Caramel Layer Cake

When was the last time you had caramel cake? It’s one of those old-fashioned recipes that younger cooks don’t bother with much these days.

I always think of  caramel layer cake as a uniquely southern dessert. Actually more of a confection than a cake, really. A moist yellow cake layer with a creamy burnt sugar frosting. It’s something that turns up at nearly every family or church gathering in my part of the south. It also makes regular appearances at birthdays and Christmas. It was one of my Daddy’s favorites and it’s on BeeBop’s list of the best cakes.

But, I have to tell you a secret. I’m a cheater. I cheat on the caramel frosting. A caramel frosting requires the cook to “burn” a small amount of sugar in a cast iron pan. The burnt sugar is then incorporated into the remaining sugar, butter and milk to produce a rich caramel frosting. You need some experience to know exactly when the burnt sugar is the right stage. Too much cooking and it will scorch, too little and the frosting is pale and tasteless.

I never could get the burnt sugar to just the right color and incorporated into the other ingredients the right way. I either burned the sugar or the frosting turned out grainy. Neither is a good thing. So I gave up trying to make caramel frosting for a long time and then years ago I saw a recipe in the local newspaper for a caramel frosting that didn’t need the burnt sugar step and that’s the recipe I still use. Trust me that you won’t be able to taste the difference in your finished frosting and no one ever needs to know that you didn’t make this with burnt sugar!

Let me just say one thing before I show you the recipe. If you’re on a diet, you may as well leave now and not look back. This is not diet food. This is the opposite of diet food. But, oh my gosh, is it good! And, for the record, we each had one slice of this cake and the rest went to work with BeeBop. Okay, maybe two, but I promise the majority of it went elsewhere :-)

For the layers: Use your favorite yellow cake layer recipe, or this one:

3/4 tsp. baking soda
3/4 cup buttermilk
1/3 cup butter
1/3 cup shortening
1 cup sugar
3 eggs
2 tblsp. cornstarch
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking powder
Pinch of salt
1 tsp. vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 350F. Grease and flour two 9-inch cake pans and set aside. Stir the baking soda and buttermilk together and set that aside as well. Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt and set aside to use later in the recipe.

Cream the butter, shortening and sugar beating until fluffy. Add the eggs at a time beating well after adding each. Add the cornstarch to the mixture and beat until well incorporated.

With mixer on low speed, add the flour mixture alternately with the buttermilk and soda mixture beginning and ending with the flour mixture. Add the vanilla extract.

Divide the batter evenly between the two prepared pans. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until tester comes out clean.

For the frosting:

2 sticks butter
2 cups light brown sugar
1/2 cup evaporated milk
1 tsp. vanilla extract
4 cups confectioner’s sugar

Sift the confectioner’s sugar and set aside.

Place the butter, brown sugar and evaporated milk in a large heavy saucepan over medium-high heat and melt the ingredients, stirring occasionally. Once the mixture begins to bubble allow it to boil for approximately two minutes stirring constantly. Watch carefully to avoid burning the mixture.

Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the vanilla. There’s my beloved Albany Drug Co vanilla again. Unless you grew up in or around Albany, Georgia, you’ve probably never heard of “Albany Drug Co. Vanilla.” It has to be the best vanilla I’ve ever used. Period. It has a strong vanilla flavor, but there’s something more to it. A sweet, almost smokey (as in cigar kind of smokey) smell. I really don’t know how to describe it. It’s just something you have to experience. Anyway, Albany Drug Company made this vanilla for years and years. As long as I can remember. Sadly, Albany Drug Company no longer exists, but the vanilla lives! It is still available from U-Save-It Drugs. They’re still making it just like Albany Drug always did. So, if you ever find yourself in southwest Georgia near Albany, run by U-Save-It and get yourself a bottle of the vanilla. You won’t regret it. Now, I have no affiliation whatsoever with Albany Drug Company or U-Save-It Drugs. They have absolutely no idea who I am. I just like their vanilla.

Add the confectioner’s sugar.

