Do Not Be Scared of This Caramel Cake

March 26, 2015

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. 

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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 

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Mary
  • Amy
  • Rosalie Galante
    Rosalie Galante
  • Bethalie Gatilao Kruk
    Bethalie Gatilao Kruk
  • Louise Melcher
    Louise Melcher
I used to work at Food52. I'm probably the person who picked all of the cookie dough out of the cookie dough ice cream.


Mary March 13, 2022
Does this cake work If I double the recipe and bake in a 13 by 9? Adjust oven temp/baking?
Mary April 5, 2018
Made this for my elder daughter who needed some sweet love after a very difficult week.
The yellow cake rose to new heights...airy, moist, subtle. The frosting was absolutely divine. I used a digital thermometer and kept a close watch. My digital did get above 220 so I quickly lowered the heat. My cook time was a little less than suggested. I look forward to making it again soon when friends are visiting. I need the friends to prevent me from eating the entire butterscotch beauty.
Amy March 7, 2016
Sarah, the cake sounds lovely, but what I really enjoyed was your writing. A perfectly executed piece with subtle humour and brilliant turns-of-phrase ("that offset spatula with its upturned nose"). Love!
Rosalie G. November 2, 2015
Can I use maple syrup instead of the dark corn syrup?
Sarah J. November 2, 2015
I would hesitate to say yes. In Joanne Chang's article on using maple syrup in place of sugar (or a sugar-based syrup), she explains how different sweeteners react variably to heat:
Bethalie G. April 3, 2015
I tried this tonight! Pretty easy to make and all I needed to go out and get were buttermilk and heavy cream. It has a soft, moist crumb with a not-too-sweet glaze. A simple, delicious cake.
Louise M. March 29, 2015
This is a much loved old favorite from Gourmet Magazine.
Ann L. March 29, 2015
So - with brown sugar, isn't it more of a butterscotch glaze than a caramel one?
Sarah J. March 29, 2015
Yes, technically! Though it's originally called caramel cake, so I stuck with that.
Danica R. March 27, 2015
look wonderful!!
Tory N. March 26, 2015
gotta make this!
Joanne November 3, 2015
I have been looking for a cake simplely like my grandma would whip up during ww11 it was a burnt sugar cake made with bisquick, many years of trying this caramel cake is the closest in taste. I am making this tonight.