Virginia Willis Blog

Old-Fashioned Caramel Cake & Holiday Memories

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Layer cakes are joyful, towering celebrations. Even in these super busy times, it’s nice to dust off the cake pans and bake a layer cake at Christmas. I like Red Velvet and Coconut Cake, but I have to say my favorite just might be Old-Fashioned Caramel Cake. It was my grandfather’s favorite holiday treat, too. The Southern sweet tooth reigns in supreme glory during the holidays. Divinity, fudge, mints, melt-aways, cookies, and pies all had their place, but he loved Caramel Cake the most. 

You might think baking a cake during the Holiday Rush as absolute sheer madness and decide you’d rather pick one up at a bakery. I can understand; there’s no doubt the holidays can be hard. I admit to a bit of holiday melancholy. It might be triggered by a song, a little taste of something, or even an aroma wafting through the air. Sometimes it’s the glimmer and twinkle of a sparkling ornament in the tree. I feel my throat tighten so much it hurts and find my eyes full, holding back a tear or two. Generally, I am a very happy person, but I think that during the holidays I just miss the folks I’ve lost a little bit more. Undoubtedly, both of my grandparents are at the top of that heavy-hearted list.

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My grandfather, whom I called Dede, was a mountain of a man, nearly 6-feet tall with sculpted, strong arms and massive, thick hands. Rumor has it he was only in one fight in his adult life. His appearance was foreboding, but the truth of it is that he was a gentle giant. He’d cry at the sound of a church organ playing his favorite hymn and tended his flowers just as well as he did the vegetables that helped to feed his family. He was a hard-working man and had grown up in the country, fishing and farming his entire life. Dede only attended school until 8th grade; he had to go to work and help support his family, but he was an avid reader. When I was a child, he would tap my young head and say, “Get it up here, they can’t ever take that away from you.”

My grandmother was from a more privileged family and had attended college. They fell in love at a fish fry on the Savannah River and eloped. (I still can’t believe it! Can you imagine how scandalous that was?! And, to defend my grandmother’s honor, their eldest child was not born shortly thereafter.) My grandfather was a Greyhound bus driver and made a solid middle class living; Mama says they never went without. He amassed a good deal of land and he also put his three of his daughters through college, a nod at the education he hadn’t been able to achieve.

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Needless to say, Dede and my grandmother were quite a pair. This Old Fashioned Caramel Cake is especially bittersweet during this time of year because my grandparents used to prepare this cake as a team. They did a lot of cooking together, especially during the holidays. They made buttery yeast rolls; spicy cheese straws; ambrosia prepared with freshly grated coconut; and boozy fruitcake, just to name a few of their classic dishes.

For this caramel cake, Meme would “burn” the sugar in her cast iron skillet and Dede would whip the molten mixture by hand, using a wooden spoon until it cooled enough to spread on the tender yellow rounds of cake. I can see him now, sitting in his chair at the kitchen table, in his plaid shirt. His glasses would slip down just a bit and his brow might glisten a bit in the warm kitchen, but his bright blue eyes were sparkling and he was happy. He loved to cook, too, and he loved to be surrounded by his family and loved ones during the holidays.

So, now, I hold him in my heart when I pull my cake pans from the shelf. I hold him in my heart when I cream the butter and burn the sugar in the very same cast iron skillet. I hold him in my heart with every stroke of the offset spatula as I slather the caramel icing on the firm yellow rounds. I cherish his memory and squeeze it tight, so it can’t fade. And, when it’s all finished and hours later, I am finally able to slice the cake take a bite, I feel and taste his love in each and every buttery crumb and sugary morsel.

Happy holidays to you and your family.

Bon Appétit Y’all!
Virginia Willis


PS I’m happy to send a bookplate if you pre-order Lighten Up, Y’all. And, if you want to try some holiday desserts that are a bit easier — and a lot lighter — please take a look at my recent holiday cookie recipes in Eating Well magazine. The story is written by my dear friend Claire Perez and is about my Christmas tradition with her and her daughter, Ruby.

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Old-Fashioned Caramel Cake
Makes 3 (9-inch) round layers

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus more for the pans

3 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for the pans

1 teaspoon baking powder

2 cups sugar

4 large eggs, at room temperature, well beaten

1 cup whole milk

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Burnt Caramel Icing (recipe follows)

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Butter and flour three 9-inch round cake pans and line the bottoms with waxed or parchment paper. Butter and flour the paper. Sift together the flour and the baking powder. Set aside. Combine the eggs and milk in a liquid measuring cup. Set aside.

In the bowl of a heavy-duty mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter and sugar on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the flour mixture and the milk mixture to the butter-sugar mixture, alternating between the dry and wet ingredients in three portions, starting and ending with the dry ingredients. Pour into the prepared pans.

Bake until a cake tester inserted into the center of each cake comes out clean and the cakes start pulling away from the sides of the pans, about 25 minutes. Remove to a rack to cool slightly. Invert onto the rack to cool completely.

To assemble the cake, place one cake layer on a cardboard cake round. Spread with the still-warm frosting. Repeat with remaining layers, placing the final layer bottom side up. Working quickly, use a small offset spatula to spread the icing gently around the cake. Let stand for 2 hours to allow the icing to set before serving. Store in an airtight container for up to 1 week.

Caramel Icing
Makes about 2 cups

2½ cups sugar

½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter

1 cup heavy cream, plus more if needed to loosen

2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

¼ teaspoon fine sea salt

In a heavy cast-iron skillet, heat ½ cup of the sugar over medium-high heat. Stir until dissolved, then do not stir again; simply shake the pan occasionally until the mixture reaches the caramel stage 320°F to 335°F on a candy thermometer.

Meanwhile, in a heavy saucepan, combine the remaining 2 cups sugar, the butter, and the cream. Bring to a boil, stirring occasionally.

When the sugar reaches the caramel stage, immediately pour it into the cream mixture and stir to combine. Cook over medium heat, stirring once or twice, until the mixture reaches the soft-ball stage, 232°F to 240°F. Remove from the heat; add the vanilla and salt and stir to combine. Place on a rack and set aside until just cool enough to touch, 10 to 15 minutes.

Transfer the mixture to the bowl of a heavy-duty mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Beat on high speed until creamy, 5 to 7 minutes.

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Copyright © 2014 Virginia Willis Culinary Enterprises, Inc.

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