Saturday, November 17, 2012

The Really Ugly Duckling of Cakes

One the books I used to love reading to the kids was The Stinky Cheese Man, by Jon Scieszka & Lane Smith*, and our collective favorite story in the book was The Really Ugly Duckling.

I had a bit of a Stinky Cheese Man flashback the other night:

On Thursday, I made a really ugly cake.

Well, as it turns out, it was a really, really ugly cake, but I put some candles on it and we ate it and it was infinitely better than anything in the pond after all.  In fact, it was one of the most delicious birthday cakes I've ever made.  Everybody had seconds, and we all lived happily ever after.

The End.

Fabulous Caramel Layer Cake
One of the moistest, most delicious yellow cakes I have ever eaten, and the icing, essentially a buttery thin layer of brown sugar fudge, is insanely good.  Together? Amazing! Adapted very slightly from a recipe in the wonderful cookbook, Southern Cakes.

For the cake:
3/4 c. (1 1/2 sticks) butter
1 c. milk
2 1/4 c. cake flour (or 2 c. regular flour)
2 3/4 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
2 c. sugar
4 eggs, at room temperature
1 tsp. vanilla

For the caramel icing:
1 1lb. box light brown sugar (about 2 2/3 c.)
1/2 c. (1 stick) butter
7 Tbs. evaporated milk
1 1/2 tsp. vanilla
pinch of kosher salt

To make the cake:
Pre heat oven to 325.  Butter and flour 2 9-inch round cake pans, then set aside.

Cut the butter into smaller pieces (it will melt easier that way, as I found out), then place in a small saucepan with the milk.  Cook over low heat until the butter melts.  Stir well, then remove from heat and let cool to room temperature.

While that's cooling, whisk together the cake flour, baking powder and salt in a medium bowl.  Set that aside.

In a large bowl, combine the sugar and the eggs, and beat well with an electric or stand mixer at high speed, until light yellow, smooth, and thick, about 3 minutes.   Stir the flour mixture into the egg mixture on low speed, just until incorporated.  Add the cooled milk mixture and the vanilla, and beat on low until smooth.

Divide the batter between the two prepared pans, and bake at 325 for 25-30 minutes, until the cakes are pale golden brown, spring back when touched in the center, and begin to pull away from the sides of the pans.  Cool in the pans for 10 minutes or so, then turn out onto wire racks to cool completely before frosting.

To make the icing:

In a heavy medium saucepan, combine the brown sugar, butter, evaporated milk and vanilla. Bring to a boil over medium high heat. Stir well, then lower the heat until the frosting bubbles gently but is not going crazy.  Cook for 7 minutes.  Remove from the heat, stir in the pinch of salt, then allow to cool for 5 minutes.

Get your cake ready.  I mean it**.   Place one cake layer, top side down, on a cake stand or serving platter, and have the second layer nearby.

Beat the warm icing with a wooden spoon until it thickens, about 2-3 minutes.  It should be a little thinner than normal frosting, but much thicker than when you started stirring. 

Quickly spread some of the icing on top of the first cake layer, then top with the second layer, top side down.  Spoon icing over the top of the cake, allowing some to drip down the sides, then finish off the sides with the remaining icing.   Because the icing is rapidly going to firm up and take on the consistency of fudge, this is way trickier than it sounds! But it can be done.  You can dip a knife into very hot water to help smooth the icing once it's all on the cake***.

Garnish with carmel corn, if you need to disguise the cake because you made it for someone's birthday and are trying to make a brown, lumpy, lopsided cake somehow look festive.

Allow frosting to set for a bit, then slice and serve.

Click to print this recipe!

* There's nothing like passing on a warped sense of humor to your children when they are young and impressionable.  I chose to do this, rather than immersive Mandarin or the Suzuki method of violin, perhaps sacrificing their future in the Ivy League for their current rock solid appreciation of Jon Stewart and Modern Family.
*** You'll have maybe two or three minutes to get the icing onto the cake before things get, well, ugly.  I stupidly stopped to find my camera, and wound up patching the icing onto my cake like I was spackling putty onto old bathroom tiles.  I also used dark brown sugar instead of the light brown sugar called for in the original recipe, and the resulting shade of brown was a little...ahem...shitty-looking.  But in the end (poor choice of words), it was beyond delicious!!!
*** Did I notice this helpful tip while I was frantically trying to stick pieces of that mess onto my cake with a cold spatula?  No.  That is why it is in BOLD here.


  1. stopping by to follow u. found you at pioneer woman :-)

    Happy Thanksgiving! Traci

    1. Thanks for stopping by! Hope you had a wonderful holiday, too.

  2. Mother of pearl! That cake looks NEXT LEVEL AWESOME. I think I will have some for breakfast...

    1. I can personally vouch for its breakfast credentials. Twice.

  3. i LOVE caramel cakes, but more often than not, mine turn out hideous but still delicious. i only make it for my immediate family because they don't care how it looks. :) your frosting looks good to me and i love the caramel corn garnishes!