Saturday, November 29, 2008

November Daring Bakers' Challenge: Caramel Cake!

Holy cats. This month's Daring Bakers' Challenge certainly lived up to the "challenge" part of its moniker. But no complaints out of me; that's why I signed up for this group in the first place.

So, on with it: November's challenge brings us Shuna Fish Lydon's Caramel Cake with Caramelized Butter Frosting, as well as an optional non-baked treat, Golden Vanilla Bean Caramels from Alice Medrich's Pure Dessert (more on that tomorrow). Both were bold choices, and I thank hosts Dolores, Alex, and Jenny for introducing me to not one, but TWO recipes that I would probably never have had the stones to try otherwise.

The making of this cake played out much like a pivotal scene in one of my favorite movies, "An Officer and a Gentleman," where Lou Gossett Jr's tough-as-nails Sergeant Foley pushes Richard Gere's Zack Mayo to his emotional breaking point. In my version, the role of Mayo is played by yours truly, and the role of Sgt. Foley is played by caramel syrup.

"Why don't you just give up, Kat?"

"Because I got nowhere else to go!" [sobs]

No, really - I had a five pound bag of granulated sugar and a raging head cold. What else was I going to do with myself on a rainy Saturday afternoon? Like Zack "Mayonnaise" Mayo, I pushed through the obstacle and tried again, this time with much improved results. Moving on.

With the caramel syrup out of the way, the rest of the cake came together relatively easily. I didn't have the recommended round 9-inch pan, so I poured the batter into a square 9-inch pan and hoped for the best. It came out of the oven looking lovely and golden, but it hadn't risen as much as I'd hoped, and when I turned it out onto a platter it looked a little...inadequate. Like, this cake was never going to be a commissioned officer, if you know what I'm saying, and I think you do. To give it a little more dignity, I cut it in half and made a 9 by 4.5 inch layer cake. Then I fought back my tears and saluted it.

A little whiskey and cake never hurt anyone

A final word of warning: this cake is S to the W to the E-E-T, SWEET, so (and I don't say this often) I recommend serving very modest slices for maximum impact. They'll go back for seconds, I promise.

Caramel lifts us up where we belooo-oo-ooong...

Caramel Cake with Caramelized Butter Frosting

- All recipes courtesy of Shuna Fish Lydon -
  • 10 tablespoons unsalted butter at room temperature
  • 1 1/4 cups granulated sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/3 cup Caramel Syrup (see recipe below)
  • 2 each eggs, at room temperature
  • Splash vanilla extract
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 cup milk, at room temperature
1. Preheat oven to 350F.

2. Butter one tall (2 – 2.5 inch deep) 9-inch cake pan.

3. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, cream butter until smooth. Add sugar and salt and cream until light and fluffy. (Kat sez: I don't have a stand mixer, so I used my hand mixer on low/medium low)

4. Slowly pour room temperature caramel syrup into bowl. Scrape down bowl and increase speed. Add eggs/vanilla extract a little at a time, mixing well after each addition. Scrape down bowl again, beat mixture until light and uniform.

5. Sift flour and baking powder.

6. Turn mixer to lowest speed, and add one third of the dry ingredients. When incorporated, add half of the milk, a little at a time. Add another third of the dry ingredients, then the other half of the milk and finish with the dry ingredients. {This is called the dry, wet, dry, wet, dry method in cake making. It is often employed when there is a high proportion of liquid in the batter.}

7. Take off mixer and by hand, use a spatula to do a few last folds, making sure batter is uniform. Turn batter into prepared cake pan.

8. Place cake pan on cookie sheet or 1/2 sheet pan. Set first timer for 30 minutes, rotate pan and set timer for another 15-20 minutes. Your own oven will set the pace. Bake until sides pull away from the pan and skewer inserted in middle comes out clean. Cool cake completely before icing it.

Cake will keep for three days outside of the refrigerator.

Caramel Syrup

  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1 cup water (for "stopping" the caramelization process)
1. In a small stainless steel saucepan, with tall sides, mix water and sugar until mixture feels like wet sand. Brush down any stray sugar crystals with wet pastry brush. Turn on heat to highest flame. Cook until smoking slightly: dark amber. (Kat sez: for me, once the syrup started smoking it was already too late. the second time I attempted this, I took it off the heat at medium amber.)

2. When color is achieved, very carefully pour in one cup of water. Caramel will jump and sputter about! It is very dangerous, so have long sleeves on and be prepared to step back.

3. Whisk over medium heat until it has reduced slightly and feels sticky between two fingers. (Obviously wait for it to cool on a spoon before touching it.)

Note: For safety reasons, have ready a bowl of ice water to plunge your hands into if any caramel should land on your skin.

Caramelized Butter Frosting

  • 12 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 pound confectioner’s sugar, sifted
  • 4-6 tablespoons heavy cream
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 2-4 tablespoons caramel syrup
  • Kosher or sea salt to taste
1. Cook butter until brown. Pour through a fine meshed sieve into a heatproof bowl, set aside to cool.

2. Pour cooled brown butter into mixer bowl.

3. In a stand mixer fitted with a paddle or whisk attachment, add confectioner's sugar a little at a time. When mixture looks too chunky to take any more, add a bit of cream and or caramel syrup. Repeat until mixture looks smooth and all confectioner's sugar has been incorporated. Add salt to taste.

Note: Caramelized butter frosting will keep in fridge for up to a month. To smooth out from cold, microwave a bit, then mix with paddle attachment until smooth and light.