Thursday, November 12, 2009

A Caramel Cake Tutorial

I have been trying to perfect this recipe for years, and think I am about as close as I'll ever be. The thing about caramel cake is that it's kind of like any other skill--the more often you do it, the better you'll be at it.

The first time I tried to make it I was in medical school, when a really cute medical student {who happens to now be my husband} said it was his favorite kind of cake. It was coming up on his birthday, and we were dating at the time, so I decided it was high time to try my hand at it. The caramel cake that is famous in his hometown is an ELEVEN LAYER concoction that rivals the best desserts in all of Charleston {even the famous peninsula grill coconut cake}! I was determined to learn to make it myself, but of course the recipe was a secret! So I searched and experimented, and finally {years later} have perfected something people rave about. Mind you there were a lot of bumps in the road. Most vividly I remember that first attempt, in my tiny studio apartment kitchen back in med school. I had about six square feet of room and about one square foot of counter space to work with...but the real problem was that I tried to make that icing with no electic mixer- just my hands! For most cakes that would be feasible but not for this one--I beat that icing till my arms were about to fall off and still couldn't get it right! I still remember the way the icing just ran all over the place, pouring out from between the cake layers and gettin' everything it touched sticky. No I know that if I'd just beated it long enough it'd turned out OK. It was just one of many cooking embarrassments for me, but my sweet husband enjoyed every bite, runny icing and all, which is I guess why I keep on being adventurous and reaching above my skill level in cooking {despite almost certain failures along the way}!! All that aside, I'm going to share all I've learned through all those mistakes how to make a Caramel Cake to die for....

These directions are for a six layer cake, but you can increase the quantities for more layers! Also I'd like to say that this recipe was adapted from Joy of Cooking, however they don't include any of what I think are the important details or photos, which is probably why I messed it up so much before!

Tools you need:
Cake Pans {I use 3 round 9" pans to cut into 6 layers}
Candy Thermometer {it's best if you find one that can measure the temp in the center of your pan, not the edge--more on that later}
Electric Mixer {stand is easier but you could do it with a handheld too, if you have strong arms}
Medium Sauce Pan {If this is your first time you may want to use a pot that's not your favorite...I'll explain later}

Ingredients for the Caramel Icing:
Brown Sugar {I use light brown}  3 cups
Heavy Cream  1.5 cups
Butter 3 tablespoons
Vanilla Extract  1.5 teaspoons

Step 1: Bake the cake. Notice I'm not including a cake recipe here...that's because this cake is all about the caramel icing and all about as many thin layers as you can make so you can have as much icing on there as you can! The cake is secondary, so keep it simple. I usually use a boxes of yellow cake mix, mixed according to directions on the box, and add an extra egg to make it stiff so thin layers hold together better. So you can do this too, or use your favorite cake recipe and be sure you make it a firm enough cake {add another egg if you need to}. Once I mix up the batter, I put equal amounts in each of my 3 buttered round cake pans and bake them, then let them cool, and turn them out of the pans. This can be done the day before the icing if you want.

Step 2: Be sure your candy thermometer fits properly in your saucepan. By this I mean, clip it on the pan and be sure you can adjust it so it doesn't quite hit the bottom of the pan but almost does (like 1/4") from the base. And it's important that the thermometer is measuring the temperature toward the center of the pan and not just the very edge. Otherwise it won't read accurately! Trust me, I've learned this the hard way and ended up with a pan of solid hardened caramel before (which wasn't friendly to my cast-iron Le Cruset's enamel when getting it out!). Thus my warning to use a cheap saucepan for this!

Step 3: Begin the Icing. Put the Heavy Cream and the Brown Sugar in a medium sized saucepan on the stove. If this is your first time you may want to use a pot that's not your favorite (I'll explain later). Mix it until it's well dissolved, over medium heat.

Step 4: Turn the heat to Medium-High, and put the candy thermometer in place as described in Step 2 above. Allow it to cook on the stove without stirring it, until the temperature reaches 238 degrees Fanenheit.  This will be the part where you are tempted to leave the stove for a while while you wait for it to get hot enough. DON'T DO IT!

{Last time I drifted over to my laptop to check my email and when I checked again, the temp had already hit 250 and the icing was ruined! In the case you do ruin a batch in this way, the think to do is to pour it out of the pan immediately into/onto something heatproof and lined with wax paper. Allow it to cool there instead of in your pan. Then boil some water in the pan to help get it cleaned out. If you leave the overheated icing in the pan to cool you will have a much harder time getting it out later!!!}

Keep a close eye on your pan of hot caramel and when it gets close to 238 degrees, be ready to pull it off the hot stove right away! For some reason it like to hover around 230 for a long time to lull you, and then it races up so quickly you can easily miss the moment. Anyway, when it does hit 238 degrees Farenheit, pull the pan off the stove right away and place it on a trivet. Be sure you don't have kids in the kitchen during all this (easier said than done, I know!). Leave the thermometer in place.

Step 5: Cut the butter into a few slices and just kind of lay them on the top of the hot caramel.

Step 6: Allow the saucepan of hot caramel to cool without touching or stirring it, until it reaches 110 degrees Farenheit. This will take anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour.

Step 7: While it is cooling I start to prepare my cake by slicing it from three round layers into six round layers. This can be done a number of ways, as I've seen desribed in various cookbooks. But for these, layers, since they are so thin, I use the Dental Floss Method. First, I use a long serrated bread knife to cut a groove all the way around the edge of each cake. Then I wrapp a piece of {waxed and preferably plain rather than mint flavored} dental floss all the way around in the groove, crossing the two ends together in the front. Then I slowly tighten the dental floss, allowing it to cut into the center of the cake and producing two layers from one! {no one mentioned a mint flavor in this particular cake, so if you that's all you have, go for it!}

Step 8: When the caramel is cooled to 110 degrees, pour it into a bowl and beat it with your electric mixer until it becomes cool, thick, and creamy. It will take a while! You will know it is done when the color has lightened, and it's no longer runny at all. If it gets too stiff you can add in tiny amounts of cream. You want it to be spreadable and hold it's shape.

Step 9: Frost it up!! Save the prettiest layer for the top of the cake. Spread the frosting between each layer, alternating frosting with cake layer until you have them all stacked up. Then frost the top and outside! You can do this a day or two ahead and it will still be great when you cut it up and serve it. It tastes great with vanilla ice cream. Also you can try different cake flavors with it as you gain confidence. I did a banana last time and may try a spice cake next time. My husband still thinks a plain yellow cake is best though.

Let me know if you try this and leave a comment with any changes/problems you run across, so I can improve this little lesson if needed! Have fun!