Immediately transfer to the bowl of a stand mixer and beat until the frosting is smooth and begins to loose its sheen (this may take as much as 20 minutes to achieve). The frosting is ready to spread when it is still barely warm but holds its shape.

Frost the cake layers adding toasted pecans for garnish if you like.

Enjoy!

Caramel Layer Cake
 
Prep time
Cook time
Total time
 
Yellow cake layers filled and frosted with luscious caramel frosting.
Ingredients
For the layers: Use your favorite yellow cake layer recipe, or this one:
  • 3/4 tsp. baking soda
  • 3/4 cup buttermilk
  • 1/3 cup butter
  • 1/3 cup shortening
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 3 eggs
  • 2 tblsp. cornstarch
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp. baking powder
  • Pinch of salt
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
For the frosting:
  • 2 sticks butter
  • 2 cups light brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup evaporated milk
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 4 cups confectioner’s sugar
Instructions
For the cake:
  1. Preheat the oven to 350F. Grease and flour two 9-inch cake pans and set aside.
  2. Stir the baking soda and buttermilk together and set that aside as well.
  3. Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt and set aside to use later in the recipe.
  4. Cream the butter, shortening and sugar beating until fluffy. Add the eggs at a time beating well after adding each.
  5. Add the cornstarch to the mixture and beat until well incorporated.
  6. With mixer on low speed, add the flour mixture alternately with the buttermilk and soda mixture beginning and ending with the flour mixture.
  7. Add the vanilla extract.
  8. Divide the batter evenly between the two prepared pans. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until tester comes out clean.
For the frosting:
  1. Sift the confectioner’s sugar and set aside.
  2. Place the butter, brown sugar and evaporated milk in a large heavy saucepan over medium-high heat and melt the ingredients stirring occasionally. Once the mixture begins to bubble allow it to boil for approximately two minutes stirring constantly. Watch carefully to avoid burning the mixture.
  3. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the vanilla and confectioner’s sugar. Immediately transfer to the bowl of a stand mixer and beat until the frosting is smooth and begins to loose its sheen (this often takes as much as 20 minutes to achieve). The frosting is ready to spread when it is still barely warm but holds is shape.
Notes
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Comments

  1. says

    I’m game for just about anything caramel, including cakes, frostings, candy, and apples, among others. I never associated my love of this flavor with my Southern roots (just my addiction to mayonnaise!) and appreciate you pointing out the connection.

    This cake looks splendid and is right up my alley. And many thanks for the tip about Albany Drug Store Vanilla. I’ll definitely pick some up next time I visit my aunties there!

  2. says

    You’re right, this is not diet food, no carrot sticks here! It sure is fun to read the recipe and see the photos. What a beautiful cake and a nice tradition to make and serve this cake on special occasions. Thanks for sharing your recipe.

  3. says

    I LOVE caramel frosted cake! So does Grumpy. I made a Cooking Light recipe at Christmas time for Caramel frosted cake – and we didn’t send any of it anywhere – so even though it was cooking light….we consumed the whole thing by ourselves — well, Grumpy ate most of it! ;o)

  4. says

    Lana – I am not Southern but wow that cake looks like a must for the next birthday in this house. And thanks so much for posting a frosting that can be used without burning sugar. I am all for easy!

      • says

        Lana – it’s my son’s 12th birthday tomorrow and all week I have been mulling over in my mind what cake to make him. Then it came to me about an hour ago. Caramel cake! But couldn’t think where I had seen it. Knew it had to be someone from the food blog group. Searched on my stumbled posts and voila!! So tomorrow when my son is off with his dad watching Rugby I am going to be attempting this. Hopefully it will look and taste as good as yours xx

  5. Teri says

    Well I didn’t take your advice. This is the cake I’m making for my mom for Mothers Day. We both love caramel and it won’t be sitting on my counter calling my name.

    Thanks Lana and Happy Mothers Day

  6. Miss P says

    All I can say is, you know that my birthday is later this month. Just bake another and overnight it to me.
    By the way, is that Gama’s antique cake plate and cover?

