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Old Fashioned Caramel Cake Recipe

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This old-fashioned caramel cake features three layers of moist yellow cake coated in a homemade caramel icing. This classic recipe is just like the one grandma used to make and is perfect for family get togethers, holidays, and other special occasions.

Hey ya’ll! Today we are making one of my personal favorites — old-fashioned caramel cake! In fact, it’s right up there with peach cobbler and sweet potato pie.

But let’s get one thing straight from the start: this caramel cake isn’t for the faint of heart. It requires a lot of patience, but trust me when I say, the end result is worth it! My favorite part of this recipe is undoubtedly the caramel icing. It’s rich and velvety, and literally cascades over each layer of moist yellow cake! Yes, cascades, ok!

Making the caramel icing takes the most time (like all good things, am I right?). Literally, a good chunk of your afternoon kind of time. My advice is to at least have the cake baking in the oven before you even think about starting on the icing. That way, you can give it your full attention.

Now, I get it – not everyone has hours to spend in the kitchen. And that’s where my little shortcut comes in handy. You can absolutely simplify this recipe by using a trusty box of yellow cake mix. It’s a sneaky little hack that saves time without sacrificing flavor. We won’t tell!

Southern caramel cake is tried and true; the kind of soul food dessert that brings folks together around the table. And speaking of special occasions, let me tell you – this cake is the star of the show at holiday gatherings like Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. It’s also perfect for a potluck (everyone will be coming back for seconds).

Let’s bake up some sweet memories together, shall we?

What you’ll love about this recipe:


  • FLAVOR – The caramel icing is buttery, rich and indulgent. We also added a hint of vanilla, yumm! Salted caramel, anyone? Just add a few flakes of sea salt!
  • MOIST CRUMB – This Caramel Cake features soft, tender layers of yellow cake. It’s light and airy, almost like sponge cake or angel food cake.
  • CLASSIC– Caramel cake is a Southern classic! Think family gatherings, church potlucks, and other special occasions.

What is Old Fashioned Caramel Cake?

An old-fashioned caramel cake (or old school caramel cake) is a classic Southern dessert. It typically consists of layers of moist yellow cake, often made with buttermilk for extra tenderness, and generously coated with a thick, homemade caramel icing.

What makes this old-fashioned caramel cake special is the caramel icing. It’s made by slowly cooking butter, sugar, and evaporated milk until it reaches a deep amber color and develops a rich caramel flavor. This caramel icing is then generously spread between the cake layers and over the top and sides, creating a decadent and indulgent dessert.

Old-fashioned caramel cake recipes have been passed down through generations in Southern families, each with its own unique twist or variation. For example, some people make Southern caramel cake with caramel frosting made with powdered sugar, or with brown sugar and whipped egg whites.

While the ingredients and techniques may vary slightly from recipe to recipe, the result is always the same – a deliciously moist, buttery cake with a luscious, rich caramel.

Why Making Caramel Can Be Tricky

When it comes to making caramel, there are a couple of key factors that can make it a bit of a challenge. First, caramel needs to be cooked at just the right heat – too high and your sugar can quickly burn. On the flip side, if the heat is too low, you risk ending up with grainy, crystallized caramel icing (been there done that).

Second, patience is absolutely essential. While it might be tempting to rush the process, caramel-making is a slow and steady affair. It’s best to take your time and let the sugar melt and caramelize at its own pace. Trust me, the end result will be well worth the wait!

Ingredients

  • Cake flour
  • Baking powder
  • Baking soda
  • Salt
  • Unsalted Butter
  • Sugar
  • Eggs (yolks and whites separated)
  • Vanilla extract
  • Buttermilk

Caramel Icing

  • Butter
  • Evaporated milk
  • Sugar (granulated or light brown)
  • Vanilla extract

Note: This cake recipe uses whipped egg whites, which is a traditional method that has been used by home bakers for generations to achieve light and fluffy cakes with an airy texture. We also used this method in our Southern cornbread recipe.

Substitutions and Variations

  • Cake Flour: If you don’t have cake flour, you can use a substitution. For every cup of cake flour, remove 2 tablespoons of all-purpose flour and replace them with 2 tablespoons of cornstarch. Sift the mixture several times to evenly distribute the cornstarch. Note: If using a substitute, be aware that your cake may have a coarser crumb texture.
  • Buttermilk: You can make your own buttermilk substitute by combining 1 tablespoon of lemon juice or white vinegar with enough milk to make 1 cup.
  • Salted Caramel Icing: Add flaky sea salt for salted caramel icing. This adds a salty-sweet contrast to the caramel cake. Simply stir it in with the vanilla, starting with 1/2 teaspoon of salt. Taste and adjust according to your preference. Remember, you can always add more salt, but you can’t take it away, so start with less and add more if needed.
  • Brown Sugar: Emphasize the caramel flavor by using brown sugar in the caramel icing. The brown sugar will add richness and depth to the cake.

