Making Caramel Icing

I had a great time making this icing today. On the one hand there was the caramel, which I get all worked up about. Something about turning simple, one-dimensional ingredients like water, sugar and milk into a deep, dark, aromatic brew…it excites me. On the other there was the browning which the geek in me loved, created as it is by both caramelization and Maillard reactions. Put it all together and my little brain was lighting up like a Christmas tree.

Caramel icing takes a little bit of time. Not so much in the cooking but in the cooling and stirring. It took me a very worthwhile hour. I started by combining the sugar and water:

I swirled that over high heat until it was dark amber, then I added the butter.

I whisked it in — carefully — then added the corn syrup.

A little more whisking brought it all together.

Next I turned to the milk mixture. I combined the sugar, milk and baking soda in large stockpot (trust me you need one for this) and set it over medium heat.

I whisked that.

Then I added the caramel.

More whisking, then I left it it to boil up.

And boil up it did…it increased in volume about 300%. This is why you need a big pot!

After about 15 minutes it was close to temperature. I just stuck a digital thermometer right into the foam. Got a good reading.

When it reached 238 degrees Fahrenheit I took the pot off the heat. It settled down almost immediately, and I added the vanilla.

I whisked again and set it aside to cool.

After about 10 minutes I gave it a little whisk. It was quite thin.

Every 10 minutes for about 40 minutes or so I returned to the pot to whisk it some more. It kept getting thicker…

…and thicker, until it achieved a paste-like consistency that still flowed. Ready to pour on.

Oh yes, you can wait until it’s frosting-like if you want. Some people do, I prefer to pour it on like a medium-thick ganache. But, to each their own, no? The nice thing is that if it gets too thick you can always add a little heat to thin it back out a bit.

21 thoughts on “Making Caramel Icing”

  1. I tried to make a frosting very similar to this for the caramel cake (with ice cream) that I emailed you about ages ago. It was not quite as successful as yours, but now I am encouraged to try again.

    1. Please let me know what happens, Ann! I don’t remember that comment and couldn’t find it the archives…what trouble did you have?

      – Joe

      1. Oh, it was an email, which is why you probably can’t find it on the blog! The frosting was great, the cake just turned out super super dense, without a nice tender crumb. Your recipe really meticulously addresses those issues, though! I’ll definitely update you (with pictures!) when I try a caramel cake again 🙂

  2. Thanks for the memories of childhood. My Cape Breton born Grandmother used to make a pan cake, vanilla with a slight buttery taste, and a caramel icing similar to yours, every Saturday. I haven’t had that cake in 30 years, but its taste is still familiar to me. Your photos reminded me so much of Grandma’s icing.

    1. Hi Katherine!

      You know in the States this is considered a “Southern” cake, but I don’t think that’s necessarily true. Boiled icings like this were extremely popular all over, at least up until canned frostings began to dominate the market in the 60’s. They’ve been around for probably 150 years among New World home bakers. It feels good to make one…you should try this!

      – Joe

    1. Just scroll down, Tracy. I posted it last week so by now it may be a page back. I have a slightly unconventional system on this blog. I put up the recipes, talk about them for a few days, then make the whatever-it-is. Sorry for the confusion!

      – Joe

  3. Have you heard of penuche frosting? It is made slightly differently, but is quite similar in flavor and consistency to your caramel frosting. We use it on spice cake.

    1. Hi Nan!

      I certainly have. Are you writing from Italy or Hawaii? I think it’s popular in both places! 😉

      – Joe

  4. Joe
    Update on Caramel Cake: it was a smashing success! A bakery here in Nashville is famous for one thing – Caramel Cake. My co-workers declared mine/yours just as good. The only tiny bump in the road is that the frosting went from thin and liquid to praline in about 20 seconds. To spread it on the cake, I had to re-heat and thin several times. I could pour it but never could find the spreadable range. Did I do something wrong or not beat it enough or what? BTW – your directions were impeccable as always and every step was just as you described it which is why I’m mystified by the praline result. I used my therma pen so I know the temp was exactly 238 when I took it off the heat.

  5. omg. I cannot find the recipe. Yours looks better than anything else I have found out there. I am so sorry, I have gone forward and back–am I too late?!? I need this recipe for chocolate brownie cupcakes!

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