Welcome to this year’s edition of Did Elly Successfully Make Tom’s Birthday Cake? Sure, sort of.
Tom’s birthday cakes and I have had a sordid past. There was the cake-turned-trifle incident. There was the didn’t-make-nearly-enough-frosting-and-ran-out-of-ingredients fiasco. There was the I’ve-tried-3-times-to-make-this-butterscotch-sauce-and-I-just-can’t-do-it-so-you-will-be-eating-your-cheesecake-plain problem. I’ve gotten better for the most part, though, so there’s that. I still can’t successfully frost a cake, but we’ll get there.
When Tom chose this cake I was both excited and nervous. Excited because caramel is clearly one of the most delicious things ever. Nervous because I don’t have the best track record with caramel. I asked Tom if I could decrease the recipe since it was just us eating it and it called for over 6 cups of sugar and a pound of butter. He said no. (I did end up decreasing the cake portion a bit; see notes in the recipe.)
The good (?) news is, you get to beat the caramel with a wooden spoon for 20 minutes (I don’t even know how you “beat” something with a wooden spoon, btw) so you’ll get an arm workout and burn off approximately 1/10 of the slice of cake doing that.
The caramel takes forever to make. Luckily you don’t have to stand at the stove the entire time, only stirring it occasionally for the last hour and a half, but it takes time. Yes, I did say “the last hour and a half” (which actually took me more like 1h40m). The cake is a very straightforward recipe that yielded a very tasty and moist cake.
You will notice there are no pictures of the whole cake. That’s intentional. My cake looked nothing like the gorgeous picture on the original recipe. After I made the caramel I texted Tom and said, “Good news: I successfully made the caramel and didn’t burn down the house once! Bad news: Your cake is possibly the ugliest ever.
The cakes’ moisture led to them being a bit difficult to frost with the thickened caramel (crumbs and all of that). Plus the caramel color was not that pretty as it started to thicken. And, well, no matter how beautiful or easy to work with frosting is, it doesn’t change the fact that I don’t know how to frost a cake, anyway.
BUT LISTEN. This cake is GOOD. I mean, how can this cake not be good? You are frosting it with caramel. Not caramel buttercream, not caramel sauce over regular frosting. STRAIGHT UP CARAMEL. It is possibly the richest thing I’ve ever made, and even I, who does not find things “too rich” pretty much ever could only eat a small slice (thank goodness, please remember aforementioned amount of sugar and butter). At a time, I mean. Obviously I ate this cake every night until it was gone.
tl;dr version: Great cake, amazingly delicious caramel “frosting,” ugly as sin, rich, fattening, worth it.
Adapted from Saveur
3-1/4 cups cake flour (plus additional for pans)
1 Tbsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt
14 Tbsp. unsalted butter, softened (plus additional for greasing pans)
2-1/2 cups sugar
1 Tbsp. vanilla extract
4 large eggs
1-1/4 cups milk
16 Tbsp. salted or unsalted butter
4 cups sugar
2 (12 oz.) cans evaporated milk
Heat the oven to 350º. Grease 3 round (8-9″) cake pans. Place parchment paper rounds at the bottom of each pan and grease over the parchment (using more butter or cooking oil). Sprinkle in about 2 tsp. flour into each pan and then shake them around, tapping out the excess flour.
To make the cake, sift or whisk together the cake flour, baking powder, and salt in a bowl. In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat the butter and sugar together until creamy and fluffy. Add the vanilla and the eggs, one at a time, beating for a few seconds after each addition just to incorporate. Add 1/3 of the flour mixture and beat, then 1/3 of the milk and beat. Continue alternating the flour and milk, beating just until incorporated, until gone. Divide the batter between the pans and bake for 22-25 minutes, until a toothpick inserted comes out clean. Cool in the pan on a wire rack for 10 minutes before inverting onto the rack and cooling completely. You can slice the tops off the cakes to level them, if desired.
To make the frosting, melt the butter in a heavy bottomed saucepan or pot (I used a small enameled Dutch oven) over low heat. Once melted, increase the temperature to medium-high and add the sugar. Stir constantly until golden brown, 7-8 minutes (mine took more like 10-11). Carefully stir in the evaporated milk and reduce heat to medium-low, stirring constantly until smooth, about 6-8 minutes.* Cook, stirring occasionally, until the mixture reaches 240º on a candy thermometer*, about 1.5 hours.
Remove the mixture from the heat and beat with a wooden spoon for about 20 minutes, until the caramel becomes thick, glossy, and spreadable. Ice the bottom layer of the cake, place the second cake on top and ice it, and then put the third layer on top and completely frost the outside of the cake. Place in the refrigerator until set.
- The original recipe claims to make 2 cakes, but after reading the reviews (and looking at the amount of flour, etc.) it was clear this was better suited for 3 cake pans, which is what I’ve indicated above. When I made this I scaled the recipe down to 75% so I could use 2 pans.
- The original recipe was confusing to me in terms of ingredients used in the cake, vs. buttering the pans, etc. It was not clear. What I’ve written above is what I used and what I think the author meant. It worked perfectly.
- When you add the evaporated milk (and do so carefully because the sugar-butter is crazy hot), you will temporarily feel like you’ve failed because there will be sugary, gritty pieces. Don’t worry. Keep stirring and they will melt into the mixture and it will become smooth.
- I cooked the caramel to the exact temperature noted in the recipe, but I think the texture (and color) was a little better about 5 degrees less, so even though caramel/candy is finicky, I think I might stop slightly short of 240º next time.
- The caramel uses salted butter, which I don’t stock. I meant to add salt at the end but forgot.