Monday, February 12, 2007

Caramel cake

Caramel cake. I baked one tonight as a pre-Valentines Day gift for Brad. What a pain in the ass. What is a caramel cake, you ask? Well, although I’m from the South, I only learned about it relatively recently. I was in Memphis for Christmas and discovered that a caramel cake is the God of cakes. A fondant-like heap of brown sugary frosting that covers a bit of white cake. In Memphis, bananas and walnuts had somehow made their way into the cake batter, but as Brad has told me, the right caramel cake is a good buttery white cake with piles of the caramel frosting.

I’m all in favor of a cake that is really about the frosting.

I’d spent about 45 minutes armed with my new candy thermometer, a heavy whisk and a potholder as I swirled the boiling brown sugar and milk in a copper saucepan. A mere 238 degrees was my goal, but the first phase of the frosting seemed endless.

Finally, the right consistency! And at the same moment, my mom called me back because Desperate Housewives was over in Atlanta. We chatted as I tried to explain what I was making and poured the bubbling candy glaze into a mixing bowl. I raised my voice above the engine of the mixer so my mother and I could continue to talk. I tried to turn that caramel into frosting, adding butter and vanilla and a bit of milk. Somehow, it reached the right consistency.

I should pause to make it clear that I am not an expert on caramel cakes. That banana-walnut caramel cake I ate in Memphis is the only one I’ve ever had. I remember the flavor and texture of that frosting and was confident that I had mastered a frosting that somehow duplicated the essence of that frosting. I admit that I had used dark brown sugar, which was probably wrong, but it was all I had.

Chatting away with mom about how it should be pronounced ('ker-ә-mәl instead of 'kär-mәl, as she was pronouncing it), I started to spread the frosting. I poured it on the first layer and, perhaps a big smug, was delighted with how it glided over the cake. I was telling my mother how I actually had baked a big sheet cake and then cut out two heart-shaped layers from it. She asked if it would crumble on the sides where I had made the incision.

I said, “Oh no. It’s perfect. I did such a great a great job.”

I placed the second layer of cake atop the frosted layer and spread more frosting over the two-layer heart. It’s a wonderful frosting: sugary and thick when it first hits the cake, but then settles into a smooth glaze. I started to frost the sides of the cake, listening to my mom give rave reviews of the performance of “Sister Act: the Musical” that she’d seen earlier in the day as part of her birthday celebration with friends.

I interrupted her. “Mom, it’s a mess. The frosting isn’t sticking to the sides of the cake.”

“I was worried it might crumble,” she said. “That’s the problem when you cut a cake and frost it.”

I persisted, beginning to whine to her about the mess I was making. Glops of the caramel frosting were dropping from the cake, tugging the edge of the flawless valentine down with it. I was devastated. I prepared myself, ready to accept an “it’s the thought that counts” fate. I imagined giving two things to Brad: (1) this sad looking almost heart-shaped cake and (2) a long explanation about what I had tried to do, but failed to accomplish.

My mom and I concluded our phone call with the agreement that I would make a simple butter cream and spread that on the sides and it would look fine and taste good and the thought would still be there.

But now that the conversation was over, I began to process the alternatives. And I decided I had to finish the caramel cake with caramel frosting on all sides.

I took the frosting that had crashed off the sides and mixed it with what remained in the mixing bowl and rolled it into a long log. I pressed it between two pieces of plastic Saran Wrap and lay it in the fridge for about three minutes. Then I impatiently pulled it out and wrapped it around the cake — a ribbon of caramel frosting! Triumph! I tucked and prodded and pulled it around the cake. Then I whipped up some butter cream to add decorative edges to the cake. Mission accomplished.

* * *
I just returned home from delivering the pre-Valentines Day cake.
The verdict from Brad: very sweet (yikes), tasty (he had to say that), correct texture of frosting (that’s my assertion), flavor a bit more praline than caramel (that’s Brad’s).

I guess I will have to try again. But I think it was a success for my first attempt. And I won’t be entering the Mississippi State Fair anytime soon.

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