My father will always be a southern boy at heart, for he spent the better part of his first 25 years in or very close to Jackson, Mississippi, and has yet – as does anyone on his side of the family, myself and my sister excluded – to ever live above the Mason-Dixon line. Thankfully, I get to partake in all of his family’s southern traditions, and share them now with my own family. Perhaps the most important of these traditions are the recipes that have been handed down over the generations.
My great aunt Nonnie gave me a handwritten recipe book as a wedding present. The heartfelt gift includes, among its many delicious southern treats, her infamous fried chicken recipe, that as children, my sister and I begged for upon every visit to Jackson. I’ll share that with you one of these days.
I also have fond memories of sitting around the worn wood breakfast table in my Nama Louise’s kitchen nook, in the house where my father was raised, sharing everything from homemade biscuits, to spaghetti to Apple Jacks cereal (it was the only time I ever ate Apple Jacks – I resisted year-round so they would truly be a treat!).
Caramel cake has always been a fixture in southern cooking, but recently jumped to fame after its delicious mention in the bestseller ‘The Help’, which was based on a group of women in none other than Jackson, Mississippi. Nonnie made caramel cake quite often, even up into her 90’s, until the stiff icing became too much for her to manage.
Recently I found out that Nama Louise made my dad his favorite, caramel cake, for his birthday each year. What recipe she used, however, will go down in history as a mystery. My grandmother passed away many years ago, and I regret that I never acquired my Nama’s recipe before she was gone. For this version, I used a tried and true fluffy buttermilk layer cake recipe that I love, topped with Nonnie’s caramel frosting. I can only hope that my version measures up to the original.
- 12 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature, plus more for pans
- 3 1/2 cups sifted cake flour (not self-rising)
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 3/4 teaspoon salt
- 2 cups sugar
- 3 large eggs, lightly beaten
- 1 1/2 cups buttermilk
- 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
- Nonnie’s Caramel Icing (recipe follows)
- Toasted or candied pecans, optional
- Heat oven to 350°. Butter 2 or 3 8-inch cake pans. Line the bottoms with parchment, butter the parchment and flour the pans, tapping out any excess flour; set aside. Whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a bowl; set aside.
- Cream butter and sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer until light and fluffy. Add eggs, 1 at a time, beating well after each addition. On low speed, beat in buttermilk and vanilla until just combined (the mixture may appear curdled, but don’t panic). Add the flour mixture in 3 batches, mixing until each addition is just incorporated.
- Divide the batter evenly among the cake pans and smooth the tops with a spatula. Bake until a toothpick inserted in the centers comes out clean, about 25 minutes. Let the pans cool on a rack for 15 minutes, then unmold the cakes, peel off the parchment, and invert the cakes back on to the rack. Cool the layers completely before frosting.
- Set one of the layers on a plate or cake stand. Dollop some of the frosting over the layer and spread it out evenly to the edges. Repeat with the second layer and more of the frosting. Add the final cake layer or layers and pour the rest of the icing over the top of the cake, letting any extra run down the sides. Working quickly, spread the sides of the cake gently with a spatula. Sprinkle with pecans if desired and then set cake aside for at least 1 hour to let the frosting set up before serving.
- 3 3/4 cups sugar
- 1 1/2 cups heavy whipping cream
- 6 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- Combine 3 cups sugar and heavy cream in a large saucepan. Bring to a simmer and cook, stirring, until sugar has dissolved, about 5 minutes; set aside.
- Put remaining 3/4 cup sugar in a deep skillet (Nonnie used cast iron) or another large saucepan over medium heat, and stir until the sugar turns to an amber caramel. While stirring, carefully pour the cream mixture over the caramel. Continue to cook, without stirring, until the mixture reaches the soft ball stage (235°) on a candy thermometer. Remove from heat and stir in butter and vanilla.
- Transfer mixture to the bowl of a stand mixer and let cool slightly – 15 to 20 minutes. Beat mixture on medium speed until creamy, about 15 minutes. Use immediately.