Written by Dale Richardson - Updated: June 23, 2023
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If you know anything about me, it's that baking is in my blood. I've always absolutely loved the process of both cooking and baking - it just makes me happy. Maybe it's the scientific accuracy that's needed, but I think the look on peoples' faces when I give them the best dessert they've ever had is what does it. And trust me, if you can pull off this caramel cake recipe, you'll have guests drooling. I will note, however, that this is not a beginner's recipe. There are a few steps that really require precision and quick moves, so read carefully.
Let's skip all of that faffing about that most recipes have about "my fabled grandmother's recipe" and tell the truth. I love baking, and I tried this several times with varied recipes before I got it right. And something to know about me is that I'm a professional - I bake and cook in a real kitchen for money. If I had a hard time and you don't, I will be so proud of you.
Now without further ado, let's get into it!
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First things first, you're going to need a few things. Obviously, a stand mixer will make this drastically easier, though an old school caramel cake recipe shouldn't need one - right? A scale is also vital here, as we're measuring everything by weight. For those inexperienced in baking, this is really important, as the weight by volume of various things will change. In other words, 200 grams of milk is much different from 200 grams of flour.
The one big thing that you really do need is a sugar thermometer. And no - I don't mean that basic one you use for roasts. A sugar thermometer can not only go to higher temperatures (200°+ C), but its end isn't pointed. That means that you won't scratch up your pan while using it - a big bonus.
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Now, onto the preparation. What will you need?
For the cake:
For the frosting:
Preheat your oven to 175° C. Grease two 9-inch cake pans with butter and line with parchment paper. Allow a bit of parchment to escape both sides so you can more easily remove the cake. Grease the parchment and lightly flour it and the sides of the pan.
Whisk the cake flour (250 grams) with the baking powder and salt.
Beat together the eggs and sugar until they're light and slightly foamy, between 3 and 5 minutes.
Combine the milk and butter in a saucepan while beating your eggs - trust me, you need this in a particular order, so don't wait. Place the milk and butter over medium heat and melt the butter.
Replace your whisk attachment (if using a stand mixer) with the paddle attachment. Add in your flour/baking powder mixture all at once and mix on low until it's roughly halfway incorporated. This should take roughly 20 seconds.
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Bring your milk mixture to a simmer on medium-high heat, and immediately remove from heat once it reaches a simmer.
Turn the mixer speed up slightly and slowly mix the hot milk in with the flour. Add your vanilla and the remaining 1 tbsp of flour . Mix until it's incorporated, roughly 20 more seconds. You'll have a runny and airy batter - this is okay.
Evenly divide the batter between pans and bake for roughly 25 minutes, or until a toothpick comes clean out of the middle. Cool for 15 minutes and remove using the parchment handles. Let cool entirely before frosting.
Once they're cool, move them to your cake stand for frosting - you'll need to move quickly. Set up parchment paper beneath to catch drips.
Combine 600 grams of sugar and all of your milk in a tall saucepan. Place it over medium-high heat, bringing it to a simmer. Continuously stir to melt the sugar and reduce the heat as low as it can go.
In a separate pan, add the remaining 100 grams of sugar in an even layer. Cook over medium-low heat until it's melted and turned a medium-dark caramel colour, approximately ten minutes.
Immediately add this to your warmed milk mixture. It will bubble, that's okay.
Increase heat to medium and cook, stirring to prevent burning. Temp the mixture to between 112° C and 115° C (roughly 10 minutes ).
Remove it from heat and quickly stir in your butter, salt, and vanilla. Stir until it's fully melted off the heat and cool your caramel to 43° C . (This will take between 30 minutes to an hour depending on your pan.)
Transfer your warm caramel to your clean and dry stand mixer and beat on medium-high speed until it loses its shine. It should lighten in colour and be a bit grainy. This takes roughly 12 minutes.
Now - the fun part!
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Immediately pour roughly a third of the still-warm caramel to the bottom layer of your cake. I recommend that if one cake turned out a bit less pretty that you choose it as the bottom layer. Now place your second layer on top, and repeat the process.
Use the remaining third of your caramel (give or take after baker's tasting tax) to frost the sides. Let it sit a few minutes before serving.
The cake will last up to three days at room temperature if covered.
As if this recipe wasn't complicated enough, there are a few things you can do to really make it impressive. You can garnish the cake with strawberries, currants, or just about any fruit you'd like. I also like to make a thyme and lemon topping to this cake as an extra pop of flavour.
To do that, simply zest 1-2 whole lemons and combine with roughly one teaspoon of lemon juice, 2-3 sprigs of thyme, and toast the mixture with a small handful (1-2 tbsp) of brown sugar on low heat. This will release the oils in the thyme and lemon, and caramelize the brown sugar. You can toss it on the cake before serving to add a new, bright flavour that most people likely haven't tried.
(You could even go all out and make a lemon-thyme streusel topping, though that's a whole other recipe. Just a thought...)
This is a complicated cake. If you make it in one try with no mistakes, I will be incredibly impressed and proud of you. When I first made it, I didn't wait long enough to remove the cakes and had a small blowout - I know, a rookie mistake. The heated milk going into the batter can also get screwed up easily if you have it too hot or don't move quickly enough.
The hardest part, though, is making the caramel frosting. Even a slight deviation in temperature, or taking too long on the stirring and you're left with burnt caramel that won't spread. It'll also have a bitter, astringent flavour that nobody wants in a cake - so you have to be careful. Assuming you followed the steps thoroughly, you came out with a light, airy cake with a luscious caramel frosting. It's seriously impressive when done properly, and is sure to be the talk of the dinner party or date if made perfectly.
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