boil in the large pot, I began to burn the sugar in the small pan. This is where panic set in. The recipe never says whether you are to stir this pan or not, so I just did it occasionally. It got VERY dark brown, and even started foaming and smoking. I just knew I had cooked it too much.
But I continued to follow the recipe. At this point you need to stir the big pot of boiling sugar and milk, pour in the small pan of burnt sugar, AND hold the thermometer in the middle of the pan for the most accurate temperature. I tried to make this icing when I was a teenager and burned my hand severely at this point when it splashed on me (and that sugar doesn’t come off quickly!) Cookbook author Nathalie Dupree even recommends wrapping your hand in a dish towel to prevent this from happening. So how was I supposed to do those three things all at the same time?? I yelled for my husband to come help of course! 🙂 He held the thermometer, and I stirred. I had cold water ready in the sink, so when the mixture reached that magic temperature of 232 degrees, I moved the pot over to the water and began to beat it with my hand mixer.
Mrs. Shelton beats hers with a wooden spoon, but I felt the mixer would be better for me. The whole time I was beating it, I was muttering, I know I burnt it too much. I know I burnt it too much. But I was wrong. It turned out perfect!! 🙂 (I’m so sorry I forgot to take another photo of it undecorated with the waxed paper removed from the sides.)
It tasted just like the ones I remember getting from Mrs. Cawthon for our children’s birthday parties….a light caramel (not butterscotch!) flavor.
Now, I need to tell you that there are two main camps on how to make that icing. One side says to use evaporated milk and burn just a small amount of sugar (which is what I did.) The other side says to use whipping cream, burn a larger quantity of sugar, and make a sugar + water syrup before adding it to the boiling sugar + milk mixture. This is how my mother-in-law makes it, and it yields a darker richer icing. So the next time I make this cake, I will be trying out that version. (I am sure there are many variations of the icing, but these are just the two I most commonly see.)
Whether you are your town’s cake lady or not, I hope you will try out the caramel cake recipe one day soon – no matter which version of the icing you decide to tackle. And please let us know if you do! We would love to know how it turns out.
Until next time…