Southern Caramel Cake

Southern Caramel Cake Recipe - Placeholder Image

The Spruce Eats / Colleen Graham

Prep: 50 mins
Cook: 45 mins
Cooling Time: 2 hrs
Total: 3 hrs 35 mins
Servings: 8 servings
Yield: 1 cake
Nutrition Facts (per serving)
1217 Calories
55g Fat
176g Carbs
10g Protein
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Nutrition Facts
Servings: 8
Amount per serving
Calories 1217
% Daily Value*
Total Fat 55g 70%
Saturated Fat 33g 166%
Cholesterol 233mg 78%
Sodium 591mg 26%
Total Carbohydrate 176g 64%
Dietary Fiber 1g 4%
Total Sugars 140g
Protein 10g
Vitamin C 1mg 3%
Calcium 325mg 25%
Iron 4mg 20%
Potassium 305mg 6%
*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.
(Nutrition information is calculated using an ingredient database and should be considered an estimate.)

A Southern classic, caramel cake is made with layers of yellow cake and a mouthwatering caramel frosting. In this recipe, both elements include buttermilk for a wonderful tang that offsets the caramel's sweetness. It's a fun cake to make with deliciously irresistible results.

Inspired by New Orleans' famous Doberge torte, which has an Old World European influence, the traditional Southern caramel cake can seem like a daunting task. This recipe is a little easier and designed to help bakers who want to advance their cake baking skills without too much of a challenge. Be sure to read through the recipe and tips and have everything ready because many steps require you to work swiftly.

The two-layer version is made in 9-inch cake pans, which many home cooks already own. If you have them, you can make the more traditional three-layer cake by splitting the batter between three 8-inch pans; reduce the baking time by about 10 minutes. The cakes are easy to prepare with all-purpose flour and other standard ingredients. If you prefer to use self-rising flour, use the same amount as the all-purpose flour and eliminate the baking powder and salt, which are included in self-rising flour.

The cooked caramel frosting is made similar to caramel candy; sugar is melted, combined with butter and milk, then cooked to a specific temperature. The cooler temperature makes it less stressful and offers a longer working time to decorate the cake.

A pure comfort food dessert, the Southern caramel cake is a fantastic treat for autumn and winter gatherings and celebrations. It's also an excellent choice for early spring holidays like Easter, and you can make it a day or two in advance.

“A delicious Southern treat, this caramel cake is rich, buttery and sweet. I would recommend allowing your cake layers to cool for easier assembly!” —Tracy Wilk 

southern caramel cake/tester image
A Note From Our Recipe Tester

Ingredients

For the Cake:

  • 3 cups (360 grams) all-purpose flour

  • 1 1/2 tablespoons baking powder

  • 3/4 teaspoon kosher salt

  • 1 cup (226 grams) unsalted butter, softened and cubed

  • 2 cups (396 gramsgranulated sugar

  • 4 large eggs

  • 1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract

  • 1 cup buttermilk

For the Frosting:

  • 1 1/2 cups (360 gramslight brown sugar, firmly packed

  • 1 1/2 cups (360 gramsdark brown sugar, firmly packed

  • 1 cup  (227 grams) unsalted butter, softened and cubed

  • 1/2 cup buttermilk

  • 1/2 cup heavy cream

  • 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

  • 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

Steps to Make It

Make the Cake

  1. Gather the cake ingredients.

  2. Prepare two 9-inch round cake pans, lining the bottom with parchment paper. Do not grease the sides as this can prevent the cake from rising properly. If not using a springform pan, you can insert strips of parchment paper along the sides (lightly greasing the pan helps the paper stick). Position a rack in the upper and lower third of the oven and heat to 350 F.

  3. In a medium mixing bowl, sift the flour, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.

  4. Using a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment at medium speed, beat the butter until creamy and a little airy, about 2 minutes.

  5. Slowly add the granulated sugar and cream for 5 to 6 minutes, scraping the sides as needed, until the mixture is light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs one at a time until incorporated.

