Comfort Food: Caramel Cake

If you’ve never had a caramel cake, you’re missing out. I’d never made one because it looked intimidating…I mean, 10 layers! I had no idea how you could slice layers that thin! Come to find out you bake the layers separately, just really, really thin. No slicing involved. Except for servings, of course.
The cake itself is just plain old yellow cake. I made this one from a mix. {All you from-scratch people out there, deal with it. Betty Crocker does a great job and I hired her for the occasion. Her rates are very reasonable.} That left me energy to concentrate on the construction and icing. Side note: Is it true that you mostly hear “icing” in the south and “frosting” in the north? What with human migratory patterns, I’m sure there’s been some mixing.
I only made five layers because that’s how many 9 inch round pans I had. It was so successful that I’ll consider doing a full 10 layers next time. The trick is to grease and flour the heck out of those pans. And don’t use spray, use Crisco. I’ve just about decided to throw the spray out the window. I measured equal amounts into the pans (with one regular cake mix it came to 1 cup plus about 1 tablespoon in each pan) and spread it out gently to the edges. I baked them at 325 and kept adding minutes until I figured out what the ideal bake time was. It was 18 minutes (obviously this varies with oven). When they pull away from the edge, they’re done. You can also use the “poke the middle and see if it springs back” method. [Note: I baked 2 pans at a time. If you reuse pans, make sure they’re cool before you put the batter in.]
Each layer came out beautifully. I was shocked, to put it mildly. You may remember some of my alternate disasters experiences with getting cakes out of pans. I let them cool on a rack for a good while. Long enough to go to the library, get Ribby from school, straighten up, check blogs and wash dishes.
The icing is penuche (I checked and it’s pronounced “pan-noo-chee”.) which totally makes the cake. It’s a cooked icing which if you let it, turns into a blond fudge. (Try not to let it if you’re planning on spreading it onto a cake. That’s professional advice – write it down.) There are recipes all over the internet but I got smart and called Mom and got her recipe. It’s from a 1970’s Betty Crocker cookbook. See – Betty Crocker rules the day. Here it is:
Penuche Icing
(this is doubled – you need more with more layers)
  • 2 sticks butter (or 1 cup)
  • 2 cups firmly packed brown sugar (some people prefer dark, some light)
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 2 cups powdered sugar
Melt the butter over medium heat. Add the brown sugar and stir frequently until boiling. Turn heat down to low. Boil for 2 minutes (it will look a lot lighter and almost frothy when it’s boiling hard enough) stirring continuously. Add the milk and stir, bringing it back to a boil. Once it comes to a full boil, remove it from the heat. Then leave it. Don’t stir it or you’ll be very sorry (it will start to crystallize). Let it cool. After it’s cool add the powdered sugar, stirring briskly with a fork. It will start to look more like icing at this point and less like you made a mistake somewhere along the way. [If it’s not stiff enough you can add a little more powdered sugar – if it’s too stiff you can add a little hot water.]
Then frost your cake! Especially if you’re making lots of layers, spread the icing fairly thinly between them. Also keep checking to see that the layers are straight so you don’t end up with a leaning tower of cake. When the cake is frosted, put it in the fridge. Let it sit there for a few hours until it sets. The icing will feel fairly hard to touch. This is one of those cakes that is good cold – with milk. And cut small slices. It’s very, very rich.

Obviously, the more layers you put on the more important it is that each layer is not domed in the middle. You can see that I ignored it and got away with it because I only used five layers.

12 thoughts on “Comfort Food: Caramel Cake

  1. My grandmother always made me carmel cake for my birthday. (Or rather, for my first visit to her after my birthday) Good memories. — Fr. Joseph Bittle


  2. Oh this almost makes me want to cry. My grandmother made a version where she cooked the icing in an iron skillet until it was fairly dark, called it “burnt caramel” — so wonderful, another thing I failed to learn before she left us. Yours looks fantastic!


  3. As a northern girl, I would call this frosting. To me, icing is that relatively thin mixture of confectioners sugar and milk (or water or juice) that you spread on cookies or bundt cakes.

    Looks delicious, whatever you call it.


  4. Haha… coming from the very FAR north I'd say “glasyr” any day. But beeing somewhat adapted to a Virginian lingo I'd go with icing really (on the other hand I hung up on my fil the first time as I thought someone was joking – to my defence you have to note he got the timedifference wrong and called in the middle of the night – so you might need to make room for mistaces there)

    But this seems somewhat possible to translate into our frozen north and furthermore kind of nice so… (although we do have the “high” summer of 20 degrees celsius still…)… I might try it out 😉


  5. Oh, that icing looks fabulous. I think it might be very well received for the upcoming birthday in my household.

    Having lived all over the place and picked up a variety of regionalisms, I'm not a very good barometer, but I think I'm more of an icing girl than frosting. I'm originally from Southern Indiana, which definitely leans South when it comes to turns of phrase.


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