I am cheating and using a baking adventure from several months ago. It was a delicious adventure and I have made this recipe again as a cake! Yum. Make sure you have someplace to go, because sitting at home with these things is dangerous.
A while back I needed a treat. That treat was going to be a caramel cake that I had originally seen over at The Way the Cookie Crumbles as part of a Daring Bakers challenge. The Daring Bakers started as two women on opposite sides of the world decided to try out the same recipe together and blog about their results. Now over 1,000 Daring Bakers play along each month. The idea is to challenge themselves with a variety of baking endeavors. I love the concept but don’t really have the impetus to join in all the time. I can settle for gawking at the results! This time I decided to play along on my own.
Making caramel is very easy, both to make, and to screw up. The concept is simple – mix water and sugar, heat until boiling, allow to almost burn, then stop the cooking. Both the cake batter and the frosting call for caramel syrup. I only made half the frosting recipe, but I still had over a cup of caramel left. It called for 2 cups of granulated sugar mixed with 1/2 cup of water and 1 cup of water to the side for later. You want a much taller pan than you’d think because adding the water later causes the syrup to bubble up very fast.
So mix them up in your pan and heat on high without stirring! That can cause your caramel to seize up into a giant hunk of useless sugar. It makes one sad, trust me. To ensure that your sugar is heating evenly, tilt the pan back and forth occasionally to get those edges. Once the syrup starts to boil, watch carefully. It will soon go from this:
This is still too light, but it can turn quickly. We want a nice dark amber color. Wait too long and it’s burned. Burned caramel tastes like char and can’t be saved. When the color is right, the last cup of water goes in to stop the boiling. This is the scary part where all sorts of things can go wrong, most notably the caramel seizing, or the cook getting splattered and burned with boiling caramel. To prevent the former, make sure your pan starts out very very clean. As for the latter issue, wear long sleeves, an oven mitt, and (as brilliantly suggested by a Daring Baker) place a sheet of aluminum foil over the top of the pan, poke a hole in the center, and pour the water through the hole. The foil prevents spatters and steam can still escape. A splatter-screen or metal strainer can do this, too.
Since I have an electric stove, I took the pan off the heat source while pouring in the water. Then the pan is returned to medium heat and whisked until slightly reduced. Don’t be tempted to taste it, it’s extremely hot. Once the desired consistency is reached, remove from heat and allow to cool to room temperature. The cake called for 1/3 cup of the syrup, the frosting mere tablespoons.
The original recipe link has good tips for the cake. The batter has a lot of liquid in it and there are good recommendations on how to add everything together. I followed the suggestions very closely and was happy with the results. The only modification I made was to make cupcakes instead of a single-layer cake. Cupcakes are easier to frost, transport, and share. The batter was fluffy and gorgeous, and there was just enough for exactly 24 cupcakes.
The Daring Baker I found who also made cupcakes and mentioned the time she baked them at said 13 minutes was long enough (the cake baked for 45 minutes). I did closer to 18 minutes, and that may have been one minute too long. At 13 minutes, they were still raw, though. Another five yielded golden results.
The frosting also included the adventure of browned butter as the base for a buttercream frosting that also includes both the caramel syrup and also salt. As some of my friends have recently become near-addicted to Salty Dog chocolate bars, the sweet/salty combo sounded intriguing. The browned butter added a really nice depth and the salt helped to counter the sweetness of the frosting. It does have a weird texture, though, almost slippery. It could be from the melted butter, or maybe the caramel. It still tastes good!
I drizzled the tops with more of the caramel, then finished with a little sprinkle of kosher salt. The caramel ended up a little drippier than I had hoped, but it worked out. And they are pretty tasty.
The most time-consuming part of the whole project is waiting for everything to reach room temperature. My tip would be to make the caramel ahead of time (a day or two, even) so it can just be added in; it took so long to make the caramel and wait for it to cool down.