Old Fashioned Southern Caramel Layer Cake
This Old Fashioned Southern Caramel Layer Cake with its moist yellow cake layers topped with an easy homemade caramel frosting is a long-time favorite of everyone in our family. It’s sure to be a hit with your family, too!
When was the last time you had a Caramel Layer 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.
If you’re looking for a comfort food cake recipe that will transport you back to the good ol’ days, this recipe is perfect. It’s an old-fashioned layer cake with an easy homemade caramel frosting made from scratch.
A moist yellow cake layer with a creamy burnt sugar frosting decorated with pecan halves is 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 don’t make the traditional burnt sugar caramel. I have a workaround for it! It’s a sweet “caramel” buttercream made with brown sugar.
As you know, genuine 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, when I cooked this recipe, 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 :-)
- It’s probably unlike any cake you’ve had before. For most non-southerners, caramel icing is a new experience. Once you taste it, it’s hard to turn back :-)
- Definitely a crowd pleaser! Once caramel cake shows up at the party, vanilla and chocolate take a back seat.
- Easy to make with readily available ingredients.
Equipment You’ll Need
Honestly, there’s not much to comment on in the ingredients. You probably have everything you need in your pantry right now. The only thing I’ll explain further is the vanilla that I use in baking.
That’s my beloved Albany Drug Co vanilla. Unless you grew up in or around Albany, Georgia, you’ve probably never heard of “Albany Drug Co. Vanilla.”
It is simply 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’s still available from the Albany locations of U-Save-It Pharmacy.
They’re still making it just like Albany Drug Company 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.
You’ll find detailed measurements for all ingredients in the printable version of the recipe at the bottom of this post.
How to Make Caramel Layer Cake:
Let’s Go Step-by-Step
I always like to show you the photos and step-by-step instructions for my recipes to help you picture how to make them in your own kitchen. If you just want to print out a copy, you can skip to the bottom of the post where you’ll find the recipe card.
Make the Cake Layers
You have a couple of options for the yellow cake layers. Since you’re making a homemade icing, you could always take a shortcut and use a boxed yellow cake mix. If you use a mix, try adding an extra egg and a stick of melted butter in place of the oil. Your boxed cake will taste homemade. Trust me.
To make delicious from scratch cake layers, use your favorite recipe or follow mine.
STEP 1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Grease and flour two 8- or 9-inch cake pans and set them aside.
STEP 2. Stir the baking soda and buttermilk together and set that aside.
STEP 3. Sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.
STEP 4. Cream the butter, shortening, and sugar beating until fluffy.
STEP 5. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition.
STEP 6. Add the cornstarch to the mixture and beat until well incorporated.
STEP 7. With mixer on low speed, add the flour mixture alternately with the buttermilk-soda mixture beginning and ending with the flour mixture.
STEP 8. Slowly mix in the vanilla extract.
STEP 9. Divide the batter evenly between the two prepared pans. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until a tester comes out clean.
STEP 10. Remove from the oven and cool in the pans for 10 minutes. Turn the layers out onto a baking rack to cool completely before starting the frosting.
The layers must be completely cooled before frosting the cake. It’s best if you let the layers rest well-wrapped in the fridge over night.
Make the Frosting
STEP 1. Sift the confectioner’s sugar (powdered sugar) and set it aside.
STEP 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.
STEP 3. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the vanilla and confectioner’s sugar.
STEP 4. Immediately transfer to the bowl of a stand mixer and beat until the frosting is smooth and begins to lose its sheen (this may take as much as 20 minutes to achieve).
STEP 5. The frosting is ready to spread when it is still barely warm but holds its shape.
Assemble the Cake
To frost the cake, spread a small amount of frosting on the cake plate or cake stand you’re using. Add a layer, top side down. Spread the layer with about one-third of the frosting. Place the second layer, top side up, on top of the bottom layer. Add the remaining frosting to the top of the cake and use a spoon, spatula, knife, or offset spatula to frost the top spreading frosting down and around the side of the cake.
Add pecan halves around the outside top of the cake as a garnish.
If you’ve never planned a menu entirely around a dessert, this recipe just might give you the inspiration to do that! For the main course, you might serve a pot roast, butter roasted chicken, or fried chicken. For sides, I’d suggest green beans, or potatoes au gratin. Once dinner is over, reveal your masterpiece – this Caramel Cake!
Frequently Asked Questions
To make Caramel Cake Cupcakes, adjust the baking time to 18-20 minutes. You should have about 24 cupcakes from this recipe. Frosting cupcakes is easiest with a piping bag.
