Reinventing an heirloom recipe.

I am related to an amazing array of women who can cook. And I do mean cook. I associate every one of them with a special recipe that has defined my childhood and holiday occasions since, whether it’s my mom’s cold oven pound cake, Taffy’s mashed potatoes and mac and cheese, Mimi’s okra soup or Grandmama’s cornmeal fritters. My Aunt Dell is not allowed to attend family functions unless she brings her collard greens. Well, I’m exaggerating … only sort of. That food is just a part of our loving and sharing with each other.

Most of these family recipes are well documented, or at least those who have perfected them are still around to share their tips. But one family heirloom recipe has eluded us as of late. My grandfather’s sister, Aunt Ida, was famous for her caramel cake, which she brought regularly to family events. Regularly enough at least that it made an impression on my young taste buds. Aunt Ida passed away more than 10 years ago, and we’re just now discovering that no one has her recipe. Egads!

Caramel cakes are very southern, if not very Easterly. But I had a craving to attempt one a la Aunt Ida’s for Easter Sunday dinner. I Googled recipes all week, which resulted in a concoction of cobbled together cake and icing instructions. Then I updated them to reflect the tastes of the 2010s — a dash of sea salt makes it a salted caramel icing.

In my research, I discovered a 2009 New York Times article about the dying art of layer cakes. This is what I’m talking about! I hate that we are losing any sort of food heritage, especially to the likes of Harris Teeter’s or Costco’s dessert section. Ms. Crocker and Mr. Hines do a fine job, but I can’t call that cake baking “from scratch.” And don’t get me started on whipped chemicals … er, icing … from a can. Caramel cakes and another southern classic, the many-tiny-layered chocolate cakes, are not easy, but I think we still have to try. It’s tradition, after all!

My caramel cake — though it may not be Aunt Ida’s — was a huge hit, so I’ll stick it in the recipe box for future occasions. The cake itself is very like pound cake, even like wedding cake, my aunt said. The original recipe called for 3 layers, but I divided the batter into 6 pans and halved the cooking time. That seemed to work, though I watched the oven like a hawk.

The icing involves melting sugar, so it’s not for the faint of heart, and the NYT article alleges that the use of confectioner’s sugar is cheating. But, despite that doubtful authenticity, I found this recipe to be pretty simple and close enough. I think the touch of sea salt, which pairs so well with caramel, fast-tracked this cake into the 21st century anyway. When icing the cake (or is it frosting?), you have to work quickly because the caramel icing changes texture as it cools. The good news is that it becomes pliable, and it was much easier to mold around the cake instead of messily and smoothly spreading it over like regular icing.

I hope in some small way this allows Aunt Ida’s cake to live on, at least in our family.


Southern Salted Caramel Cake

For the cake:

2 sticks butter, softened at room temperature
3 cups sugar
6 eggs, room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
8 oz sour cream
2 2/3 cups all purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt

Preheat the oven to 325° F. Butter and lightly flour 6 cake pans. Cream the butter and sugar in a mixing bowl until well combined and fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time. Beat in the sour cream. In a separate bowl, sift together the dry ingredients — the flour, baking soda and salt. Add the dry ingredients to the mixing bowl a little at a time, but don’t over mix.  Divide the batter equally among the pans and spread it out evenly. For 6 layers, bake for 18 minutes but watch the oven closely. When the cakes are slightly golden on top and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, they are done. Remove the cakes from the oven and allow to cool in the pan for five minutes. Cool the layers completely before frosting.

[If you prefer to make 3 layers, just butter/flour 3 pans and cook for 35 minutes until done.]

For the icing:

2 sticks butter, softened at room temperature
1 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
1 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
1/2 cup Carnation evaporated milk (slightly less than a small can)
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
4+ cups confectioner’s sugar, sifted

In a medium, heavy saucepan, melt the butter then add the brown sugars. Bring the mixture to a slow boil over medium-high heat and cook 2 to 3 minutes, all while stirring constantly. Stir in the evaporated milk and return to a slow boil, stirring constantly. Once it boils, remove from the heat and add the vanilla and salt. Using a mixer, gradually beat in the confectioner’s sugar, about a half-cup or cup at a time. If you’ve added all of the sugar and it’s too thin, add more sugar. If it’s too thick, add teaspoons of hot water, one at a time, until it reaches the right consistency. Immediately spread a thin layer of icing over each layer of cake as you stack them and work quickly. Lastly, pour the remaining icing on top of the stacked layers and spread it around the sides of the cake.


4 thoughts on “Reinventing an heirloom recipe.

  1. Goodness Gracious! This cake looks absolutely wonderful. I think I’ll have to try it sometime. 🙂
    Congratulations on remaking a family favorite, I completely understand the slight panic which accompanies the loss of any recipe, and what came of it looks fabulous.

  2. H says:

    I’m SUPER impressed. I can’t get two layer cakes to stay together without the top layer sliding somewhere or sinking from too much (store-bought) icing. Kudos to you. 🙂


    • Uh, I’m going to blame that on the icky icing and not on your cake layering skills, you know. If it makes you feel better, I’ll confess that my cake was wonky and leaning, so I just took a picture at the best angle to hide it. 🙂

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