    Miss P

  7. Neena says

    Well you have taught me a thing or two about caramel icing. I am going to try this one the next time I try to bake a cake. Looks great.

    • says

      Of course I had to admit it! I couldn’t be anything other than honest :-) and, besides, it’s such a great alternative to the burnt sugar that I wanted to share it with everyone!

  8. says

    I make a mean butterscotch cake with sticky caramel glaze, but if the cake needs to be pretty then this is pretty much the frosting recipe I use. Delicious and oh so rich!

  9. Jenna says

    I made this cake tonight for my mother’s birthday. She LOVED it. Everyone loved it. This will not be the last time I make this cake! Thanks!

  10. Val from Accokeek, MD says

    I made this cake as one of the desserts at my sister’s for Thanksgiving Dinner. I tried everyone else’s desserts and not mine…I almost had to fight to get a piece to take home! Everyone loved it!!! Absolutely delicious! I plan to make this my “cake to take” to future events. Thanks for the recipe!

  11. Cheryl says

    Oh, my God!!! I am so glad I ran across this! My husband’s aunt lives in Albany and used to send us vanilla from The Albany Drug Co.! Love, love, love it! Now I know where I can get it again. THANKS! Funny, I always thought it was real vanilla… :)

  12. Nance says

    My mother used to make this frosting, but she called it penuche (pen-o’-chay) frosting.

    In the South, the layers in caramel cake are almost as thin as pancakes with frosting between each layer. I don’t know how they do it! You’ll see “15 layer cake” with apparent pride on the number of layers.

  13. Julie says

    I have a family icing resume that always was grainy. This was a fave in my family and my mom would make it, grainy icing and all with homemade butter cake. I LOVED your frosting. I made my mom’s and it was grainy as usual, threw it all out, made yours and BAM… Perfect. My mom was a great cook but not a master cake maker. Ha. We are southern, so this is great! Thanks!

  14. Janie says

    I have been making this cake at least once a year for 30+ years for my son’s birthday. My wonderful ex-mother-in-law gave me the recipe and she had been making it for her son’s birthday (his father) for more years than I had. Yes, it is the southern recipe of all time. My frosting recipe is different however and a lot easier. Try this and let me know what you think. 2 cups of sugar/1 cup evaporated milk. Cook over medium heat in iron skillet (preferred) until carmelized (soft boil stage) Remove from heat and add 2 Tbsp. Butter and 1 tsp vanilla & stir to spreading consistency. Takes no time at all and you will dearly love it. Blessings..

  15. Cindy says

    As a true southern girl, I love my caramel cake, but I never ventured to make it myself; thought it would come out grainy. Now, I will definitely try this recipe! Thanks so much for sharing! One question about the frosting-do you pack the brown sugar when measuring? Thanks!

  16. cindy says

    Going to try this for sure. I also have that same covered cake dish. My brother gave it to me for my birthday one year. I just love it!

  17. says

    Caramel is my absolute favorite cake, and what a delight to find your reference to Albany Drug Co. vanilla. I grew up in Albany and worked at Albany Drug as a teenager. Will definitely hit up U-Save-It for vanilla next time I visit there.

  18. says

    Hi Lana,
    I can hardly wait to try your Caramel Layer Cake. I grew up in the country without close neighbors so I spent all of my summers with my grandparents since the lived in the city and had lots of neighbors with children. My grandmother was a phenomenal cook, baker and canner. Every thing she made was delicious. I remember spending allot of
    time with her in the kitchen…I was mesmerized at what she could
    come up with. She always kept 2 large cookie jars filled with delicious cookies to share with the neighborhood children when they stopped
    by for a visit. She made phenomenal cakes and one that I always
    loved was a caramel pecan cake. Unfortunately by the time I was old enough to think about making these delicious things for my self my grandmother was no longer with us. When I asked my mother and her sister if they could make any of her recipes I was astonished to
    hear they never thought to ask her how to make them. I guess they
    just assumed she would always be around to make them herself.
    Thank you so much for sharing this recipe.
    Happy cooking,Ann

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