It’s that time of year again- that time when we get the urge to nestle down, cozy up, and, yes, bake. And with the holidays, just around the corner, it’s also that time of year when cakes and pies galore will be placed on proper pedestals and crowded onto sideboards in dining rooms all across the south.
Family will come through and ooh and ahh. Tiny exclamations will escape as favorites are spotted. An excited anticipation for that course we know will be sliced and served after the holiday meal will be savored. And plans to ‘save room’ will be made.
As family cooks, we expect it, look forward to it. We take days and carefully plan it.
But one cake that never makes my holiday menu list is the Southern Caramel Cake. Because let’s face it. That cake is hard to make. It takes time. There’s a candy thermometer involved. I am vastly inept.
And that, my friends is a let-down. That buttery, layered, caramel celebration is completely southern and 100% traditional through and through. And it pains me that it’s not often made anymore.
So, as usual, this sent me on a hunt, this time dragging my friend, Amber Hussey of Divine Desserts along with me. We needed to find a way to make the caramel cake easier to make.
There was lots of recipe reading and taste-testing that went on before we settled on the ingredients and steps that would make up our own Southern Salted Caramel Cake. Ok, to be honest, I mostly read and tasted. Amber mostly baked and stirred and iced and baked some more.
This recipe takes much of the guess-work out of a traditional caramel cake. No candy thermometers, no hour-long caramel-cooking process. But still retains enough of the traditional flavors and process to fit the bill.
It’s guaranteed to be moist. Traditional caramel soaks between the layers. There are pecans. And the frosting is a fluffy caramel cream cheese number that feels a bit like a melt in your mouth pralines and cream indulgence. This caramel cake only gets better with age, hitting its true stride round about day 3.
All in all, it’s sheer perfection on a cake stand. One that does its traditional predecessor proud. One that honors the cake-making and layer-stacking heritage of little southern grandmothers everywhere.
And while this Salted Caramel Cake still demands a bit of time and effort, it’s not something that home cooks like you and me can’t accomplish in an afternoon. Besides, it’s that little bit of extra time and effort that makes caramel cake once-a-year, holiday kind of special. It’s worth it. And your guests will be able to taste that in every bite.
Southern Salted Caramel Cake
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Easy Yellow Butter Cake:
Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Grease 3- 9 inch cake pans.
In a large mixing bowl, add all ingredients. Mix well. These ingredients give that old cake mix a from scratch, old-fashioned taste and texture make over. You will not believe how good it is!
Pour equal parts into the cake pans. Bake 35-40 minutes or until toothpick comes out mostly clean.*
Let cool for 10 minutes before turning out onto cooling racks to cool completely.
*While cakes are baking, begin making the frosting and filling.
Cream Cheese Caramel Frosting:
In a large saucepan, slowly bring condensed milk, brown sugar and butter to a boil over medium heat.
Stirring constantly, allow to slowly boil for 3-5 minutes or until caramel frosting looks like thick pudding. This mixture begins to boil before you can see it, so be careful not to burn.
Remove from heat and allow to cool to room temperature. (Amber and I put it in the freezer to speed up the process!)
When cool, blend cream cheese and vanilla in a large mixing bowl until smooth. Add cooked caramel frosting and beat until blended together. Slowly add powdered sugar. Set aside.
Salted Caramel Pecan Filling:
Melt sugar in a medium saucepan over medium heat, stirring constantly with a heat-resistant spoon or spatula. This process takes some patience. As the sugar begins to melt, it will begin to ball up. Continue to stir. Eventually, it will completely melt into a dark amber liquid.
This is my favorite part of the recipe. It is traditionally called burning the sugar and was always done in a cast iron skillet. In a traditional caramel cake, it would be taken from the stove, and butter and other ingredients would be whipped by hand into it. It would sometimes be called burnt caramel icing. But believe me, there is nothing “burned” tasting about it. Just smooth caramel goodness.
Once the sugar is completely melted, grab a whisk and add the butter. The caramel will rapidly bubble up. Be careful! Whisk constantly to keep the butter from separating.
Slowly add in the heavy cream while still whisking. Continue to whisk while mixture boils for 1 minute. Mixture may rise to the top as it boils, so be careful.
Carefully remove from heat. Stir in salt. Allow to cool, but not completely. Stir in pecans. Filling should be slightly warm when added to cakes to make it easier to spread.
Icing the Cake
When the cakes have cooled, move them to your cake pedestal or icing turntable. Amber uses this turntable to make icing all her cakes so much easier.
As you stack the cakes, spread a layer of the caramel filling between each. Don’t worry about spreading it all the way out to the edge.