How to Make Old School Caramel Cake

  1. Grease three 8- or 9-inch round cake pans and line them with parchment paper if you like. This will ensure your cakes come out easily after baking.
  2. In a large bowl, whisk together the cake flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Set this dry mixture aside for now.
  3. In another bowl, beat together the softened butter and sugar on high speed for about 3 minutes until creamy. Don’t forget to scrape down the sides of the bowl to make sure everything mixes evenly.
  4. Lower the mixer speed to medium-high and add the egg yolks one at a time, followed by the vanilla extract, beating until well combined.
  5. Gradually add the dry ingredients and buttermilk to the butter mixture, alternating between the two and mixing on low speed until everything is fully incorporated. The batter will be thick, so give it a good whisk by hand to ensure there are no lumps hiding at the bottom.
  6. In a separate clean bowl, beat the egg whites on high speed until fluffy peaks form, about 3 minutes. Carefully fold these fluffy whites into the cake batter, being gentle to keep the mixture light and airy. When you whip egg whites, you introduce air into the mixture, creating tiny bubbles that help the cake rise and become light and fluffy during baking.
  7. Pour or spoon the batter evenly into the prepared cake pans and pop them into the oven. Bake for around 22-25 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cakes comes out clean.
  8. While the cakes are baking, whip up the caramel icing. (See “Caramel for Caramel Cake” instructions below).
  9. Assembly: Once the cakes are baked and cooled, level off any domed tops with a serrated knife to create a flat surface.
  10. Place one cake layer on your serving plate and cover the top with a generous layer of caramel icing. Add the second and third layers, then spread the remaining icing over the top and sides of the cake. As you spread the icing on the cake, the frosting will continue to cool and harden some, making it easier to spread.

Caramel for Caramel Cake

While the cakes are baking, let’s whip up that irresistible caramel icing!

  1. In a saucepan over medium heat, combine the butter, evaporated milk, and sugar. Let everything melt together, stirring occasionally, for about 1 1/2 hours. Keep an eye on it to prevent burning, and you’ll know it’s ready when it’s thick enough to coat the back of a spoon and has turned a gorgeous golden brown.
  2. Remove the caramel icing from the heat and stir in the vanilla extract. Let it cool for about 10 minutes before spreading it on the cake.

Troubleshooting Tips for Caramel Icing

Caramel can be a bit finicky, turning from perfect to burnt in the blink of an eye if you’re not careful. So, here are our tried and true tips and troubleshooting tricks to help you navigate the caramel-making process like a pro.

  • Be Patient: When making caramel, resist the urge to turn up the heat. Instead, opt for medium heat and let the sugar melt gradually. It might take a little longer, but it’s worth it to avoid burning.
  • Stir, Stir, Stir: Keep a close eye on your caramel and give it a gentle stir frequently to ensure even heating. This helps prevent hot spots and ensures that the sugar melts evenly.
  • Watch the Color: As your caramel cooks, keep an eye on the color. You’re aiming for a rich golden brown hue – too light and it’ll be too sweet, too dark and it’ll taste burnt.
  • Don’t Walk Away: Making caramel requires your full attention. Once the sugar starts to melt, it can go from perfect to burnt in a matter of seconds. Stay close and keep an eye on it.
  • Keep It Clean: Any sugar crystals that find their way onto the sides of the pan can cause your caramel to crystallize. To prevent this, use a pastry brush dipped in water to brush down the sides of the pan as the sugar melts.
  • Adjust the Heat: If you find your caramel is cooking too quickly or too slowly, don’t hesitate to adjust the heat accordingly. Sometimes a little tweak is all it takes to get back on track.
  • Rescue Mission: If your caramel does start to burn, don’t panic! Simply remove it from the heat immediately to stop the cooking process. You may be able to salvage it by carefully pouring off the burnt bits and continuing to cook the remaining caramel.

How to Store Leftovers

Leftover Caramel Cake can be stored tightly covered at room temperature for up to 1 day, or in the refrigerator for up to 5 days. But let’s be honest, there probably won’t be much left to store once everyone gets a taste!

FAQ

Why is my icing so thick?