  6. Beat in the vanilla extract, then add the flour blend and buttermilk alternating the two ingredients in increments, starting and ending with the flour. Mix until thoroughly combined but do not overmix.

  7. Immediately pour the batter into the prepared pans, dividing it equally in each and spreading the batter evenly.

  8. Bake, rotating the pans half way through baking time, until the top is lightly golden and a toothpick poked into the center comes out clean, 30 to 35 minutes. Remove from the oven, and let the cakes cool for 10 minutes before carefully removing them from the pans to a rack. Continue to cool the cake while you make the frosting.

Make the Frosting

  1. Gather the frosting ingredients.

  2. In a large saucepan over medium heat, combine the light and dark brown sugar, butter, buttermilk, cream, salt, and vanilla. Stir until the sugar is completely dissolved and the mixture comes to a soft boil.

  3. Once the mixture foams and has bubbles around the edges, reduce the heat to low and continue to cook for 10 minutes, stirring regularly. The caramel should not reach more than 225 F on a candy thermometer.

  4. Remove from the heat and let cool, stirring occasionally, about 20 minutes. Beat the frosting until it reaches a thick but spreadable consistency and begins to lose its glossiness. By hand with a whisk or spatula, this may take 10 minutes; in a stand mixer, it may only take 5 minutes.

Assemble the Cake

  1. While the frosting is semi-fluid, begin frosting the cake. Start by pouring about a quarter of the frosting over the bottom cake layer (right-side-up) and spreading it out evenly.

  2. Add the top cake layer, pour about half of the remaining frosting on top, and spread it out evenly. Smooth out any drips that form on the sides.

  3. Begin with a light layer of frosting all the way around the cake to seal in the crumb, then build up the side with more frosting as it thickens. If you need to smooth it out or the frosting becomes sticky, dip the spatula into a bowl of hot water.

  4. Let the cake rest for 1 to 2 hours to allow the frosting to set completely before serving.

Tips

  • BAKING. This recipe is more of a butter cake than the traditional sponge cake, so it's more forgiving. However, it can also deflate once pulled from the oven; over-mixing and under-baking are the main factors. To prevent that unwelcome surprise, make sure your oven has reached the proper temperature (an oven thermometer ensures accuracy) and mix just until the last round of flour is incorporated. Also, get the cakes in the oven right away, and bake a few minutes longer if there's any sign of batter on the toothpick.
  • COOLING. Let the cakes cool completely (about 2 to 3 hours) on a wire rack before frosting.
  • FROSTING. As the frosting cools and solidifies, it will become easier to frost the sides of the cake. If transferred back to the warm saucepan, it will stay warm longer and is workable for 15 to 30 minutes, depending on how fast it cools. Work quickly but also let it cool a little more if it's still too runny.
  • ASSEMBLING. Frosting the cake can get a bit messy. Build the cake on a cardboard cake board and place strips of parchment or wax paper under the edges to catch any drips. To make it easier, use a pedestal surface that you can turn as you work.

Recipe Variations

  • Dark brown sugar adds a deep richness to the frosting, though you can use light brown sugar alone.
  • You can make the frosting with confectioners' sugar and evaporated milk. To do so, reduce the total amount of brown sugar to two cups, replace the cream with evaporated milk, and beat two cups of confectioners' sugar into the caramel after removing it from the heat.


How to Store

The caramel cake keeps well for two days at room temperature when covered. It can be refrigerated but should be eaten within four days.

What is caramel icing made of?

The basic ingredients of caramel icing are brown sugar, butter, and some type of dairy milk. Recipes tend to use some combination of buttermilk, whole milk, and heavy cream. Vanilla extract and a small amount of salt are also commonly used to enhance the flavor. Other ingredients like cornstarch, corn syrup, baking soda, confectioners' sugar, and evaporated milk can also be added to caramel icing.

How do you thicken caramel icing?

Cooked caramel icing will naturally thicken as it cools. If you'd like to speed it up, place the icing in the fridge, but don't let it solidify to the point that it won't spread. Should your icing get too thick, you can try to heat it in small increments in the microwave.