When all the layers are stacked, begin icing the outside of your cake with the caramel cream cheese frosting. These are the tools that Amber and I use to make icing a layer cake so much easier.
You can decide how you would like to “finish” your salted caramel cake. Amber and I chose a very simple piping method to finish the bottom edge and to keep our pool of caramel contained on the top. Amber used a #21 open star Wilton tip. To complete the bottom edge, just gently squeeze your piping bag while using a small arcing up and down motion.
To finish the top, Amber used the same tip. But this time instead of an arcing motion, she simply squeezed the piping bag, letting icing build up to size she wanted using a slight downward motion, then gently pulling up when she was ready to move to the next spot. They don’t have to be perfect! If you never piped before, don’t be afraid to try it. Just practice a bit on a piece of wax or parchment paper before you get started on your cake.
After our top edge was completed, we spooned out the last of the caramel filling to create a pool on top of the cake. We didn’t worry about pouring all the way out to the edge, just close to it. The filling spread on its own a bit, we worked it closer to the edge where we needed to. And we filled in with pecans where necessary.
For a bit of sparkle, Amber added edible gold glitter to our pool of caramel filling. She loves this stuff and uses it on many of her cakes at Divine Desserts. She says that just one bottle lasts quite a while, and it’s just that little bit of special that you don’t always get to see on a regular cake! Lastly, I added a just bit of sea salt for that final salted caramel taste.
I hope this twist on a southern tradition inspires you to bring the caramel cake back to your holiday table this season. I know that it will certainly grace mine!
***Pin this recipe!***
Shop what Amber and I used to make this Salted Caramel Cake recipe an easy success:
Need more holiday recipes and inspiration? Check out these favorites!
Learn more about the southern tradition of layer cakes and caramel cake in these great reads!
- 2 boxes yellow butter cake mix
- 2- 3.4 boxes instant vanilla pudding mix
- 2/3 C canola oil
- 16 oz sour cream
- 1 1/2 C water
- 8 large eggs
- 1- 14 oz can sweetened condensed milk
- 3/4 C light brown sugar, firmly packed
- 1/2 C unsalted butter, room temp.
- 1 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
- 16 oz cream cheese, softened
- 2 C powdered sugar
- 1/2- 1 C chopped pecans
- 1 C granulated sugar
- 6 Tbsp unsalted butter, room temp.
- 1/2 C heavy cream
- 1/2-1 tsp salt
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Grease 3- 9 inch cake pans.
- In a large mixing bowl, add all ingredients. Mix well.
- Pour equal parts into the cake pans. Bake 35-40 minutes or until toothpick comes out mostly clean.
- Let cool for 10 minutes before turning out onto cooling racks to cool completely.
- In a large saucepan, slowly bring condensed milk, brown sugar and butter to a boil over medium heat.
- Stirring constantly, allow to slowly boil for 3-5 minutes or until caramel frosting looks like thick pudding.
- Remove from heat and allow to cool to room temperature. (Amber and I put it in the freezer to speed up the process!)
- When cool, blend cream cheese and vanilla in a large mixing bowl until smooth. Add cooked caramel frosting and beat until blended together. Slowly add powdered sugar. Set aside.
- Melt sugar in a medium saucepan over medium heat, stirring constantly with a heat resistant spoon or spatula. As the sugar begins to melt, it will begin to ball up. Continue to stir. Eventually, it will completely melt into a dark amber liquid.
- Once the sugar is completely melted, grab a whisk and add the butter. The caramel will rapidly bubble up. Whisk constantly to keep the butter from separating.
- Slowly add in the heavy cream while still whisking. Continue to whisk while mixture boils for 1 minute. Mixture may rise to the top as it boils, so again, be careful.
- Carefully remove from heat. Stir in salt. Allow to cool, but not completely. Add pecans. Add between layers of cake when warm.
- Stack cake layers,spreading caramel filling in between. Save 1/4 of the filling to add on top of the cake when finishing.
- Frost sides and top of cake with cream cheese caramel frosting.
- Pipe icing around bottom and top edges of cake.
- Pour rest of caramel filling to cover the center of the cake's top.
- Add edible glitter and sea salt if desired.
Here at A Southern Discourse, we love to spotlight what YOU are doing in your community to make an impact on those around you! That is why we are so glad to be able to partner with Amber Hussey and Divine Desserts. Divine Desserts specializes in custom cakes and desserts for small parties, holidays, and family events. Amber’s special ingredients? A heart of service and a genuine spirit of joy! If you are in the Jackson, TN area, you can reach Amber at email@example.com.
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