Caramel icing can become too thick for several reasons. It may have been cooked for too long, causing it to thicken excessively. To thin out thick caramel icing, you can gently reheat it over low heat while stirring constantly. Then, add a small amount of warm milk or heavy cream, a tablespoon at a time, until you reach the desired consistency. Be cautious not to add too much liquid at once, as it can cause the icing to become too runny.

Why are the cake layers sliding?

Cake layers may slide around after icing the cake if the caramel (or the cake) is too warm. Ensure that the cake layers are completely cooled before icing, and if necessary, refrigerate the cake for a short time before adding the caramel. Additionally, make sure the icing is thick and spreadable, but not overly thin. If the caramel is too thin, you can let it cool longer so it will firm up more before icing the cake.

Summary

Our old-fashioned caramel cake is a timeless classic, featuring three layers of tender yellow cake and a velvety homemade caramel icing. It’s a nostalgic treat that sure to be your family’s favorite cake recipe.

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Old Fashioned Caramel Cake Recipe

  • Author: cooks with soul
  • Prep Time: 25 minutes
  • Icing: 1 hour 30 minutes
  • Cook Time: 25 minutes
  • Total Time: 2 hours
  • Yield: 8 servings 1x
  • Category: dessert
  • Method: baked
  • Cuisine: southern, soul food

Description

This old-fashioned caramel cake features three layers of moist yellow cake coated in a homemade caramel icing, and is reminiscent of grandma’s famous recipe. 


Ingredients

Scale
  • 2 1/2 cups cake flour
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 2 cups granulated sugar
  • 1 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 4 large eggs yolks
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
  • 1 cup buttermilk, room temperature
  • 2 large egg whites

Caramel Icing

  • 3/4 cup unsalted butter
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 2 (12-ounce) cans evaporated milk
  • 2 cups sugar (granulated or light brown)
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract


Instructions

  1. Grease three 8- or 9-inch round cake pans with oil. Sprinkle with 1-2 tablespoons of flour, then tilt and rotate the pans to evenly distribute. Make sure the entire interior surface of the pans are coated with a thin layer of flour. Once the pan is coated, turn it upside down over the sink or garbage can and tap it gently to remove any excess flour. Alternatively, line with parchment paper and spray parchment with nonstick cooking spray. 
  2. In a large mixing bowl, whisk together cake flour, baking powder, salt, and baking soda. Set dry mixture aside.
  3. In another large mixing bowl, beat together sugar and softened butter on high speed for 3 minutes, until creamy. Scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed.
  4. Lower speed to medium-high and add egg yolks one at a time, followed by vanilla extract, beating until well combined.
  5. Gradually add dry ingredients and buttermilk to butter and sugar mixture. Alternate between the two and mix on low speed until everything is fully incorporated. Batter will be very thick.
  6. In a separate clean bowl, beat egg whites on high speed until fluffy peaks form, about 3 to 5 minutes. Carefully fold into cake batter, being gentle to keep the mixture light and airy. 
  7. Pour or spoon batter evenly into prepared cake pans and place them into oven. Bake for 22-25 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cakes comes out clean.
  8. Make Caramel Icing: In a saucepan over medium heat, combine butter, salt, evaporated milk, and sugar. Let everything melt together, stirring occasionally, for about 1 1/2 hours. Keep an eye on it to prevent burning. It’s ready when it’s thick enough to coat the back of a spoon and has turned a deep golden brown color.
  9. Remove caramel icing from heat and stir in vanilla extract. Let it cool for 15-20 minutes to thicken.
  10. Assembly: Once the cakes are baked and cooled, level off any domed tops with a serrated knife to create a flat surface.
  11. Place one cake layer on a serving plate or cake stand and cover top with generous layer of caramel icing. Add the second and third layers, spreading the remaining icing over the top and sides of each layer of the cake. 


Keywords: old fashioned caramel cake, southern caramel cake, caramel cake, black folks caramel cake, caramel for caramel cake, caramel icing

2 Comments

    1. Hey Ellen! Making this caramel icing requires some time because we need to let it caramelize properly. We heat everything slowly on medium heat to avoid burning the sugars. It might test your patience, but trust me, the final outcome is totally worth it!

      If you’re in a rush, you can try this quicker caramel icing recipe I found here on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gjgXHtuI6dE. She boils it on medium heat, then increases the heat to High, covers it, and cooks for only a few minutes (stirring occasionally). Afterward, she transfers the caramel to a mixer to whip with an egg white. We haven’t tried her version but it looks delicious and quicker!

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