Caramel Cake Icing

This recipe is from Nathalie Dupree’s Southern Memories. The reason I like it is that it combines actual caramel with the highly unusual boiled-milk-and-soda technique that you find in the really old versions of the cake. The ever-so-slight grit of the cooled icing surprises many non-southerners, but it’s part of the aesthetic. This makes enough for a 3-layer cake. Cut it down if you aspire to a less grandiose confection. You’ll need:

2 lbs. 10 ounces (6 cups) sugar
2.5 ounces (1/3 cup) water
3 ounces (1/4 cup) light corn syrup
18 ounces (2 1/4 cups) milk
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1.5 ounces (3 tablespoons) butter
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1-2 tablespoons heavy cream for thinning (if needed)

Combine 1 cup of the sugar and the water in a small saucepan and swirl over high heat until it’s a dark amber color. Whisk in the butter (be careful, it will splatter), then stir in the corn syrup. Next combine the milk, baking soda and the remaining sugar in a large pot or Dutch oven. Set it over a medium-low flame and whisk it gently until all the sugar is dissolved. Add the caramel and raise the heat to medium-high, bringing it to the boil. Cook it over medium heat until it reaches 238 degrees Fahrenheit, as measured in the center of a pot. Remove the icing from the heat and stir in the vanilla. Cool it for 10 minutes, then stir it by hand until it reaches room temperature and starts losing its shine and it spreadable but not runny…15 to 20 minutes.

23 thoughts on “Caramel Cake Icing”

  1. I’m probably asking this question way too early, but why does the frosting call for baking soda? I’ve never seen or heard of such a thing, believe it or not.

  2. Hi, Joe – a few quick questions. Don’t you need to stop the cooking on the caramel with something cold? Won’t it burn if you just let it cool on its own after it reaches dark amber? And why not add the corn syrup in while it’s caramelizing, since that would be extra insurance against crystallization?

    1. Hey Nicole!

      Good point. I think I’ll change the process and add the butter to cool the caramel, then the corn syrup. Personally I prefer adding corn syrup after the caramel is the color I want it, mostly because the process takes longer with corn syrup in the mix. However you certainly can add it earlier if you like. It will inhibit crystallization either way.

      Great email, Nicole, thank you.

      – Joe

  3. Thank you for this – I’ve been craving one for weeks, like the one we’d get from an old family bakery in Atlanta (which is still there under yet another generation). Their cakes were almost always two layers and rectangular, unless it was a special cake, like a birthday or wedding. Never questioned it then – I was a child – but I wonder now at the shape. The other thing they made which I think of – thumbprint cookies.

    1. I love those things. I need to make more cookies on the blog. Maybe this fall.

      Thanks Naomi!

      – Joe

  4. I love caramelized sugar, I think it must be my all-time favorite flavor. Any thoughts on what I might be risking if I were to caramelize a larger proportion of the sugar?

    1. Not having made this yet I can’t say I’m sure, though the texture will be different. Maybe just make a darker caramel?

      More on this soon!

      – Joe

  5. So… I couldn’t wait. I’m making this now. And… it looks like 10 oz of milk is 1 1/4 cups. I’m going to try it with 1 1/4 cups of milk. We’ll see how it turns out.

    The cake is fantastic. Sweet, but in a good way. Thanks for the recipe!

  6. Or I could look up the recipe on google and see that it calls for 2 1/4 cups of milk. My does the icing boil up though. I’m glad I stuck it into a stock pot. I’m not sure a dutch oven would contain it.

    Now the only question is how long it takes for that much milk boil down to 238 degrees…

    1. Whew. So glad you did that, Mari. I went back and noticed I hadn’t finished rewriting that recipe with all the weights, then I screwed up the milk weight. So sorry…me and my busy timetable. How did it work out for you?

      – Joe

  7. I had the same problem as Mari, only I didn’t have a pot large enough, so it kept on overflowing, so the maximum temperature achieved was 222F. A a result it remained runny even when it cooled completely. Also: it took ages to cool. I finally mixed some with mascarpone to give it a spreadble consistency and served it with some of the caramel on the top. The itself cake was lovely, but I am looking forward for your variation with less butter!

    1. Hey Lisa! Sorry to hear that. I’m going to be trying it this morning. I’ll give you a full report.

      – Joe

  8. An interesting variation from Australia, courtesy of reader Regine.

    2 eggyolks
    1/2 3/8 cup white sugar, divided updated: 19/2/2013
    1 1/2 cups evaporated milk (one 375 ml can), divided
    1 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch
    1/4 cup boiling water
    1/4 cup butter, cubed
    1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

    Whisk the eggyolks with 1/8 cup (or 2 tablespoons) of the sugar in a small bowl/jug. Add in 1/4 cup of the evaporated milk and cornstarch. Mix well, then set aside.

    In a heavy saucepan, over low to medium heat, caramelize the remaining (3/8 1/4 cup) sugar. When sugar is completely melted and a golden brown colour, add boiling water. Bring back to a boil, making sure all the caramel is incorporated into the water. Carefully add in the rest of the evaporated milk (1 1/4 cups). Heat ;mixture just until it starts to boil. Without turning off the heat, pour a little of the caramel/milk mixture into the eggyolk mixture to temper the eggs. Mix until smooth. Pour this back into the remaining caramel/milk mixture in the saucepan. Mix until icing reaches a thick consistency. Off the fire, add in butter and vanilla extract. Let cool just a little bit, whisking once in while. The mixture will thicken more. Pour onto cake while still warm.

  9. Hi Joe!
    I was searching for pipeable caramel frostings and google redirected me to your site. Thank you google gods!!! You are amazing!!! I love the details when you explain your recipes and this collection of frostings is heaven-sent!
    Going back to the caramel frosting, I just like to ask if should I wait further, would the caramel be in a pipeable consistency. Ive been trying a lot of recipes and all I get is just a sticky mess. Hope yours would the THE one!
    Again, thank you and sending my warmest greetings from the Philippines!!!

    1. Hey Kendrick!

      You made my day! Thanks for all the generous praise.

      Regarding a cupcake frosting, this one is going to firm up to something along the lines of a caramel fudge. If you want a caramel frosting I’d suggest doing something more along these lines:

      I should do a version and put it up on the site one of these days soon. You’ve inspired me! Cheers and thanks very much for visiting!

      – Joe

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