This Caramel Cake will stay fresh for four to five days. I don’t usually refrigerate it, just make sure it’s in a tightly closed container. If you’d rather store it in the fridge, be sure to take it out an hour in advance of serving to allow it to come to room temperature.
I think you can’t go wrong with Betty Crocker Super Moist Butter Recipe Yellow Cake Mix. Remember to add an extra egg and substitute the oil with melted butter.
HAVE YOU TRIED THIS RECIPE?
I’d LOVE to know what you thought!
Leave a rating below in the comments and let me know how you liked it!
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Old Fashioned Southern Caramel Layer Cake
For the Cake Layers
- ¾ teaspoon baking soda
- ¾ cup buttermilk
- ⅓ cup butter
- ⅓ cup shortening
- 1 cup sugar
- 3 eggs
- 2 tablespoons cornstarch
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- Pinch of salt
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
For the Caramel Frosting
- 1 cup butter (2 sticks)
- 2 cups light brown sugar
- ½ cup evaporated milk
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 4 cups confectioner’s sugar
- pecan halves
Make the Cake Layers
- 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.
- Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt. Set aside.
- 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.
- Allow the layers to cool completely (overnight is best) before adding the frosting.
Make the Frosting
- 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 and confectioner’s sugar.
- Immediately transfer to the bowl of a stand mixer and beat until the frosting is smooth and begins to lose 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 its shape.
- Frost the cake layers adding pecans halves for garnish if you like.
- This cake will stay fresh for four to five days. I don’t usually refrigerate it, just make sure it’s in a tightly closed container. If you’d rather store it in the fridge, be sure to take it out an hour in advance of serving to allow it to come to room temperature.
Nutrition information is calculated by software based on the ingredients in each recipe. It is an estimate only and is provided for informational purposes. You should consult your health care provider or a registered dietitian if precise nutrition calculations are needed for health reasons.
— This post was originally published on May 6, 2010. It has been updated with new photos and additional information.
Do you know if they still make the vanilla? Last we checked they no longer were making it. It’s truly the best
I don’t know, but I surely hope so! It’s the best vanilla I’ve ever used.
I didn’t try the cake recipe but I made the icing today and it was fabulous. 10/10 saving this recipe!
I’m so glad you enjoyed it!
My grandmother an other’s would add a pimch or more to taste I suppose of instant coffee. She never had burnt sugar but kept great taste
Tarnation – you went and posted that picture on Instagram. Dog gone.
Now I NEED caramel cake.
Yes, sometimes you just NEED caramel cake :-)
I know I’m a few years late here, but this sounds wonderful and like you said, almost foolproof. I was curious though about what speed do you beat it on? I’m guessing high speed but want to be sure. Btw, you didn’t cheat at all. You just improved the process. Think of yourself as an innovator!
Two things —
One – Albany Drug Company vanilla also comes in a clear formula (for divinity, etc).
Two – when you beat the icing with the stand mixer, do you use the paddle or whip attachment? Inquiring minds want to know.
Yes, it does – I keep both on hand all the time! And I use the paddle to beat the frosting.
This is an amazing-looking cake!! And I don’t really consider that frosting cheating! Cheating would be using a jarred caramel sauce :)
I think you’re right, Sues. This is just another way of making caramel icing, right?
I haven’t made cake yet, but I am soon! 2 questions: could this be a sheet cake; is the brown sugar for icing packed? Thanks so much!
Yes, the brown sugar should be packed. As far as making a sheet cake – I’ve never done it that way and don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone else do it. It’s probably possible but I wouldn’t have cooking times for that.
I have managed to get a similar taste to burnt sugar frosting just from adding a little molasses to the icing sugar and butter.
My Mother-in-law made this cake, but her icing was not creamy -but HARD after putting on the cake (cracked somewhat)! She never would give me the recipe, but I would presume she just added more confectioners sugar. I actually preferred it that way rather than creamy. What do you think?
No Dolores, your Mother -in-law did not add confectioner sugar at all. The OLD fashion way for the icing is..you slow boil sugar and can creamy, till become a golden color. Then you add other thing just the confection sugar. It taste awesome. This the way my Grandmother and Aunt made their Caramel cake. I never was able to mater theirs. So I use this icing. I really prefer the cracked icing. Enjoy either way..
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.
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.
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!
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!
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..
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!
Could I make the Frosting a day or 2 ahead?
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.
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… :)
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!