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Do Not Be Scared of This Caramel Cake

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Would you like a piece of cake right now? For Goodness Cake is here for you. Every week, we'll be sharing recipes that prove why cake should be its own food group.

Today: This fancy-looking cake might make you nervous, but do not fear: It's more forgiving (and more delicious) than you know. 

This is the kind of cook I am: I leave work at 5 P.M. to make a dinner scheduled for 9. I only have to prepare one and a half dishes, and one is just roasted vegetables (but to my credit, it’s from Plenty More, so there are a lot of spices involved), but my mind is whirring. I cut my lip from biting it so hard as I boil the caramel glaze for the cake from Smitten Kitchen that I’ve been too scared to make for months. I win a staring contest with the candy thermometer as the caramel turns to molten copper. 

This is the kind of cook Deb Perelman is: She's throwing "an impromptu dinner party" -- a "make-your-own-pizza" affair (yes, this means she probably has fresh pizza dough on hand, casually). To stave off boredom as her guests watch football (yes, this means she has a television and a large sofa), she flits into the kitchen, where she whips up a cake, also impromptu, by following a recipe she found in Gourmet (yes, this means she receives -- and reads! -- magazines). 

More: And it's not just cake. Deb also makes a mean mushroom bourguignon

But this cake doesn't care whether you're a buoyant baker or a ham-handed one. Despite its gilt, it's democratic. It turned out well for Deb, it turned out well for me, and it's going to turn out well for you, too. So the recipe calls for cake flour; you can use a combination of all-purpose flour and cornstarch to substitute. So the recipe calls for buttermilk; improvise by combining milk and vinegar (or lemon juice).

And as for the caramel Goliath, there's more wiggle room than you think. If you let it get a bit too hot, all it means is that it's going drape over your cake in thick ribbons (and harden into a more distinct layer of candy the next day). This caramel is your friend: Serving a dessert with a pourable glaze instead of a buttercream or whipped cream means you can dump the liquid overtop and call it "decorating" -- no need for that offset spatula with its upturned nose. (Don't worry about the glaze that drips off the cake -- you'll eat that with a spoon later.)

A perfect cover-up for any of your cake's blemishes, the caramel also locks in moisture -- a hermetic sugar seal. The sticky top coat makes it possible to take neat slices, gluing together the tender, crumby cake. Your final product has the melty sweetness of caramel without gumming up your mouth as candies do.

No one will be surprised that Deb has a number of ideas for how to vary this recipe after you've made it five or ten times. You'll have to do some trial-and-error of your own, but here's where to start:

  • Add pinches of salt and a splash of alcohol for a butterscotch-esque sauce, then use it to a glaze a dark gingerbread for Christmas.
  • Make an apple or pumpkin spice cake for fall, swapping the buttermilk for applesauce or mashed pumpkin. Glaze with Deb's apple cider caramel or this salted pumpkin version.
  • Replace 3/4 of the buttermilk with mashed banana for a banana cake and pour a chocolate salted caramel glaze over top.

Deb says, “I expect an invitation if you do that [last one], so you know." That sounds like the occasion for another dinner party, though not an impromptu one -- that's still too scary. 

Caramel Cake

Lightly adapted from Smitten Kitchen

Makes one 8-inch square cake

For the cake:

2 cups plus 2 tablespoons sifted cake flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 stick (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter, softened
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 large eggs, brought to room temperature for 30 minutes
1 cup well-shaken buttermilk

For the caramel glaze:

1 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup packed dark brown sugar
1 tablespoon dark corn syrup
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

Photos by James Ransom 

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Automagic Spring Menu Maker!

Tags: Caramel, Dessert, Bake, Long Reads, Comfort Food