Alright y’all. Today, we’re attempting the big one. Arguably the most prized possession in every southerner’s recipe box. Passed down over generations, every family seems to have their own slightly unique variation on this traditional southern staple. The classic caramel cake. This is not the dessert you want to attempt for the first (or even second, third, or fourth) time an hour before a social gathering. This one takes time, patience, and lots and lots of delicious failures. But once you get it right, you’ll hold a coveted skill that few ever master. And you’ll most likely be the official birthday/holiday/Sunday lunch cake baker for the rest of your days.
Besides being incredibly beautiful, this cake has to be one of the most delicious things I have ever tasted. I got this recipe from my grandmother (Nanny) who has made this cake for decades. Growing up, we used to arrive at her house in anticipation, knowing she would have a warm caramel cake waiting. And the best part, by far, was that she’d have the icing bowl waiting on the counter for my siblings and I to scrape the sides and eat ourselves into a caramel induced coma.
To say she’s a pro is an understatement. Just recently, my sister and cousins gathered together and had her bake this cake so we could write down the recipe. Her “measurements” are done more by feel than actual amount, so we painstakingly re-measured everything before she added it to the pot. She has “special” measuring tools that she uses every time, like a half broken, burnt wooden spoon that you have to let the corn syrup just start to overflow to know it’s the right amount. And a small ice scoop that is over 30 years old that she uses to measure the sugar. Honestly, my caramel cake will never be quite like hers, but I think I’ll get close with time.
Things you’ll need for this recipe:
- A small cast iron skillet
- A fairly large, heavy duty pot. My Nanny has always used the base of an old pressure cooker. If it’s too thin the caramel will burn more easily.
- A candy thermometer
Southern Caramel Cake Ingredients
For the Cake:
- 1 yellow box cake mix ( I use Duncan Hines Golden Cake Mix)
- 1 C. sour cream
- 2/3 c. Wesson oil
- 4 eggs
- 1/2 c. sugar
- 1 tsp. vanilla
For the Icing:
- 2 1/2 cups sugar, divided into 2 cups and a 1/2 cup.
- 1/2 c. butter
- 3/4 c. cream (I sometimes replace the cream with buttermilk to create a tangier caramel to offset the sweetness. It may be sacrilegious to some, but it’s pretty delicious if you ask me.)
- 1 tbsp. Caro light corn syrup
- 1 tsp. vanilla
- 1/2 tsp. salt
Southern Caramel Cake Instructions
For the cake:
- Combine the box mix, sour cream, wesson oil, eggs, sugar, and vanilla in the bowl of an electric mixer.
- Beat on medium speed for 3 or 4 minutes until light and fully incorporated.
- Distribute evenly among 3 prepared 8 inch cake pans.
- Bake according to box instructions, until the tops are puffed and light brown.
For the icing:
As your cake is baking, it’s time to start the icing. Now my Nanny does these two tasks at the same time, but for the sake of making this a little simpler, I suggest baking the cake layers first then moving on to the icing. Once the icing is ready, there is no time to waste. It has to be put on the cake immediately or else it will become too hard to spread.
- On your stovetop, get two pans on the heat. A small cast iron skillet and a larger heavy duty saucepan.
- In the iron skillet, add the 1/2 c. sugar we reserved in the beginning.
- To the larger pot, add the 2 c. sugar, stick of butter, cream, corn syrup and salt.
- After a minute or so, the 1/2 c of sugar will begin to melt. You can gently stir at this point, making sure the sugar is being evenly heated.
- After the butter in the large pot melts, stir it all together. On medium heat, allow the mixture to simmer. We want everything well incorporated.
- Here’s where things can get hairy. We need two things to happen at relatively the same time.
1. The melting sugar needs to turn a deep, dark caramel color.
2. The mixture in the large pot needs to come to a boil.
- If your large pot comes to a boil too quickly, just turn down the heat and wait on the sugar. If the melting sugar is browning too quickly and the large pot isn’t boiling yet, turn off the melting sugar and wait for the larger pot.
- You want your melting sugar to be dark brown. This is what turns it into “caramel” icing and gives that delicious deep caramel flavor.
- Once your larger pot has started bubbling, and the other sugar has melted and become a deep caramel color, you’re going to very carefully (using an oven mitt) pour the melted sugar into the larger pot of boiling liquid. This are going to get violent. So stand back. We’re talking bubbling, hissing, pop you in the face with molten liquid sugar if you aren’t careful. At this point, it’s time to put down the spoon and stop stirring.
- We’re halfway there! Your mixture is all bubbling away, smelling of delicious things to come. This is the point where you need to pay attention to the temperature. We want our caramel mixture to reach what’s called soft ball stage, or between 235 and 245 degrees Fahrenheit. Use a candy thermometer to monitor the temperature. Do not stir during this time.
- Once it reaches soft ball stage, turn off the heat and walk away. You want to let the mixture cool for about 10 minutes.
- Once it’s had a chance to cool a little, the caramel has to be beaten until its a good spreadable consistency. My Nanny used to do this by hand with a wooden spoon, but that is a serious workout. I suggest the ole handheld electric mixer. Mix on a LOW speed (carefully, it’s still very hot at this point) until the caramel reaches a loose peanut butter consistency. That’s the only way I can describe it. If it’s too thin, it’ll slip and slide all over the place and your cake will look like a delicious puddle of caramel soup, but mix too long and it’ll be impossible to spread. Then you’ll just have to eat it straight out of the bowl. Such a tragedy.
- In all seriousness, once it reaches that somewhat thick/somewhat thin, perfectly spreadable texture, it’s go time. It’s best to have your first cake layer already on the plate. Pour a good amount on the layer, spread it out, and stack the next. Continue until you have all three layers stacked. Then ice the top of the cake, and let it flow down the sides and, using a knife or offset spatula, do your best to coax it into place around the edges.
- Lick spoon. Bowl. Spatula. Fingers. You deserve it.
I’m not gonna lie. Your first time, this will probably fail. It’s hard, y’all. Half of the caramel cakes I make fail. Blame it on humidity, rain, time of day, the time of year, the full moon, who knows. This cake is difficult. I’ve had some turn out so rock hard they could chip a tooth. Pull out fillings. Your dentist will be thrilled! But don’t despair. This cake takes time, practice, patience, and the willingness to try again.
But once you do, man is it worth it!